Who Owns Knowledge

Talk Date: 
Saturday, 6 July, 2013
Talk Location: 
University of York Philosophy Society
United Kingdom
Ms. Sephie Hallow

I'm going to skip over a huge chunk of epistemological debate concerning what knowledge is and how we can say we have it, to simply say, it's information. Theoretical or practical, learned in a classroom, overheard and remembered, picked up through imitation, knowledge is a fundamental part of consciousness. 

Knowledge of language leads to communication, to an ability to express and disperse ideas amongst many. 

Knowledge of how our government works gives us a voice, allows us to convey assent or disapproval of policy, gives us the ability to question how our world is shaped. 

Knowledge of your citizen's conversations, as we have recently seen, is apparently of paramount importance, though if Facebook is anything to judge by, that's a lot of relationship updates, first-world angst and sepia-toned photographs of breakfasts to wade through in order to find the odd clandestine plot to nuke the White House. 

I don't think I really need to stress to the current crowd the importance of knowledge, but I just wanted to give some food for thought on how basic a concept this is before considering how we divide that knowledge, partition it into books and journals, sift out this important information into our pockets, and then sell it back to institutions like universities, schools and libraries.

Ownership seems like such a crass idea when it comes to something so necessary, though I'm hoping not to drag this discussion into either hyperbole about the evils of capitalism, or something taken straight out of Pochahontas. Yes, capitalism is evil; it's been the bad guy amongst thinkers for a while now, but I think we can mostly leave him out of this discussion. And yes, I could ask you who really can claim ownership over something abstract – like the very long number generated when I write a document on my computer and save it, which is essentially what all digitised information can be reduced to, a series of long numbers, which it would be absurd to assert ownership over – or talk about who owns rocks or trees or the wind. But however absurd it is, we do divide things, abstract and concrete, into categories. We set boundaries and borders, and we assert rights of ownership that are then heavily defended. 

Even the relationships we have with other people are demarcated into strict rules of territory and access; whilst I'm not implying a form of slavery in the emotional ties that bind us, a monogamous relationship does divide a person into zones of accessibility, usually restricting below-the-belt access to their partner for a flexible period of time. Access is often revoked and then restored, fluctuating like visa laws between warring countries, and a violation of these social boundaries is seen as an invasion of sorts. Who we permit access to which parts of our bodies is all about physical boundaries, and of course there are instances where those boundaries are violated, which leads to emotional distress, retaliation, or surrender. But I'm getting off topic. 

The point is that we defend the boundaries of ownership over knowledge as fiercely as those over our bodies or our countries. Now I promised I wouldn't veer into hyperbole here, and I'm not. I am however, with apologies for breaking an inherent rule of philosophy by addressing a practical application, going to talk about something that happened in the real world, and that to me says a lot about the way we defend those who own the world's knowledge from those who would seek to distribute it – the violators of the boundaries of knowledge ownership, as it were.

Aaron Swartz believed that knowledge should not be owned by the few and then sold to the few that could afford it. Now I'm going to break another cardinal sin here, and quote from Wikipedia, though the citations are taken from the US Attorney's Office District of Massachusetts, a leading authority on people they have arrested:

“On January 6, 2011, Swartz was arrested by police on state breaking-and-entering charges, in connection with the systematic downloading of academic journal articles from JSTOR. Federal prosecutors eventually charged him with two counts of wire fraud and 11 violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, charges carrying a cumulative maximum penalty of $1 million in fines plus 35 years in prison, asset forfeiture, restitution and supervised release.” 

A lot of that is jargon and legalese, especially when you can't see it written down. What it means is this: 

Aaron Swartz sat in a cupboard at MIT, and downloaded everything there is on JSTOR (well, he left a machine to do this, as naturally, it took several weeks); all the entries from however many thousands of journals, downloaded to his machine, with the intent to be uploaded back onto the internet: but in a way that anyone could access them, for free. 

No institutional association, no login necessary, just free information to anyone out there that wanted it. At the time of doing this, he was a student at Harvard, and was perfectly welcome, through the MIT network, to access JSTOR; he didn't hack into any website or break any security protocols either of the campus or the website. However, he violated the boundaries of knowledge ownership, and the response he got was unprecedented.  

Under indictment, it was revealed that the punishment for his combined legal violations would be a substantial fine, 35 years in prison, with the loss of all his assets and “supervised release”, meaning that his internet access, upon release from prison, would be heavily monitored and censored (a penalty that is often applied to what the American government likes to futuristically dub “cybercriminals”). But if a punishment is meant to reflect the crime, then the reaction from MIT in terms of pursuing a criminal case (JSTOR actually dropped all charges and requested the matter not be pursued), speaks volumes as to the violation of ownership boundaries Aaron had committed.  

By comparison, if you were to violate a person's physical boundaries by killing them in a fit of rage, that is to say, committing an act of manslaughter, the US punishment is a maximum of 10 years imprisonment (we are talking about American laws from here on in, just to clarify). If however the death was accidental, the resulting time served is 6 years at a max.  

So what about a much more sinister crime? If you were to knowingly spread AIDS, either through “donating” your blood, tissue, semen or other infected fluids having tested positive for HIV (“donate” is a blanket term for any kind of free-giving, which includes sexual exposure as well as some very strange Secret Santas), or if you were to sell any of the above, for example selling your kidney on the black market, then your maximum prison term is 10 years in prison. 

Of course, this doesn't apply in the case of deliberate medical testing or research, but the fact that distributing an agonizing disease, spreading a virus to countless others on purpose, carries a third of the punishment as the distribution of knowledge, speaks to how highly we value knowledge, and how much institutions value their power and control over its distribution.

I could be here all night with the list of examples of comparable sentences. However, I considered the phrase “I may as well reap the benefits of the thing I was accused of”, and wondered what else Aaron could have done to result in such a lengthy sentence.  

For 35 years in prison, you could spend some time researching weapons for an enemy force, which bags you 20, kill someone in a fit of rage when they point out the designs for your new super-duper Weapon of Mass Destruction are duds for another 10, and then throw in the towel and just directly threaten the President with death, for a final five.  

Alternatively, you could sell slaves for 20 years, as long as you didn't kidnap or abuse them, and then punch a Supreme Court Justice, with room left over to go back and threaten Joe Biden (just to give Obama a break – that 5-year rule of threatening the President also applies to his second-in-command, and even the vice president elect).

Finally, for that ultimate way to rack up a 35-year sentence, why not delve into eugenics for the purpose of genocide – that buys you 20 years – and spend the final fifteen roofie-ing and raping someone, or having sex with a minor. And yet this is the level of severity with which we are defending our right to own knowledge, so there's obviously a lot at stake.  

But our current perception of knowledge ownership and distribution is actually a modern phenomenon. We see the attainment of knowledge as a personal and individual goal; a benefit for the individual, and not the society which we're a part of. But in attaining knowledge, what we're actually doing is contributing to the commonwealth of knowledge. A common treasury of information that can be disseminated throughout society for the greater benefit of our species. 

We're all here on the shoulders of thinkers before us – try writing an essay without citations, and you'll see exactly what I mean. We now have the technology to disperse information to the entire world, to raise the average bar of human intelligence. Our only barrier is the boundaries we place around knowledge, the way we fence it in, and section it off, defending our property.  

For reference, Aaron Swart killed himself, after two years of persecution by the US Prosecution Service. But the legacy he left is a wealth of questions about knowledge and distribution.  

Who owns knowledge? Who has the right to distribute it? And how should our approach to knowledge ownership and distribution evolve?  

Originally given as a talk at the University of York Philosophy Society