You may have noticed a bit of a trend recently. Groups of hackers are getting hold of stuff that has hitherto been kept locked up, and making it freely available online, much to the annoyance and embarrassment of those involved.
Well-known examples include Wikileaks, Anonymous and LulzSec, but we now have a new name to add to the list. Step forward (
the possibly pseudonymous - see comment below) Greg Maxwell, who has been provoked by the Aaron Swartz saga, which I wrote about earlier this week, to release some files of his own:
This archive contains 18,592 scientific publications totaling 33GiB, all from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society and which should be available to everyone at no cost, but most have previously only been made available at high prices through paywall gatekeepers like JSTOR.
Limited access to the documents here is typically sold for $19 USD per article, though some of the older ones are available as cheaply as $8. Purchasing access to this collection one article at a time would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
What makes the current distribution of material – all of it in the public domain – particularly interesting is that it comes with an extremely articulate explanation of why it is being done. For example:
Large publishers are now able to purchase the political clout needed to abuse the narrow commercial scope of copyright protection, extending it to completely inapplicable areas: slavish reproductions of historic documents and art, for example, and exploiting the labors of unpaid scientists. They're even able to make the taxpayers pay for their attacks on free society by pursuing criminal prosecution (copyright has classically been a civil matter) and by burdening public institutions with outrageous subscription fees.
Copyright is a legal fiction representing a narrow compromise: we give up some of our natural right to exchange information in exchange for creating an economic incentive to author, so that we may all enjoy more works. When publishers abuse the system to prop up their existence, when they misrepresent the extent of copyright coverage, when they use threats of frivolous litigation to suppress the dissemination of publicly owned works, they are stealing from everyone else.
There are a couple of key points here. First, he points out "political clout" has led to the abuse of the copyright system. Even if that system was once fair and reasonable (something I'll be discussing in a future column), it certainly isn't now because vested interests have perverted it. Along the way, the copyright maximalists have co-opted governments to attack ordinary citizens for sharing things, with huge collateral damage to basic liberties.
It is because of a wave of severe copyright enforcement legislation like ACTA, HADOPI, the Digital Economy Act, La Ley Sinde and the US PROTECT IP legislation that hackers are angry. Not just because the proposals are in themselves unjust and unfair, but because of the way that they are being brought in.
Typically they are drawn up at secret meetings of key politicians and representatives of powerful industries. They are then discussed at further secret meetings to which citizens' groups – the ones most affected by such schemes – are never invited. To add insult to injury, citizens are not even allowed to see the results of those meetings until after they have been agreed and implemented.
It is in the face of the contemptuous and insulting behaviour that hackers are now starting to fight back by obtaining materials that those same powerful forces do not want people to see – often documents that expose their backroom deals and dirty tricks. What those in power do not understand is that their very attempts to stifle such actions through new legislation and the abuse of existing laws – things like the extradition of Richard O'Dwyer for allegedly running a site that linked to unauthorised copies of copyright material – simply stokes the rage and leads to more such actions.
The release by Greg Maxwell of public domain materials that were not freely available is the latest reminder of that fact, a reaction to the disproportionate actions taken against Aaron Swartz. What's remarkable is not so much that it happened – that was perhaps to be expected at some point – but that it took only a couple of days for the hacker reaction to manifest itself.
Against this background of three-strikes legislation, plans for widespread Web censorship, huge fines for sharing files even when there is zero evidence any financial damage was caused by doing so, and disproportionate threats of extradition, I predict we will see many more such actions from angry hackers frustrated by the continuing abuse of existing legal, economic and political structures by a few powerful groups – particularly in the media world – for their own self-interest.
As to why it seems to be mostly hackers that are angry in this way, the reason is simple. In addition to being well placed to understand the profound implications of the transition away from a closed, analogue world of scarcity, they are also one of the few groups that have the ability and means to fight back by harnessing the power of the open, digital abundance that is replacing it.