01/22/2013 12:38 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

Aaron Swartz: A Libertarian Dilemma

Aaron Swartz's suicide last week presents a dilemma for libertarians. I'll get to that promptly but, first, a bit of background is necessary.

Swartz, a Harvard fellow and internet prodigy - just 14 when he helped design the architecture of RSS feeds and later going on to develop Reddit - was potentially facing decades in jail over charges of computer hacking. His alleged crime? Not training nuclear missiles on the USSR à la Wargames. Not recklessly riding around at supersonic speeds in hyperspace on virtual motorcycles à la Tron. Not even breaking into the Pentagon while looking for UFOs à la the as yet unmade movie about the plight of British hacker Gary McKinnon.

No, Swartz was alleged to have used MIT university's computer network to hack into JStor, a repository of academic journals. He allegedly intended to (but didn't) publish the content online and make it available to anyone interested via peer-to-peer networks, much like how movies and music are (illegally) shared. The distinction between freely downloading academic research and One Direction's latest album, however, is an important one. Those who aren't students or faculty members of universities - and only those universities wealthy enough to afford subscriptions to archives like JStor - don't get to access the "social stock of knowledge" contained therein. It is not simply a question of choosing whether or not to virtually shoplift music or movies just because anarchy and looting are part and parcel of the internet. It is about securing access to knowledge which lies in heavily-guarded, and exquisitely capitalist, intellectual fiefdoms.

Academic publishing is one of the most lucrative businesses out there. While JStor is a not-for-profit entity, the bigger fish in the pond like Elsevier - the ones with the big-bucks, patent-pending research and potentially monetizable ideas geared toward curing cancer or reversing global warming - have profit margins of between 32 and 42%. Anyone with a scintilla of business experience will know that this is an absolute goldmine; to put this in perspective, fast food restaurants have razor-thin margins of around 5%.

Publishing academic research is the mother of all money-spinners precisely because of the way that academia is set up. Professors and lecturers are not paid merely to teach and take long summer vacations, contrary to popular belief. They are expected to conduct research and publish their findings in academic journals: the mantra "publish or perish" is often quoted, and with good reason. Not publishing research is a quick and effective way out of a job. And this is true for academics working in all disciplines, whether one is patenting a design for the next moon rocket, estimating the total surface area of an Indian elephant, or researching scrotal asymmetry in man and ancient sculpture. You should, by now, be beginning to cotton on to the ruse. Academics research and publish as part of their job. They produce content, effectively for free, which is then aggregated by publishers and sold back as expensive subscriptions to the libraries of the very same universities where the very same academics are employed. It is, in short, a work of genius as a business model. Morally, it is a knuckleduster short of a mugging.

An internet pioneer, Swartz was nothing if not scrupulously consistent. He attempted to do what the internet does best: democratizing knowledge (or, at least, what it does second-best after equalizing stupidity). For its part, JStor distanced itself from the gung-ho zeal of US prosecutors (though MIT didn't). Being a not-for-profit and being rather more focused on the arcane fields of 19th-century Hungarian basket-weaving and interdisciplinary frisbee studies (rather than, say, genome science or renewable energy innovations), JStor isn't really going to lose out financially if a researcher at an impoverished university in an under-developed country has free access to the latest edition of the Journal of Historical Burmese Adverbs. But US prosecutors saw both the financial and career rewards of successfully achieving a conviction, as well as the importance of a precedent warning others that actions like those of Swartz would be treated with zero tolerance. Doubtless, the profit-making publishers tacitly supported this approach. It is by no means demonstrated that the prosecution and the prospect of decades in a federal prison directly led to Swartz's suicide - Swartz seemingly had a complex history of mental health problems - but it can't have helped. Indeed, his family are pretty adamant that this was a decisive factor.

And so to the conundrum for libertarians. One would think that libertarians would be all for the democratization of knowledge. The fundamental tenet of economic libertarians is that governments are not just evil, but that they are the dead hand to the counterpart of Adam Smith's "invisible hand". As such, the apparently hulking inefficiency of governments means they are unable to know nor react to the vast range of information which constitutes "market signals". For libertarians, this means that individuals, not governments, are much better positioned to rationally act to regulate the free market. (There are obviously glaring holes in this argument that could be pointed out by an unexceptionally intelligent five year old, but let's just take this as axiomatic for our purposes). A key problem for libertarians, therefore, is squaring off Swartz's alleged liberating of knowledge against the fact that, legally, the content of academic publishing is intellectual (and therefore private) property. A second issue is that libertarians wish to diminish government and the state ideally to the point of vanishing entirely. Yet it is the state which funds federal prosecutors to ruthlessly pursue the likes of Aaron Swartz in the name of protecting private property.

So, libertarians: which is it? Do we protect the freedom of the individual citizen to disseminate knowledge for the benefit of other individuals to make informed decisions in the marketplace? Or do we protect the rights of corporations to restrict access to knowledge only to those individuals who can afford it by dint of economic resources, or membership of a university?