Swartz’s Death Places Spotlight on More Open Access To Information

The Internet community has been reeling for the past week as it grapples with the suicide of Aaron Swartz, a prominent digital rights activist who left a remarkable legacy for a 26-year old. Swartz’s contributions are used by millions of people every day as he played a key role in developing the specifications for RSS (which makes it easy to syndicate online content), Creative Commons licences (which makes is easy to make creative works freely available), and the popular website Reddit.

My weekly technology law column (Toronto Star version, homepage version) notes that while much of the immediate focus has centered on mental health issues, draconian computer crime laws, and the bewildering prosecution of Swartz for downloading millions of academic articles – a U.S. prosecutor was seeking as much as 35 years in jail despite the fact that Swartz did not benefit from the downloads and the source of the articles did not want to pursue legal action – the more notable legacy was his effort to make information more openly and freely available.

Swartz aggressively pursued initiatives to increase the availability of information, particularly scientific and legal documents. His efforts were controversial, yet they point to mounting expectations that public information (or information funded by the public) be made easily accessible.

In recent months, there have been some important developments in Canada in furthering Swartz’s vision.  The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the federal government’s health research funding agency, recently launched a new open access policy that requires funded researchers to make their peer-reviewed publications freely available within 12 months of publication. Given the millions of tax dollars invested in CIHR research annually, the mandatory open access policy should ensure that the public has access to the cutting-edge health research it has helped fund.

Open availability of legal materials is also fast becoming the standard in Canada. The Canadian Legal Information Institute (CanLII), which is Canada’s leading source of free legal materials, now houses more than one million court judgments as well as tens of thousands of legislative documents from all Canadian provincial, territorial and federal jurisdictions. Canadian lawyers, who pay an annual fee to maintain the site as part of their dues, provide the financial support to ensure that CanLII is sustainable (I am a CanLII board member).

After years of limited progress, digitization efforts in Canada are also beginning to bear fruit.  The Internet Archive Canada, which has teamed with academic libraries across Canada, recently announced that it has digitized over 400,000 texts in Canada. Although relatively unknown, the Internet Archive Canada now boasts the largest online collection of Canadian public domain materials since virtually all copyright-expired books in the University of Toronto library have been digitized and are freely accessible and downloadable.

The question facing many Canadian institutions is what comes next.  For academic research, the CIHR open access policy should be emulated by the other federally funded granting institutions so that all taxpayer-funded research features a requirement that the resulting publications be made openly available to the public within months of publication.

Access to legal materials has been a major success story, yet much more can be done. Legal publishers are beginning to make some of their texts freely available and law schools may soon rely on free, online cases as their primary source for legal casebooks. As those materials gravitate online, the pressure is likely to mount to ensure all Canadian cases and statutes are freely available, thereby granting the public full access to the law.

Yet perhaps the biggest step may come as part of efforts to move digitization efforts beyond public domain works toward the creation of a national digital library featuring millions of Canadian titles. Such an initiative would undoubtedly face implementation challenges with respect to copyright (it would likely rely on the newly expanded fair dealing laws), but the vision of universal open access in Canada seems increasingly possible and is consistent with the vision to which Aaron Swartz dedicated his life.


  1. Shawn H Corey says:

    “Becoming” a Standard
    It’s a shame it wasn’t the standard from the start. ☹

  2. Ray Saintonge says:

    Availability still needs to be based on Canadian not U.S. copyright law.

  3. May his spirit be even stronger now.
    We need to question whether we want certain IP holders to be able to police the Internet for their words, their software, or for “their” genomes. Or whether we shouldn’t just abolish all IP. (Real world conterfeiting, real world abuse, and fraud, can still be fought. Cyber-Terrorism? Well, lets just keep our air traffic controllers and nuclear reactors off the Net and we’ll be safe wouldn’t we?)

    Similarly, how far will we tolerate the widespread use of anonymity under which millions will hide their secrets through services such as the new or publish whole databases such as Aaron may have wanted to do?

    I do not mean to compare Aaron’s generousity with Kim Dotcom’s greed, but they are both builders of revolutionary information tools, which can be given or sold, but the important thing is that IN THE FACE OF THE POTENTIAL FOR REVOLUTIONARY TOOLS should we continue to assume that the proper balance is to make copyright operate online just the same way as it has always operated before the Internet?

