Open Science and the Citizen Science Movement

Solutions: Open Science

Directed by James Corbett (2019)

Film Review

This documentary evaluates potential solutions to the problems with shoddy and fraudulent research Corbett identified in his prior documentary The Crisis of Science (see Why Most Published Research Findings Are False).

Among the reforms Corbett notes are growing pressure by scientific journals for researchers to publish raw data and negative results and the formation of an entity known as Redaction Watch. The latter closely monitors studies that are retracted for fraudulent data or questionable methodology.

However the most important solutions, in Corbett’s view, are the Open Science and Citizen Science movement. The former campaigns for free public access to scientific research, which until a decade ago was locked away behind costly paywalls.*

The most well known Open Science activist was Aaron Swartz, who published the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto in 2008. The FBI arrested Swartz in 2011 for using an MIT server to upload thousands of academic papers to a free Internet site. His legal problems allegedly prompted Swartz to kill himself two weeks before he went to trial. However numerous factors suggest he may have been “suicided” (see The Mystery of Aaron Swartz’s Alleged Suicide).

Like Swartz, Corbett argues that allowing freer public access to scientific research allows the public to monitor what scientists are up to. The Open Science movement has led to a substantial increase in research available for free on the Open Source PLOS (Public Library of Science).

Citizen Science refers to the growing participation of amateur scientists in the collection, storage and, in some case, analysis, of scientific data. Examples include projects in which scientists use citizens to collect migration data on butterflies and songbirds.

In another model, ordinary citizens set up their own projects to solve specific problems. The best example is Safecast, created by anti-nuclear  activists when it became clear the Japanese government was lying about radiation levels resulting from the Fukushima meltdowns. In this project, a network of activists created an automated Geiger counter to collect radiation counts every five seconds and upload them to an online database. They then recruited thousands of Japanese volunteers to attach them to their cars and bikes (see The Citizen Science Movement).

*Revenues resulting from scientific journal subscriptions accrue mainly to for profit publishers (like Elsevier) rather than researchers who write scientific papers.



Steal This Film

Steal This Film – Trial Edition

League of Noble Peers (2006)

Film Review

Steal This Film is the prequel to TPB-AFK (see Pirate Bay, Wikileaks and the Swedish Pirate Party), the documentary about Sweden’s prosecution of the four Pirate Bay founders.

It goes much deeper into the ideological values behind Pirate Bay, whose activities its creators view as civil disobedience aimed against Swedish (and American) copyright laws.

The Pirate Bay (TPB) founders and their supporters (including members of the Swedish Pirate Party and the late Aaron Swartz – see The Mystery of Aaron Swartz’s Alleged Suicide) argue that the Motion Picture Association (MPAA), the powerful US lobby that forced Sweden to prosecute Pirate Bay, experienced minimal economic damage from Pirate Bay users sharing free copies of their films. In the their view, the main financial damage to the film industry, music industry and print and electronic stems from the Internet allowing millions of ordinary people to become creators of video, music and the written word. They feel that file sharing is one the best ways to fight archaic copyright laws, which limit creativity and control of information to a handful of elites for their own profit and political control.

They argue it’s virtually impossible to end file sharing owing to its extremely decentralized nature. Every time a big file sharing site like Knapster, Pirate Bay or Kim Dotcom’s Megaupload (see Kim Dotcom and America’s Diabolic Intellectual Property Laws) is shut down, thousands of new ones spring up to take their place.

The documentary also explores historical precedents going back thousands of years where ruling elites have sought to suppress information exchange and creativity. Following the invention of the printing press, France enacted strict censorship laws on printers, publishers and booksellers. This would lead to a dedicated publishing industry in bordering countries that made a fortune by smuggling banned titles to eager French readers.

They point out the MPAA also filed numerous court actions against the first video recorder and MP3 player manufacturers.

Although the Swedish government was extremely reluctant to take action against TPB (and violate Sweden’s guaranteed right to public access), the powerful MPAA put pressure on the US State Department. They, in turn, threatened Sweden with WTO sanctions for failing to uphold “intellectual property” rights. After the MPAA hired their own private investigator to locate TPB’s server and its four founders.

The film TPB-AFK (see link above) covers the trial, in which all four men were found guilty of “accessory to crime against copyright law.” They each served eight to nine months in jail – the last, Fredrik Neij, was released in 2015

Membership in Sweden’s Pirate Party swelled on the back of the TPB case. Countries all over the world have formed Pirate Party – in 2015 Iceland’s Pirate Party would win 16 seats in parliament. The first US Pirate Party was formed in Atlanta in 2006.

