After SOPA (Stop Online Privacy Act) was defeated last winter in congress, Aaron Swartz gave a speech. He talked about the history of the legislation, how it started in 2010 as the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act that looked like it would get railroaded through congress with near unanimity until Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) put a hold on the bill, effectively killing it for that session and requiring it to be resubmitted under a new name PIPA (Protect IP Act) and a similar House version of the bill, the now infamous SOPA.
Swartz described his initial reaction to the bill as a rather subdued ‘so what?’; why should copyright infringement be such a big deal? That was, until he had an opportunity to read the bill and think about its long-term consequences. Swartz argued that SOPA’s wording was vague enough that a single complaint about a site could be enough to have that site blocked, with the burden of proof resting on the site; thus sites that share information freely from the cloud – social media sites like Facebook, Reddit, DailyKos etc., could be pulled offline for the potentially aberrant behavior of a few users. Worse, the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) claimed the bill would ban linking to sites deemed offending, even in search results and on services such as Twitter. No one in the industry really liked the bill, Swartz noted, but there really wasn’t much they thought they could do about it. “The strategy was essentially, it’s going to happen, let’s just lessen the impact.”
Aaron Swartz — who developed the RSS protocol as a precocious teenager and was one of the founders of Reddit — didn’t like that answer.
Instead, he went about building the world’s largest internet campaign in history. If you’re reading this now, you may very well have been part of that campaign. I know I was.
I read about it through a post on DailyKos, and then did a little research and wrote about it, and changed my avatar to a big ole black stop SOPA icon. Sure, not much individually, but combined, it mattered. On November 16, Tumblr, Mozilla, Techdirt, the Center for Democracy and Technology were among many other Internet companies that protested by displaying black banners over their site logos with the words “STOP CENSORSHIP” Google linked an online petition to its site, and says it collected more than 7 million signatures from the United States. In January 2012, Reddit announced plans to black out its site for twelve hours on January 18, as company co-founder Alexis Ohanian announced he was going to testify to Congress. “He’s of the firm position that SOPA could potentially ‘obliterate’ the entire tech industry”, Paul Tassi wrote in Forbes. Other prominent sites that planned to participate in the January 18 blackout were Wikimedia, Boing Boing, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.
By January 21, 2012 the bill was dead.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation said that over 115 thousand sites altered their webpages in protest.
I’d like to argue that much of this happened because of the singularly loud voice of Aaron Swartz, but I think he’d be annoyed if I did. He was a firm believer in the power of the commons, of individuals taking personal responsibility that combined became powerful. I suspect he would argue that it was no single voice that mattered in this particular battle, but the multitude of voices that stood firm against the arrayed interests of a relatively small group of men (and a few women), who, first, didn’t really understand the technology (Aaron’s term for most congress people regarding internet technology was ‘clueless’), and second were beholden to corporate interest whose last concern was freedom of expression, much less freedom to share information across the web (Congressman Christopher Dodd, who took a sweet gig as President of the Motion Picture Association of America after he left congress, spear-headed the effort.)
In his speech Aaron talked about how shocked congress was by the upstart rebellion. It was part fear and part anger. A congressman told him, “You people are out of control!”
But that was exactly the point, Aaron noted. We’re supposed to be ‘out of control’…and as Aaron might have said, congress works for us, not the other way around.
Aaron picked other battles as well. He didn’t believe that academic journals should be locked up in a paid only vehicle like JSTOR (Journal Storage), and hid a laptop in an MIT closet, downloading about 4.8 million academic articles. In July 2011, he was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR. They carried potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. In 2008, he took on PACER, or Public Access to Court Electronic Records, the repository for federal judicial documents. According to the New York Times, “The database charges 10 cents a page for documents. Swartz had argued that such documents should be free because they are produced at public expense.” He sought to free them, and as a consequence, faced up to a lifetime in prison and bankrupting fines.
Yesterday, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. I won’t draw any conclusions about his death except to say that we need our Aaron Swartzes. He understood complex systems as well as anyone on Earth, and his bottom line was always making sure everyone had fair access. But he also had a history of depression which he wrote about in painful detail. One can only imagine the impending sense of closure as Federal prosecutors sought the most excessive penalties imaginable for a crime whose only victim was the freeing of information—that should have already been free.