    But I think the fact that Mega has millions of customers already shows us a lot. And this is so, even despite that Kim Dotcom’s last servers are in FBI custody. We really want absolute privacy for some things. If only Mega were a more trustworthy company. Hello, RIM?

    Maybe it’s just when talking to our priests, or our kids, and certainly for many it’s when they call up their dealers, or their bookie, their lawyers or their girlfriends. Will we continue to leave ourselves available to surveillance “as long as they have a warrant” or will Mega “bring encryption to the masses”?

    Is CIRA perhaps a forum where such questions might have more latitude? Maybe CIRA itself should be running a Mega, or a Tor network, or something that will help openness win this war against surveillance. I know I look forward to hearing how you will lead the way for us there, Mr. G!

  4. Russell McOrmond says:

    Canadiana in for the long haul
    As you may know, I currently work at as a system administrator. While we can all wish that everything were immediately OA, especially things already in the public domain, there is a funding issue. We are currently funded primarily by institutional subscribers who see the value of having this material available and fund us to do all the work (Authors searches, creation of metadata, scanning, OCR, providing access,etc). Would be great if there was funding to make the entire collection OA, and I hope that the current discussion will finally push that forward.

  5. I think it’s all about control, the details of what and why are immaterial; Swartz made it clear that once something has been digitized they no longer have control over it.

    To anyone in power that must be terrifying so they needed to “send a message”.

    The sad thing is they’re going to lose in the end (see Kim Dotcom’s latest shenanigans for details); the Internet is not going to get smaller or slower but they’re still going to try and wreck as many lives as they can “standing in the schoolhouse door”.

  6. Andrew Auernheimer Case Uncomfortably Similar To Aaron Swartz Case

    “Andrew Auernheimer doesn’t appear suicidal, no thanks to U.S. prosecutors, yet he has been under attack for his act of altering an API URL that revealed a set of user data and posting details of same.
    ‘In June of 2010 there was an AT&T webserver on the open Internet. There was an API on this server, a URL with a number at the end. If you incremented this number, you saw the next iPad 3G user email address. I thought it was egregiously negligent for AT&T to be publishing a complete target list of iPad 3G owners, and I took a sample of the API output to a journalist at Gawker.’

    Auernheimer has been under investigation from that point onward, with restrictions on his freedom and ability to earn a living that are grossly disproportionate to any perceived crime. This is just as much a case of legislative overreach and the unfettered power of prosecutors as was Swartz’s case.”

  7. Reading the writing on the wall says:

    Access to information in Canada
    Despite Michael’s mention of the efforts of Internet Archive Canada, access to Canadian history has been compromised and the very storage of that information dismantled (not only through cuts but, a slow sabotage of their infrastructure): ,,

    ATIP divisions of government departments are deliberately understaffed, sometimes in a strategic way, staffing them top heavy so that the division looks adequately yet, under staffing the employees that are charged with the actual hands-on processing of requests. As a result, vast quantities of requests are not being answered and merely sent back unanswered with a letter saying to re-submit at a later time(and not in a timely manner either since it’s taken some request years to simply get a no answer response).

    Attempted strangleholds on the internet, and private communication of information, is indicative of the true nature of our government, and other that serve not the interests of their respective countries but, the interests of capital gain for a few otherwise useless individuals.

  8. Thanks for this post
    I appreciate reading an article that tones down the rhetoric surrounding this sad story. It’s much better to concentrate on the good things that Aaron Swartz wanted to accomplish, and could still be accomplished, than on trying to find someone to blame for his death.

  9. An Issue of Accountability
    I find it Ironic that in Canada – I as a broadband account holder can be held accountable for what someone else downloads – yet
    – the Conservative party has managed to keep the same obligation off its computer usage, vis a vis the “Pierre Poutine” from their campaign centre.

    It is these type of relationships that the “Powers that be” don’t want publicly acknowledged.

    Doesn’t matter which party has been in power, the following is written in stone…
    DISSENT is to be Punished
    THE DISSENTER is to be rediculed and deminished

    and my own line to be added…

    … and the ruled do not apply to those in power