15 January 2013

Kurt Eisner and Aaron Swartz and the Freedom of Information

There's a famous bit of history from 1914. It's called "the blank cheque telegram," and it was sent by the German Imperial Chancellor,  Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg to the Austrian ambassador in Berlin on the sixth of July.
"Finally, as far as concerns Serbia, His Majesty, of course, cannot interfere in the dispute now going on between Austria-Hungary and that country, as it is a matter not within his competence.

"The Emperor Francis Joseph may, however, rest assured that His Majesty will faithfully stand by Austria-Hungary, as is required by the obligations of his alliance and of his ancient friendship. - Bethmann-Hollweg
Historians suggest this communication allowed the Austro-Hungarian Empire to begin the Great War (World War I). And this telegram did much to "establish" - in British, French, and American eyes, the "German War Guilt" which would explain the massive reparations Germany was asked to pay in order to have peace.

This telegram was in public hands in 1919 because of an obscure political leader, Kurt Eisner, briefly, in 1918-1919, Minister-President of the Bavarian Soviet Republic. Minister-President Eisner believed in many freedoms, including the freedom of information and the call by the American President Woodrow Wilson that, "there shall be no private international understandings of any kind but diplomacy shall proceed always frankly and in the public view." And believing thusly, he dumped the entirety of files of the Bavarian Foreign Office into public view.

Though Bavaria was part of the German Empire, and would be part of the German Republic, it functioned in many ways as the separate kingdom it had been before 1870. It had its own army, its own post office, and though it did not act separately from Germany, its own foreign office. All of Germany's diplomatic correspondence had thus been copied to Bavaria, and thus this Berlin telegram was there...

Eisner is kind of a hero of mine. He believed in democracy deeply, including democracy of the arts and education (he thought new and more diverse playwrites, composers, artists, and authors deserved more exposure), and he believed in a world of open communication.

In the end he was shot, murdered in the street. Diplomacy went back into secrecy.

Ah well.

Here we are in the "now," in the period of Bradley Manning and Aaron Swartz. Of pay walls and locked down internet sites and government prosecutions and the classic midwestern mother bankrupted by the RIAA.

Eisner may have gotten off easy.

In this week after the suicide of Aaron Swartz, about to be tried for freeing publicly-funded research from behind pay walls maintained by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, we all need to wonder where we stand, and perhaps we need to take action.
'"Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT," [Leo Rafael Reif, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology] wrote. "I have asked Professor Hal Abelson to lead a thorough analysis of MIT’s involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present. I have asked that this analysis describe the options MIT had and the decisions MIT made, in order to understand and to learn from the actions MIT took."
"Rief added that he will share the report publicly once it has been completed."
Aaron Swartz
Swartz was facing, "a sentence of up to 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines." Which is far more than many killers get, and incredibly severe considering no one from Wall Street in 2008 even was put on trial. Yup. 
Tweet from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the web:
Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.
Swartz may not be the "inventor of the internet" that CNN called him, "but he was a factor in fashioning some of the Web's upper floors. With his contributions to RSS coding and the Web application framework, Swartz made some of today's more expansive Internet possible. But what Swartz also helped create was a philosophy of the Internet, one that remains the subject of great controversy almost 20 years into its life: the libertarian idea that information wants to be free."

Bradley Manning
Meanwhile, Bradley Manning remains under prison conditions close to torture for, like Kurt Eisner, following Woodrow Wilson's advice.  Because in this country it is the legacy of Michael Eisner, not Kurt, which rules. The Michael Eisner legacy is simple: If you are powerful, you get to profit from the work of others for all time. If you are not, life sucks. Eisner built the Disney empire (ABC, ESPN, etc) by leveraging the copyrights on the work of the long-dead Walt Disney.

"Invent a drug that's a cure for cancer," I tell kids who wonder about copyright law, "and the government will let you own it for a dozen years. Draw a mouse and you've got protection for more than a century."

It's not a system written to encourage the development of intellectual property, and its not a law designed to serve our nation or or world. It is a law written by greedy slobs who've never invented anything, but want to live well in perpetuity off the labors of others.

