Aaron, the knowledge commons and civil disobedience

Filed under: Stuff... pfu... — Ilias Bartolini at 5:24 am on Sunday, February 2, 2014

I wrote this short article as part of an assignment of an on-line course I’ve been recently attending.
I thought it’s worth sharing since it reflects in a brief way some of the changes and discoveries of my last year of radicalization.

Knowledge is getting more and more recognised as a new commons of the information age. Since information can be shared today at extremely small cost many advocate for the hypothesis that the traditional constraint of limited resources of “The tragedy of the commons” does not apply to knowledge.

Still Aaron Swartz argued in his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” that “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves”.
Organizations and structures of power are creating artificial scarcity limiting our possibility to benefit from this commons.

On January 6 2011, Aaron was arrested and charged for breaking in the JSTOR archive at MIT. Allegedely his intent was to release to the public the content of the JSTOR archive: one of the largest online archives of academic articles.

Wasn’t Aaron first attempt. 3 years before he released a copy of PACER archive of US Federal Court Documents previously locked behind a paywall.

In the academic and legal context JSTOR was correctly following common norms. But only because of a set on legal norms that are injust towards other sectors of the world population that are suffering for the lack of access to valuable information.
Why only the academic elite had free acess to this extremely valuable resource? Why only who can afford to pay can access court documents that are in the public domain?

How can we re-establish a fair and just access to these common resources? I believe that pro-social behaviour, cooperation and collaboration within moral and individual boundaries are an ideal solution to manage the commons. But there are situations in which structures of power are creating unjust laws and artificial scarcity of a resource limiting our rights and limiting our capability to changing the rules. This is a state of oppression.

One point of view on the “Paradox of tolerance” states that we should be warranted to “not tolerate the intolerants” when they are threatening and limiting our liberties. In Aaron owns words “There is no justice in following unjust laws”.
Sometimes when the moral and normative code that is regulating our access to commons resource is unjust a radical action is needed.
Is civil disobedience a valid course of action to reestablish just access to resources and exercise our right in society?

Martin Luther King own “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is a testimony on the moral appropriateness of nonviolent civil disobedience.
“You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern.[…] The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws.”

After Aaron’s tragic suicide, victim of prosecutorial overreach, part of the academic community decided to publicly release copirighted research articles online as a tribute to his death.
It’s your own choice to decide if today is going to be another day to start fighting back!”