Starship 14’s Access summarized a US District Court opinion written by Judge Denny Chin in 2011. It concerned a class action suit brought against Google by the Authors Guild, an advocacy group for professional writers, as well as several other plaintiffs. I downloaded Judge Chin’s opinion on the US District Court’s website in the section Public Access to Court Electronic Records. It was filed under Rulings of Special Interest. I’m sure I ended up there while trying to find out more about Google Books, which I sometimes use for research. So often, though, what I’m looking for isn’t included in the preview Google makes available.
After I drafted that essay about the opinion, I showed what I’d written to a friend. He suggested I consider Aaron Swartz, that something he’d said or written might help make sense of the issues the District Court case opens up. I then found that in July 2008’s Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, Swartz criticized what he called the private theft of public culture: “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access. With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge—we’ll make it a thing of the past.”
I couldn’t find anything Swartz said about Google Books specifically, but he was asked in 2004 about the fact that, once Google gets its hands on users’ personal information, they keep it forever. Swartz explained he was of two minds: “On the one hand, I want to be very open about everything. On the other, I heavily defend people’s right to privacy.” Obviously, Swartz isn’t the best-known voice on the subject of privacy. He was outspoken about the NSA but passed away the January before Snowden’s leaks were published.
February 13, 2015: The title of an article on theguardian.com declared: “Google boss warns of ‘forgotten century’ with email and photos at risk.” Vint Cerf, the company’s vice president, believed our online data was too important to lose and in need of protection. “When you think about the quantity of documentation from our daily lives that is captured in digital form,” Cerf said and the article relayed, “like our interactions by email, people’s tweets, and all of the world wide web, it’s clear that we stand to lose an awful lot of our history.” He was framing emails as history and appealing to ego, the desire that we might one day be as important to history as each of us is to ourselves.
Cerf’s comments came to readers via the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting in San Jose, California, and Ian Sample, a science editor for The Guardian. The potentially forgotten generation or century Cerf referenced would be a consequence of bit rot, an event in which making sense of files requires programs and hardware that have fallen out of use and weren’t preserved. Sample told readers: “He concedes that historians will take steps to preserve material considered important by today’s standards, but argues that the significance of documents and correspondence is often not fully appreciated until hundreds of years later.” So it’s no surprise that “to do this properly”—Cerf—“the rights of preservation might need to be incorporated into our thinking about things like copyright and patents and licensing.”
Cerf’s theory that we don’t want our digital lives to fade away would be qualified by Google’s fight, starting five months later, over users’ potential “right to be forgotten.” A French court decided Google should stop returning search results leading to pages that appear inadequate, irrelevant, or excessive. The search engine had already stopped returning results for inquiries made within the EU when pages fit that description, but France’s CNIL insisted the stop be applied for users around the world, not just within the European court’s jurisdiction. Kent Walker, Google’s general council, warned of the ruling’s potential for harming access to information. “For example, this could prevent French citizens from seeing content that is perfectly legal in France. This is not just a hypothetical concern.”
Google had received quite a few requests that URLs be removed so that something might be forgotten, “but”—from a May 2016 article in The Guardian—“copyright protections are far more internationally accepted.” There were many more claims over property than unwanted web pages. In contrast to the 1.5 million requests following the right to be forgotten from May 2014 to May 2016, Google had counted 88.8 million for copyright infringement in the month of April 2016 alone.
We sometimes see a rhetoric of open access, solely theoretical, leveraged on Google’s end, one appealing to our ideals and our imagination. The phenomenon also extends to different sorts of tech companies, like the open-source online encyclopedia Wikipedia. On January 31, 2014, co-founder Jimmy Wales tweeted, “I believe in the elimination of borders and free commerce as a route to peace. Barriers necessarily imply violence.”
One might argue that this masks the real, unequal distribution of access to resources as well as incentives for gaining access and then being the one to deliver or condition it. And political theorist Jodi Dean has done just that, including free trade alongside democracy in her 2009 account of neoliberal fantasies. She writes: “Free trade […] sustains on the level of fantasy what it seeks to avoid at the level of reality—namely, actually free trade among equal players, that is, equal participants with equal opportunities to establish the rules of the game, access information, distribution, and financial networks, and so forth.”
Nevertheless, being fantasies, we can’t get enough of them. A theoretically pure form of each is perpetually offered as the only cure for an impure form in reality: “Despite all our problems with democracy, democracy is the solution to all our problems.” The same would probably hold true for other fantasies: Access isn’t the problem; problems arise when access isn’t total.
The Guardian reprinted Wales’s tweet in a November 2015 article entitled “Silicon Valley’s new politics of optimism, radical idealism and bizarre loyalties” among a chorus of voices. As research for the article, interviews were conducted with 129 tech industry founders and executives, and we were told that they “share the libertarian love of free trade, but generally because they are drawn to alliances that require cooporation between nations.” The article talked about the idea that “a lot of problems in the world are information inefficiencies” (Sean Parker), but it doesn’t deal with the possibility that the industry itself might be influencing our concept of efficiency.