India is digitizing rapidly. There are good things and bad things along the way, speed bumps and cautions to watch out for. Weekly column Terminal focuses on what’s connected and what’s not, on digital issues, policies, ideas and topics dominating the conversation in India and globally.
Aaron Swartz died 10 years ago after prosecutorial harassment by US attorneys tried to sentence him to 35 years in prison for bulk downloading scientific journals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz was a technological genius who championed the cause of open knowledge and the open internet. He helped create Rich Simple Site and Creative Commons, and co-founded reddit and the digital rights group Demand Progress. In addition to technology contributions, Swartz helped liberate tons of information from government databases and created open access libraries and projects.
Most of all, Swartz is known for the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, which was a call to come together and fight against powerful companies that protect information and knowledge. The Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto was a call to scientists, researchers, and intellectuals to fight against an anarchic system that closed off all the world’s knowledge and culture. According to Swartz.
“Information is power. But like all forces, there are those who want to keep it to themselves. All the world’s scientific and cultural heritage, published over the centuries in books and journals, is increasingly digitized and locked away by a few private corporations. Do you want to read papers presenting the most popular results in the sciences? You have to send huge sums of money to publishers like Reed Elsevier.’
His death was a tragic loss to the entire Internet community that actively worked with him to keep it open. Swartz’s legacy lives on in several open access movements and projects that still advance his ideas. Projects like Sci-Hub and LibGen fight the gatekeepers of knowledge by providing access to scientific journals and books. His manifesto and work continue to inspire future generations of technologists who have taken up the cause of the open internet and actively worked towards information liberation. Some of them continue to follow his call for Guerilla Open Access Manifesto;
“We need to take the information wherever it’s stored, make our own copies and share it with the world. We need to take the out-of-copyright stuff and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them online. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We must fight for Guerrilla Open Access.”
For the uninitiated, these words and the call for liberation can easily be confused with BigTech and Indian IT giants’ idea of an information infrastructure where people’s personal data is forcibly harvested to build private products or government projects like Aadhaar, UPI, UHI or Digital Locker: The key distinction here is the power of information and who controls it. People’s personal data should be under their control, and all government-generated scientific and management information in the public domain.
All over the world today, technology companies have taken control of the information and internet infrastructure. They chose words from online communities to match their stories. In the name of openness and building Digital India, personal information has been sold. This commodification of information is what Swartz warned about, how the powerful take control of information that should belong to the people. People who understood this rebelled against this very idea of a gatekeeper of knowledge and information.
With the promotion of Internet.Org, Facebook becomes the gatekeeper of the Internet in third world countries. The Net Neutrality struggle in India has shown the way to challenge these projects and spread the practice around the world. One can compare the efforts used during the Net Neutrality struggle to the practices used during the SOPA-PIPA protests led by Swartz. This practice of digital rights protection emerged in the early 2010s and has spread worldwide.
In India, there is an information asymmetry between citizens, Big Tech and Big Government. People’s information is forcibly collected by Big Tech and the government, while they both become increasingly secretive and powerful. Two new bills, the Digital Privacy Bill 2022 and the Indian Telecom Bill 2022, both ignore our right to privacy and continue to force us to share information with Big Tech and the government. What we ideally need is for government information to be in the public domain and people’s personal data to be private. “Transparency for the state and secrecy for the rest.”
To build this future for our society, we must adopt the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto to reverse the information asymmetry between citizens and Big Tech-Big Government. This can only happen if we build alternative networks of information infrastructures that support these ideas. These information networks cannot be created in a day, but we must strive for them. Sci-Hub and LibGen are examples of these information infrastructures, and we not only need to support them, we need to build more of them.
Srinivas Kodali is a digitization and hacking researcher.