Aaron Swartz, Guerilla Open Access Manifesto and Threat of BigTech

Nov 07, 2020

People around the world continue to look towards Aaron Swartz and take inspiration from him. For people who don't know Aaron, he was an important figure in the open access movement. Aaron contributed his life for the movement and his tragic death was an important loss for the movement. His contributions to the internet and commons were large and is known for helping create creative commons license, RSS (Rich Site Summary) spec and was one of the co-founder's of reddit.

Aaron is also known for writing the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto in July 2008, an important work that continues to inspire people around the world. The Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto was a call for scientists, researchers and intellectuals to fight back the anarchic system which was locking up all the knowledge and culture in the world. In Aaron's words:

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier”.

There is a Telugu proverb written by the great poet Gurazada Apparao “మతములన్నియు మాసిపోవును - జ్ఞానమొక్కటి నిలిచి వెలుగును” which translates into “All religions shall fade away but knowledge will flourish”. This along with one more saying was something common in our household "seek knowledge and not money, as it is something people can't steal from you". In this information age of social media, people in power don’t want you to be aware and want to stop spreading knowledge, it serves their political interest to have ignorant people. It is in the vested interest of large corporations and politicians to decide who can have access to information. Again in Aaron’s words, you will agree to this, but what then?

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

Yes we can fight back, there is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time we fought back, we declared our displeasure with the system and its functioning. Research budgets of several universities are from government funding, not-for-profit foundations primarily and yet all the results of research are closely walled within foreign and private gateways. Who are these firms to decide who can have access to the work done by our colleagues, countrymen with our own tax money? It is time for Guerrilla Open Access and in Aaron's words:

“We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerrilla Open Access.”

As we fight for open access for knowledge and research carried out for the progress of humanity, we need to remember that misinformation is the new normal of our generation. It becomes important for us to not only open up information locked up in silos, but also important to spread scientific temper and tackle misinformation. We need to identify misinformation farms and develop guerrilla practices to stop them. Specially when BigTech profits from these practices and will not stop the spread of anti-scientific propaganda and misinformation.

BigTech is as much a threat to our society as large publications are, they have successfully evaded all legislations regulating them and have claimed protections of software patents and copyright. Their censorship of the web under copyright act while ignoring to censor any hate speech or Fake news has caused enough damage already. Digital Publishing houses with help of digital rights management (DRM) are gaining monopoly over knowledge.

BigTech has gained virtual monopoly over information and internet infrastructure. With the push of the Internet.Org Facebook is becoming a gatekeeper for the internet in third world nations. India has shown the way to challenge these systems and we need to continue to spread these practices across the World. Indian copyright act too doesn't support publishers rights over education of the masses. We can build a future in India where knowledge is free and accessible while promoting scientific temper.

To build this future for our society, we need to adopt Guerilla Open Access Manifesto to inverse the information asymmetry between citizens and Big Tech, Big Government. This can only happen if we build alternative networks of information infrastructures that support open access. These information networks can’t be built overnight, but we need to strive towards it. Sci-hub, LibGen are some of the examples of these information infrastructures and not only we need to support them, we need to build more of these.

Srinivas Kodali

Srinivas Kodali is a researcher at the Free Software Movement of India and holds a engineering degree from Indian Institute of Technology Madras