Computer pioneer Alan Turing, dead for more than half a century, is still in the news these days. The debate is over whether or not he should be posthumously pardoned for something that should never have been a crime in the first place, his homosexuality. The British government already apologized for a prosecution that drove Turing into suicide.
I was reminded of the tragic end of Turing’s life as I am reading about the death of another computer pioneer, Aaron Swartz. His name may not have been a household name, but his contributions were significant: he co-created the RSS specifications and co-founded Reddit, among other things. And, like Turing, he killed himself, possibly as a result of government prosecution. In the case of Swartz, it was not his sexual orientation but his belief that information, in particular scholarly information should be freely accessible to all that brought him into conflict with authorities; specifically, his decision to download some four million journal articles from JSTOR.
Ironically, it was only a few days ago that JSTOR opened up their archives to limited public access. And the trend in academic publishing for years has been in the direction of free and open access to all scientific information.
Perhaps one day, the United States government will also find itself in the position of having to apologize for a prosecution that, far from protecting the public’s interests, instead deprived the public of the contributions that Mr. Swartz will now never have a chance to make.