Access to Information: How Free Should It Be?

Posted by John H. Heinrichs

Oct 24

Freedom of Information After Aaron Swartz

The untimely death of Aaron Swartz in January 2013 shined a light on information freedom issues in the United States. At the time of his death, Mr. Swartz was defending himself against criminal charges related to his acquisition and distribution of various articles from JSTOR without its permission. Federal prosecutors believed Aaron Swartz had crossed to the wrong side of the line between copyright holders and information seekers. Those interested in expanding access to information in all sectors followed his case closely because the decision in the Swartz case might set new precedent in intellectual property law.

James Madison AwardInformation professionals must navigate this line that protects information creators and information seekers on a daily basis. Thus, we must stay abreast of any developments in this area.  The largest American professional organization for information professionals definitely kept track of the Swartz case. In March 2013, the American Library Association made a statement about its values in regard to information freedom when it awarded Aaron Swartz the James Madison Award posthumously.

Will the Swartz case and the ALA’s stance on information lead to lasting changes in the freedom of information in the future? JSTOR has already experimented with offering limited free access to some articles, but it has the right to withdraw that access at any time.

Several questions remain unanswered about access to information.

  • Is it a human right?
  • How free should information be?
  • How does information freedom apply to the private versus the public sector?

The host of a podcast I follow brought up the question of the freedom of government information. Government funded research is the basis of some of the articles published in the journals JSTOR provides online access to for a fee.

If these journals are now published only in digital formats and JSTOR provides the only access to obscure journals ...

  • Is the public paying twice for this research when it accesses these articles via JSTOR?
  • Should this information be in the public domain?
  • Should the United States be providing its own online aggregation and distribution service for the publications based on research it has funded?

What do you think? Do you have answers for any of these tough questions?

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2. American Library Association:

3. James Madison Award:

Topics: Information Access, Information Freedom

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