Today’s generation is a product of the internet, having grown up with this technology and the wealth of information that it provides. They are encouraged to constantly build upon previous ideas, and they share their wealth of knowledge through this easy-access medium. Epitomizing this generation was Aaron Swartz—an entrepreneur, co-creator of RSS and co-founder of Reddit, and a prominent internet activist on the side of internet freedom and unrestricted access to information. In July 2011, Swartz entered MIT and downloaded a large number of academic articles from JSTOR, a popular digital library, in protest of inaccessible academic information. He was caught and arrested. When trial began, federal prosecutors sought to give him decades in prison, and up to a million dollars in fines—a punishment many have called disproportionate. Sadly, on Jan. 11, 2013, Swartz took his own life, causing wide-ranging dismay in the internet community.
Academic articles such as those that Swartz downloaded are a vital part of the learning process. Students at institutions that subscribe to such publishers as JSTOR are fortunate enough to have the information; but what about those who cannot access it? There are many people who are equally interested in learning, but do not have the opportunity because they are not part of such a community. This is not an appropriate course for a society which claims to encourage learning and seeks to foster an environment of innovation. Simply due to circumstance, many people with a potential to innovate are restricted by the lack of resources made available to them. If we truly want to create a society of continued progress, we should share knowledge with all those who wish to access it.
There is an ever increasing number of young internet entrepreneurs who were self-taught. By restricting previous research papers and access to knowledge, we are hindering similar potential innovations in all fields. In this age of entrepreneurialism and self-initiative, it is counter-intuitive to restrict the resources that are necessary to promote such ambition. This limitation on learning has given rise to the freedom of the internet debate. Information that is at students’ fingertips has made life easier; and so, much like a public library, shouldn’t it be free for all who seek it?
Swartz stood for something that is extremely relevant in students’ lives. It is a battle that needs to be fought and, with Swartz’s death, has lost an essential fighter. This is an era of phenomenal growth and change, and we must constantly be aware that we are setting precedents for the freedom of information online. If the laws created now tighten copyright restrictions, they will be incredibly challenging to change later on. Now is the time to demonstrate the importance of open access ,and the continuing development of technology and knowledge.
The rise of the internet has unlocked a myriad of opportunities, which restrictions and censorship will only decrease. With the accessible and credible repositories of knowledge online, those who previously never had the opportunity to learn now can. People are finding new skill sets that are incredibly applicable to modern day, and would be irrelevant without the internet. We must take advantage of this potential instead of limiting it, as it will ultimately foster returns for our society. None of this is possible without open access to information, something that Aaron Swartz fought for, and something we must continue to protect in years to come.