In the Manning and Swartz cases the issues are particularly absurd. Bradley Manning blew the whistle on horrific military and diplomatic practices. Aaron Swartz freed intellectual content, not from the author/researchers, but from companies like Elsevier who profit simply because moronic university tenure committees prefer pay-walled journals to open sourced journals and blogs.

There is plenty of blame to go around. The United States Justice Department, United States Attorney General Eric Holder, President Barack Obama, the administration of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Disney Corporation (ABC/ESPN/Miramax/et al), The RIAA, Elsevier and other journal publishers, the members of the Authors' Guild of America, and many more people and organizations who should be held accountable. This group includes the faculties of our research universities who encourage paywalled publishing which benefits only the egos of those who grant PhDs and faculty tenure.

But there are also plenty of fixes possible. Some require new laws, some require personal efforts:
  1. Limit copyright protection to 35 years - or less (sign White House petition here)
  2. Require that academic research resulting from any form of public funding be published openly and remain freely available (sign White House petition here). This does not suggest that academics cannot create books which are paid for, simply that their research findings must be available.
  3. Limit any court judgment for online copyright "theft" (downloading content) to double the retail cost of that content.
  4. Fire US Attorney Carmen Ortiz, the prosecutor of Aaron Swartz (sign White House petition here).
  5. If you are an academic, stop citing any article not freely available. This is not only the "right thing to do" on this issue, but it is the only way that allows most people to vet your work.
  6. If you are an academic, post everything you've written to free sites.
  7. If you are an academic, require open publishing for both hiring and tenure.
  8. Refuse to purchase books written by members of the Authors' Guild - singled out for the viciousness of their attacks on even disability access.
  9. Consider whether you really want to support musicians whose work is protected by the RIAA.
  10. Extend full legal protection to military - and other government - whistle blowers.
This is important. Information wants to be free. And it is up to us to make that so.

- Ira Socol


Rebecca Lathem said...

Dear Mr. Socol,
Hello! My name is Rebecca Lathem. I'm a student at the University of South Alabama, and I'm in Dr. John Strange's EDM310 class. I've been assigned to read a couple of your blog posts and comment on them, as well as type up a summary of the posts I read and the comments I made, which will be posted to my own blog, which you can find here, on February 10th.

This blog post was very enjoyable to read. I find it tragic that Swartz ended his life, and it's absolutely sickening that his prosecutors wanted to punish him with 3 decades of prison time, as well as a million dollar fine. It's outrageous! There are killers and rapists who don't spend nearly that much time in jail, and those are the people we need locked up forever, not a young man who wants everyone to have free access to information! I was also angered by the fact that the US Government saw nothing wrong with Bradley Manning's treatment. This is a man who has not even faced trial. He is innocent until proven guilty, yet the government has the audacity to treat him like an animal, leaving him in conditions close to torture.

I'm sure you've heard of the hacker group called Anonymous. As I was reading your blog post, I kept thinking about a tweet made by YourAnonNews:When Internet activists are getting longer prison sentences than rapists you have to wonder what kind of world we're leaving for our kids. It really is a sad reality to be faced with. Our government is more concerned with keeping internet activists from freeing public-funded information than keeping rapists and killers off the streets.

I'll be sure to sign those White House petitions for which you provided links, and I'll urge my friends to do so, as well. I look forward to reading more of your blog posts!

Rebecca Lathem

Julian Harris said...

Dear Mr. Socol,
My name is Maleki Harris and I am also in EDM310 at the University of South Alabama. I also can be found on twitter @Julian_Harris_. Before reading your blog I had no idea who Bradley Manning or Aaron Swartz was, but after reading your blog my eye are wide open now. I had no idea such huge injustices were going on. Reading your post almost makes me a little ashamed to be apart of a county that allows a person who has chosen to sacrifice their live to protect our freedoms. Also, give a person 35 years for freeing information is unbelievable when considering, like you said, nobody from Wall Street in 2008 was brought to trail. These two stories are prime examples of why a lot of US citizens do not trust the government and until stories like these stopped being pushed to the back burner and actually cause change those will not change their opinion about the government.