It has been thirteen months exactly since the suicide of Aaron Swartz, at the age of 26.
It’s not the roundest anniversary, but it’s the signal today for a global wave of protests against ubiquitous online surveillance in the western world.
Swartz was a hacker, in the old internet sense of the word. An unstoppable need to create things led to his involvement in the creation of RSS, the standard for creating web feeds which now underpins much of the mobile web; in Reddit, the social news site, which merged with his own company Infogami early in its life; and in Creative Commons, the organisation which invented new forms of “copyleft” to let people unambiguously free their creations from copyright controls.
It was that last motivation which led to his downfall. Swartz had already had trouble with the authorities after downloading and releasing more than 2.5m US federal court documents from the PACER service, in an effort to make public domain information actually public. While PACER charged $0.08 per page for access to the documents, they weren’t restricted by copyright. The FBI investigated Swartz, but ultimately decided not to prosecute.
Two years later, however, he repeated the same trick, allegedly using MIT’s computer network to download around 70GB of papers from academic database JSTOR. While JSTOR is mainly an archive of older papers, the service does host new research as well.
But Swartz wasn’t just charged with copyright infringement. Instead, due to the fact that he had apparently used a laptop connected to the physical network, hidden in a wiring cupboard in the university, the charges were of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer.
Perhaps because they were smarting over their failure to find anything they could stick him with over the PACER downloads, it seems the federal prosecutors had little desire to let him off lightly.
Darrell Issa, in charge of the US house of representative’s investigation of the Justice Department’s prosecution of Swartz, told the Huffington Post that “overprosecution is a tool often used to get people to plead guilty rather than risk sentencing… If someone is genuinely guilty of something and you bring them up on charges, that’s fine. But throw the book at them and find all kinds of charges and cobble them together so that they’ll plea to a ‘lesser included’ is a technique that I think can sometimes be inappropriately used.”
On January 11 2013, Swartz hanged himself. He left no note.
The first of the NSA files were released five months later. In the process, the conversation around civil liberties changed. While Aaron Swartz didn’t live to see it, those who knew him, such as David Segal, the executive director of US organisation Demand Progress, say they have little doubt he would be “on the front lines fighting against a world in which governments observe, collect, and analyze our every digital action”.
In 2012, Swartz was one of the guiding lights of the movement against a pair of US laws, SOPA and PIPA, which threatened to damage the legal underpinning of the internet, by potentially blocking access to any site which hosted user generated content. That campaign saw sites like Wikipedia and Reddit black out their pages for a day in protest.
Two years on, the community is reunited. February 11 has become “the Day We Fight Back”.
In the UK, the protest was launched at 11:30 with a thunderclap, a mass call on social media for wider opposition to spying. That opening strike was supported by users including Owen Jones, Graham Linehan, and Tom Watson MP, and was organised in co-operation with a range of civil liberties organisations including Liberty, English PEN, Privacy International, Article 19 and Big Brother Watch.
The groups have together launched the Don’t Spy On Us campaign, calling on internet users across the UK to support a six-point manifesto attempting to mitigate the damage caused by GCHQ’s surveillance. Demands include no surveillance without suspicion, an end to secret laws, a requirement for a right to redress, and judicial rather than political authorisation for spying.
The Fight Back campaign has garnered 120,000 signatures already, as well as 12,000 phone calls to elected officials. In Britain, it looks set to begin a conversation which has been long overdue, addressing directly the question of what the surveillance agencies can and can’t do.
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