3 Ways Washington Should Honor Aaron Swartz


Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced that the administration would move to make the results of publicly funded research freely available to the public within a year. After a “We the People” petition calling for increased public access to scientific research garnered more than 65,000 signatures, the White House will now require institutions that receive more than $100 million in federal research grants to make publicly funded research results available to the public within 12 months of initial publication.

This announcement comes a little more than a month after internet icon Aaron Swartz committed suicide while facing years in prison and possibly $1 million in fines for downloading 4.8 million scholarly articles from JSTOR. Swartz was a leader of the open access movement, which seeks to provide uninhibited access to peer-reviewed scholarly articles via the internet.

The administration’s announcement is a major win for supporters of open access, but this should not be the last way Washington honors Swartz’s life and legacy. Here are three more actions Washington should take.

1. Free more research

The White House announcement is a good first step, but nowhere near the open access Swartz envisioned. Will all old research remained trapped behind paywalls like JSTOR? And is a 12 month time period too long?  

The FASTR bill introduced in the House just days before the White House’s announcement would require a turnaround for open access of only six months, and will protect this advancement from the whims of future administrations. The Electronic Frontier Foundation also notes that the White House’s newly proposed policy is weak on open licensing, which may result in copyright hazards for members of the public wishing to engage with research made available.

2. Reform prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act

The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and other internet laws passed in the 1980s have been applied over-broadly, with tragic consequences for civil liberties. Congress has already taken action to address the overzealous prosecution of those on the cutting edge of the internet. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has initiated an investigation into the overzealous prosecutors who pursued Swartz. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oreg.) and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) have introduced a bill called “Aaron’s Law,” which would remove term-of-service breaches from prosecution under the CFAA and wire fraud statutes. 

3. Re-establish the Office of Technology Assessment 2.0

At the Center for National Security at Fordham Law School’s recent event “The Case of Aaron Swartz: Justice in the Cyber Age,” the ACLU’s Principal Technologist and Senior Policy Analyst Chris Soghoian said, “We need to have more scientists and technologists in Congress and aiding Congress.” 

The Office of Technology Assessment provided members of Congress and congressional committees with independent analysis of complex scientific and technology issues, until it was eliminated in 1995. As more and more bills seek to define the moral space around cyberspace (with potentially disastrous effects ... I’m looking at you SOPA and CISPA), Congress needs intelligent advice from technologists, not from corporations.