The Mystery of Aaron Swartz’s Alleged Suicide


The Internet’s Own Boy: The History of Aaron Swartz

Brian Knappenberger (2014)

Film Review

The Internet’s Own Boy is about computer prodigy and ardent free Internet activist Aaron Swartz. Swartz allegedly hanged himself in 2013 two weeks before going to trial on federal charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). This documentary tries to portray that Swartz’s suicide was triggered by his terror of what the federal government was about to do to him. I don’t buy it.

Computer Prodigy, Entrepreneur and Internet Activist

Despite his untimely death at age 26, Swartz already had a string of inventions and accomplishments to his name. At twelve, he invented Infobase, an early on-line precursor to Wikipedia. At thirteen, he was part of the online group that developed the RSS (Rich Site Summary) protocol, a web feed format to syndicated frequently updated information, such as blog entries and headlines. At fifteen he worked with Larry Lessig to create the Creative Commons platform for writers, photographers, researchers and artists who wish to freely share their work for non-commercial purposes. Shortly after dropping out of Stanford at eighteen, he created the immensely popular social media site Reddit.

Swartz is perhaps best known as the lead organizer of the successful campaign to block SOPA (the Stop Online Piracy Act). Congressional enactment of SOPA would have forced web servers to take down a website, without warning or due process, based on a mere accusation of copyright infringement of any user at the site. Swartz and other net neutrality activities saw SOPA as a scheme by large for-profit Internet companies to wipe out the small free content sites that competed with them.

Turning his Back on Corporate America

Swartz made the decision not to use his programming skills for profit, like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, while working for Conde Nast magazine, which bought Reddit from him for $1 million. Swartz was a passionate believer in free access to the to the Internet and accumulated scientific and cultural knowledge.

He was greatly inspired by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, who Swartz had met as a child. Berners-Lee could easily have used the Internet to become fabulously wealthy. Instead he gave it away for free, believing everyone was entitled to Internet access regardless of their ability to pay.

Swartz’s First Brush with the FBI

A substantial portion of the film is devoted to the downloading activities that led the Justice Department to charge Swartz with thirteen felonies under the CFAA.

Hi first brush with the FBI occurred in 2008 when he helped Carl Malamud start the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) project. PACER is the illegal government racket that charges users ten cents a page to download federal court records. Reaping the federal government more than $10 million a year, PACER denies access to public legal information to people without the means to pay for it. Together Malamud and Swartz developed a program to simultaneously download large numbers of PACER files from the seventeen public libraries that made PACER documents available free of charge. They would eventually download 20% of the PACER dataset (20 million pages), which they made available free of charge at their website.

The FBI would ultimately close their investigation, concluding that Swartz had done nothing illegal.

The Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto

Swartz subsequently started the Progressive Change Campaign (which kick started Elizabeth Warren’s campaign for Senate) and Demand Progress, an Internet group dedicated to fighting various forms of Internet censorship. Swartz particularly objected to rich corporations locking up the work (which they obtain for free) of researchers whose salaries are paid, directly or indirectly, by the taxpayer. He felt that scientific and cultural knowledge is part of the Commons and that human knowledge can only be advanced by sharing it.

In the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, Swartz refers to this as the private theft of public information and calls for civil disobedience to stop it.

His download of JSTOR files at MIT was exactly this type of civil disobedience. As a Harvard fellow he had free access to JSTOR via the MIT website. As he had done with PACER, he set up a program in an MIT janitor’s closet to download thousands of JSTOR documents to portable hard drives. After catching him on a surveillance camera, the Cambridge police busted him and turned the case over to the Secret Service (they have jurisdiction over computer fraud under the Patriot Act) and the US attorney’s office.

The Department of Justice ultimately charged him with thirteen felonies under CFAA. Although potentially he was looking at thirty-five years in jail and a $1 million fine, a federal prosecutor stated after his death that they planned to ask for a six month jail sentence. Swartz’s own attorney believed he would be acquitted, based on his high profile activism and his clear intent to establish free public access to the JSTOR articles he was downloading. It was impossible to establish that he planned to defraud JSTOR or re-sell the document.

Suicide? Or Murder?

The Internet’s Own Boy tries to convince us that Swartz was so distraught by the Obama administration’s viciousness that he was impelled to take his own life. Yet none of this jives with the Aaron Swartz we see on the screen. A year after his initial arrest, Aaron leads and – against all odds – wins a grassroots campaign to defeat SOPA. Buoyant after his SOPA victory, he asks his girlfriend to marry him and decides to hang himself. Yeah right.

Recent history is filled with the names of activists, journalists, whistleblowers – and now investment bankers – who embarrass the rich and powerful and conveniently up and kill themselves. In my view, Moti Nissani offers a far more plausible explanation of Aaron Swartz’s demise in Who Killed Aaron Swartz