by: Omer Jamshaid

When we see other people who are less fortunate, whether it is their lack of access to food, education, or safety, naturally we are heartbroken and desire to help. This leads some to join activist groups, raise money, and speak up on social media to raise awareness. But have we ever thought that—just maybe—well off countries are the reason why these less fortunate countries are the way they are?

No, this is not a conspiracy piece. However, if there is a possible link between authorities and an ongoing problem in the world, shouldn’t it be fair that we entertain this idea, for the sake of searching for solutions to the world’s problems?

Aaron Swartz was an American computer programmer, political organizer, and Internet hacktivist. He is considered a legend in the Internet piracy world. At the age of 24 this young man was on a mission to achieve something that would greatly benefit global society. The issue was that while considered a hero by some for his actions, the authorities deemed them criminal.

Students enrolled at universities are given the privilege of access to exclusive academic journal databases that contain very valuable knowledge for those wanting to excel in their studies and make breakthrough discoveries. When Swartz was a research fellow at Harvard he was provided with an account to JSTOR, a large digital library of such databases. In his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”, Swartz avowed a “moral imperative” to share scholarship privileged to only those with access through their learning intuition or for a pricey subscription. Seeing as he now had this privilege, he had made to make a move.

Over the course of several weeks from late 2010 to early 2011, Swartz used a digital repository, a special library that can store all kinds of digital content, to download a large number of academic journal articles through MIT’s computer network. While he did not attend MIT, he was authorized to access JSTOR as a visitor through MIT’s “open campus”.

He did this by using an unlocked controlled-access wiring closest in MIT to connect a laptop to a networking switch. This allowed him to download many of the academic journal articles on JSTOR. Once authorities noticed that this computer was not on their record, they placed a video camera in the closet and left the computer untouched. Once Swartz was caught on camera, the whole operation was aborted. Swartz was arrested on January 6, 2011 and was arraigned in Cambridge District Court on two state charges of breaking and entering with intent to commit a felony.

Swartz went through so much trouble to allow equal access to these academic articles. Even though he failed in his mission, he left a legacy in the eyes of many. Reuters called him “an online icon” who “helped to make a virtual mountain of information freely available to the public”. Authorities eventually charged him with 13 federal crimes and offered to recommend six months in prison if he pled guilty, or face 50 years and $1 million in fines in a trial. Swartz rejected their plea deal, and two days after his counter-offer was also rejected, he was found dead in his apartment of suicide, January 11, 2013. He was 26.

We must really think to ourselves, if he has been successful in his mission, how would the world have changed? Those who do not have the money to attend university would have had access to these documents, presenting them the same opportunities provided by this coveted knowledge. Without these monetary obstacles they could have used that knowledge to better the world and make a name for themselves.

Let’s think back to those in less fortunate countries that we always feel sorry for. If they had access to this knowledge, how would their conditions change? They wouldn’t have to keep sending students to universities in different countries to gain knowledge. Those who don’t even have the money to study abroad would have no obstacle in their way to gaining knowledge. With this knowledge they could educate their people and possibly change the unfortunate conditions they are living in.

Why is JSTOR preventing these less privileged people from access coveted knowledge? Do they have a share in the blame for the lack of development in third world countries? I’m not saying that JSTOR is pure evil and intends to keep poorer segments of global society in their place, but these are questions we should seriously consider.