The ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) candidate for the Punggol East by-election, Dr Koh Poh Koon, a bus driver’s son, is concerned that the less well-off cannot catch up with the better- off under the present education system. “Education was a social leveller in my time,” he said. But now, he added, “It seems if you don’t have the means to put your kids through tuition, you may not catch up.”
An attempt to level the field has just ended in a tragedy. Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz hanged himself in his New York home after being prosecuted for stealing millions of academic journals from JSTOR. He did not steal the articles to make any money from them. He wanted to give people free access to the articles. The 26-year-old computer genius, who helped create RSS – the live feed which every news site, WordPress and Blogger blog now has – wanted information to be free.
JSTOR did not pursue the case. But prosecutors charged him with felony, nevertheless, after he was arrested in 2011 for breaking into the computer networks of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and downloading the articles in 2010 when he was a Harvard researcher. He faced up to 30 years in prison.
“Sharing knowledge is a greater crime than bringing down the economy,” commented Ali Hayat on The Huffington Post, pointing out there was no prosecution of top corporate figures after the 2008 financial crisis,
The National Library Board in Singapore, to its credit, gives free access to JSTOR as well as other information resources which would be beyond the reach of the ordinary person. Singapore is a meritocratic society. But even people within the ruling party have begun to be concerned about the advantages enjoyed by the better-off.
Things have come to such a pass that one has to be careful even while mourning the death of Swartz for you don’t want to say anything against intellectual property rights. However, as Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor and a friend of Swartz’s, wrote on his blog:
The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar.
It was not the dollar value of the articles but the fact that they were intellectual property that put Aaron Swartz in the dock. Many of those mourning for Swartz will no doubt agree the writers and scholars, musicians and artists should be paid for their works. Swartz himself recognized their rights when he helped design the Creative Commons licences.
The question is not whether what he did was right or wrong but whether his action merited such serious charges, said Lessig, the legal scholar, who categorically added the charges were greater than the crime.
The prosecution plainly thought otherwise, Intellectual property rights have to be upheld, after all, even though the system favours the rich over the poor who don’t have the means to get as good an education. Those are not my words That’s what a ruling People’s Action Party election candidate said in Singapore. And the people mourning for Swartz – Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard law professor, Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web creator – are not wild-eyed revolutionaries but thinkers and scientists, scholars and opinion makers.
Swartz himself became rich when Reddit was sold to Conde Nast, but instead of trying to earn more money he wanted to make information free. And look at the price he paid.