Internet Activist Memorialized As Leader Of 'Free Culture' Movement

The death of Aaron Swartz has intensified a debate over access to information on the Internet. Swartz was a computer prodigy and activist who committed suicide on Friday. He was only 26, but he had long ago become a leader of the Free Culture movement, which believed online information should be accessible to everyone. Audie Cornish talks about the movement with a reporter who has covered it, Declan McCullagh, chief political correspondent with CNET.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We're going to follow up now on a tech story that erupted over the weekend, after news of the death of Aaron Swartz. He was a computer prodigy and an activist, who committed suicide on Friday. He was only 26. Swartz is being memorialized as the leader of the free culture movement, which believes in an open Internet where all information is accessible.

We wanted to know more about the movement, so we contacted Declan McCullagh. He's the chief political correspondent at CNet. Welcome to the program, Declan.

DECLAN MCCULLAGH: Hi there. It's a pleasure to be here.

CORNISH: So who - and how and what gave birth to the free culture movement?

MCCULLAGH: The free culture movement really stemmed out of a hacker culture from a generation or more ago. And I'm not talking hacker culture as in, we'll break into things; we'll disrupt things; we'll destroy things. This is the original meaning of the word hacker; and this is a desire to learn more about things; to almost liberate knowledge, maybe it lot stand in the way, maybe they don't, but the quest is not a malicious one. It's doing what they think is best for society.

CORNISH: And Aaron Swartz may not have been a household name, but there are some other free culture adherents out there who are well-known for being very aggressive, such as WikiLeaks and the hacker group Anonymous, right?

MCCULLAGH: That's right. And those are kind of the pointed end of the free culture movement, but there are folks who are much more mainstream. I mean, Larry Lessig, the author and the law professor, would be one of them; Richard Stallman, who gave birth to the term free software, who coined the term, free as in freedom, not free as in no cost. There's a little bit - might have that as well. And so there are - this is the culmination of decades of work by a lot of folks straddling the line between hackerdom and law and politics.

CORNISH: And Aaron Swartz was a sort of leading advocate and voice for this. In 2008, Swartz wrote something he called the "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto," and in it, he was addressing students, librarians and scientists in this way. He said: You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out, but you need not. Indeed, morally, you cannot keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And he saw this cause as civil disobedience essentially, right?

MCCULLAGH: I think that's right, and that's what he did when trying to do it, what in his terms would have been to liberate knowledge, liberate data, especially data that taxpayers have already paid for. He downloaded a large percentage of federal court decisions that are available for a fee through the PACER federal court website with the intent to make those available to the public at no cost instead of charging 10 cents a page, which is what the federal courts like to do, which is well above what they need to do to break even.

And he was trying the same thing. This was what he was accused of doing when he was at Harvard and set up a computer allegedly in a wiring closet at MIT to download large portions of the JSTOR database where academics publish their articles. His idea is that these should be available to the public.

CORNISH: And as you mentioned, because of his actions, Swartz was about to be the subject of a federal trial. He was facing up to 35 years in prison. This really put him at the center of this debate about information and free information. But who was winning that debate? I mean, was it the hacktivists? Was it the companies and the government?

MCCULLAGH: The debate has been going on for I can think offhand at least 15 years, but it really depends. It's a battle of offense and defense. The high-water mark perhaps for the open culture movement was when they defeated the Stop Online Piracy Act last year. It was just a year ago, in fact, next week. You had corporations coming together with activists and academics saying this bill that Hollywood wanted that would force allegedly infringing copyright, infringing websites to disappear from the Internet.

That went too far. And they won. Hollywood was put on the defensive. The law went away - the proposed law. And we have - it has not resurfaced since then.

CORNISH: Already, there's an outpouring online about Aaron Swartz, including professors who are actually tweeting their scholarly articles as a sort of protest. They're tweeting free links, essentially, to their work. Could you see a day when the ideas of the free culture movement are essentially mainstream in the U.S.?

MCCULLAGH: It's a generational thing. If you talk to students, undergraduate students, they're much more willing to be part of this movement. They understand it. They've grown up with it in part. But it's going to take some time. I mean, it's really - when the folks in their teens and 20s get into positions of power in their 30s and 40s.

CORNISH: Declan McCullagh, he's the chief political correspondent at CNet. Declan, thank you for speaking with us.

MCCULLAGH: Thanks for having me on today.

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