Book Review - The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet, by Justin Peters

By Robyn Kalda

Aaron Swartz died three years ago today, but the issue -- and yes, ownership of information is a health promotion issue -- of who controls what you can post and see on the Internet is most definitely still with us.

For those unfamiliar with Swartz, copyright issues, the open-source movement, and the technical details of his actions, never fear. This book gives not only a thorough accounting of his case but also a history of how copyright came to be as it is and why one might wish it to be otherwise, without being dry or plodding:

"Like a truffle dipped in ipecac, a gift wrapped with poison ivy, Webster's good ideas were often ruined by their repellent packaging."

It's also a tale of complexity and of unintended consequence, of the sort that health promoters will find familiar:

"It is important to remember, however, that the availability and affordability of these pirate editions engendered a book-reading public in nineteenth-century America, which would eventually engender a more mature publishing industry. In this context, what better served America and Americans? To give authors tight control over their works, so that they could profit from their good ideas? Or to build a nation of readers by relaxing restrictions on the flow and dissemination of content? Was copyright a set of social relationships, or was it an inalienable property right? Even after passage of the Copyright Act of 1831, American lawmakers weren't sure."

With the rise of the Internet, it's clear we're still not sure about how the balance should fall, as Swartz' case demonstrates.

Swartz himself seemed to me a difficult person, driven and well-intentioned but immature and with a tendency to choose the quick, decisive route over the slow-but-sure.  His is a cautionary tale about what can happen when you do too much, too fast, which may provide solace for health promoters and policy advocates frustrated with the slow pace of change.

"I felt like he certainly had sort of the conviction of youth, in the sense that he was convinced that whatever he was doing at any one time -- or at least he sort of projected this -- he was absolutely convinced that that was the way to go," his friend Wes Felter said. "And the thing is that most people sort of outgrow that, and I don't know if he ever did."

Brewster Kahle, mentioned in the book, gives his gentler view here (video and transcript).

As the free availability of accurate, complete information is of critical importance for people's ability to make decisions in all areas of life I'd encourage health promoters to read up on information-control issues, and this book is an excellent place to start.

A well-researched, insightful, and human view into copyright law and its various abuses (on multiple sides!) through history, and a fair requiem for Swartz.