Sci-Hub's Business Model Scares Me

It's based on theft, dark money, hacking, and undermining Western institutions

Debates and discussions about Sci-Hub’s effectiveness and utility leave me with a bad taste in my mouth. Outright defenses of it make me worry. Promotion of it seems completely out of bounds. It’s a pirate site, yes, but there’s more to it, things that make it far more insidious than the Napster it’s often compared to. Yet, we continue to see Sci-Hub justified, rationalized, and normalized as if what it does is acceptable, even laudable.

After listening to an interview on the “Gaslit Nation” podcast with hero-journalist Carol Cadwalladr of the Guardian, that bad taste in my mouth about the easy acceptance of the existence and legitimacy of Sci-Hub became downright caustic. And the fact that Sci-Hub is far worse than Napster became clearer. Cadwalladr is of the opinion — and it is a very, very well-informed opinion — that the common thread tying Brexit and Trump and Facebook and polarization and destabilization of Western institutions is — wait for it — Russian money, Russian cyberwarfare, and Russian corruption that has infected various major bodies politic.

Over the next 12-18 months, I’m pretty sure a great deal of evidence will bear out her view. Like we need much more. Indictments in the US and common sense all point to the same thing — Russian corruption, attacks, and disruption. I think it will become even clearer that people in the UK, the US, and elsewhere have been compromised and corrupted by Russian money and influence, and that many things that have gone sideways in the past few years — from race relations to political outcomes to international accords — can be tied back to Russian destabilization efforts at some fundamental level.

And Sci-Hub will be and should be part of that story.

It’s been clear to careful observers for some time that Sci-Hub was aided and abetted by hackers whose goals were not the exfiltration of papers from behind paywalls, but rather the acquisition of university login credentials so these same hackers could exfiltrate other information from academic systems, plant code on university systems, or learn various firewall and system configurations for later use. The indictment of Iranian operatives going after the same thing only adds to the story.

Individuals who voluntarily gave Sci-Hub access to university systems by sharing their usernames and passwords out of some sense of altruism truly were giving gifts to these hackers, helping them realize where the softest part of the academic target might exist — the publications zone, and the side door into institutions represented by access control administrative systems.

How do we know Sci-Hub is up to no good? How do we know they are a tool in a larger game? There’s plenty of public evidence — here, here, and here. Sci-Hub’s behavior also contributes to the evidence. Sci-Hub wants everyone else to be exposed, yet they remain secretive and shadowy. For instance, where is the funding for Sci-Hub coming from? They are not saying. Where did the computer expertise to persistently and methodically phish and hack academic accounts come from? I doubt from its founder. What other information did they glean? We don’t know. Is that information being mixed with information obtained via Facebook, Cambridge Analytica, or others? No answers, no way to get answers, no accountability, and no concerns about repercussions. Why?

But how has Sci-Hub, with no clear revenue streams for years, and with uncertain ones now — how has it remained up, despite being chased from provider to provider, hosting scads of documents, and dealing with millions of visits? Sci-Hub is expensive to run. It incurs costs, and ostensibly seeks donations to offset these costs. Whether these costs emanate from programming, hosting, travel, salaries, or office space, we don’t know. But we don’t know where its money has come from, is coming from, or will come from. Is Sci-Hub being funded by the Russian paramilitary hacking operations that are still trying to tilt Western elections, infiltrate Western infrastructure, and modify behaviors among citizens in democracies around the world? We don’t know, but odds are there’s some assistance there. Sci-Hub has been very effective at exfiltrating data from universities and individuals, after all.

My belief is that the business model of Sci-Hub is part of the current paramilitary strategy of Russia — a strategy designed and funded in order to corrupt Western institutions, exploit and extract, sow chaos, and probe for weakness. Supporting Sci-Hub is to me essentially acceptance of this corruption, these attacks, and the chaos that follows. I will state it clearly and unequivocally — I believe people who praise Sci-Hub or tacitly endorse it are playing directly into the hands of the Russian regime behind much of this activity.

Sci-Hub is not a miracle from the heavens, a great interface idea, a validation of OA beliefs, or a technological model. It is an initiative tied to the greatest cyberwarfare campaign in history — one that is undermining alliances, institutions, and governments, while bolstering authoritarians around the world.

That’s why Sci-Hub’s business model scares me.

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