There are so many battles going on over our right to information that it's not easy to drill down to the real answer. There are battles, fought in courts, blogs and conferences, over copyright, website access, privacy, email and data protection, and freedom of satire, criticism and expression.
Thousands of actions by governments all over the world and hundreds of cases in our own country's courts show a frightening, galloping trend toward information control. Small armies of progressive Internet activists have taken up that fight. We're winning some and losing some.
Aaron Swartz was a major fighter in those struggles and he concentrated on the strategic lynchpin of all government and corporate policy on data: the notion that someone can actually own an idea or a body of information.
When you look at it soberly, the very concept is absurd. How in the world can any person claim ownership of an idea? In a world that is built on collaboration, populated by human beings whose key to survival has been our instinct to collaborate, has there ever been an "original idea"? Yet almost all law is based on that distorted and artificial concept, ignoring the combination of vast experience, conversations, reading, and research that hones every idea.
Techies understand. So collaborative is the work of a techie that the very notion of an original idea has no meaning in techie-talk. Nobody invents anything; they "play a leading role" in its development. You don't write code alone; you combine libraries of code written and developed by thousands of others and freely available, with code gleaned from your interaction with other techies and you write the whole thing in languages collaboratively and collectively developed by programmers world-wide. All of this is free and it's done by people who probably have never met.
Everything you use on the Internet develops that way. The Internet and the technology that supports and drives it are proof of the collaborative nature of all thinking and creation.
In other words, it's a model for the kind of world a lot of us are trying to build.
That's why the government, and the corporations that seek to subvert and control copyright law in the interest of profit, were so threatened by Aaron's actions and the people he might influence. The question Aaron posed that day that he started downloading those documents was: Is research that is based on the experience and thinking of the entire human race not humanity's property?