India is going digital fast. There are good things and bad things, speed bumps in the road and caveats to consider. Weekly column Terminal focuses on everything connected and not – digital issues, politics, ideas and topics dominating the conversation in India and around the world.
Aaron Swartz died 10 years ago, driven to suicide by US prosecutors trying to sentence him to 35 years in prison for bulk downloading scientific journals at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Swartz was a technology genius who championed the cause of open knowledge and the open internet. He helped found Rich Simple Site and Creative Commons, and co-founded reddit and digital rights organization Demand Progress. In addition to his technology contributions, Swartz helped free tons of information from government databases and created open access libraries and projects.
Most of all, Swartz is known for his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,” a call to rally and fight against powerful companies that protect data and knowledge. The Partisan Open Access Manifesto called on scientists, researchers and intellectuals to fight the anarchic system that stifles all knowledge and culture in the world. In the words of Swartz:
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. All the world’s scientific and cultural heritage, published in books and journals for centuries, is increasingly digitized and locked away by a few private corporations. Do you want to read articles about the most famous results of science? You will have to send huge sums to publishers like Reed Elsevier.”
His death was a tragic loss to the entire internet community, who actively worked with him to keep it open. Swartz’s legacy continues to live on among several open access movements and projects that advance his ideas. Projects like Sci-Hub and LibGen fight against the gatekeepers of knowledge by providing access to scientific journals and books. His manifesto and work continue to inspire the next generation of technologists who have taken on the cause of the open internet and are actively working to liberate information. Some of them continue to heed his call from the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto:
“We need to take data wherever it’s stored, make copies and share it with the world. We need to take the out-of-copyright material and add it to the archive. We should buy the secret databases and put them on the Internet. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We must fight for the Open Access of the partisans.”
For the uninitiated, these words and the call for freedom can easily be confused with the idea of BigTech and Indian IT giants’ information infrastructure where people’s personal data is forcibly collected to create private products or government projects like Aadhaar, UPI, UHI or Digital Locker. The main difference here is the power of information and who controls it. People’s personal data should be in their control, and all scientific and management data created by the government in the public domain.
Currently, technology companies all over the world have taken control of the information and internet infrastructure. They chose the words of the internet community to match their story. For the sake of transparency and building Digital India, personal data has been commercialized. This commodification of information is what Swartz warns against, how the powerful control public information. Realizing this, people fought against this idea of gatekeepers of knowledge and information.
With the impetus of Internet.Org, Facebook is becoming the gatekeeper of the Internet in third world countries. The Net-Neutrality struggle in India has shown the way to challenge these projects and continue to spread these practices around the world. The efforts used during the Net-Neutrality struggle can be compared to the practices used during the SOPA-PIPA protests led by Swartz. These digital rights practices emerged in the early 2010s and have spread around the world.
India has an information asymmetry between citizens, Big Tech and Big Government. People’s data is forcibly collected by Big Tech and government, both of which are increasingly secretive and powerful. Two new bills – the Digital Privacy Act 2022 and the Indian Telecom Act 2022 – both ignore our right to privacy and continue to force us to share data with Big Tech and the government. Ideally, what we need is for government information in the public domain and people’s personal information to be private. “Transparency for the government and privacy for the rest of us.”
To build this future for our society, we must adopt the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto to address the information asymmetry between citizens and Big Tech-Big Government. This can only happen if we build alternative information infrastructure networks that support these ideas. These information networks cannot be built overnight, but we must strive towards them. Sci-Hub and LibGen are some examples of these information infrastructures, and we should not only support them, but build more.
Srinivas Kodali is a digitization researcher and hacktivist.