Aaron Swartz and Anonymous in "The Good Wife"
BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, April 16 2013
Mass media imitated life in a new way last weekend, as an episode of CBS's The Good Wife invoked the memory of the late, troubled programmer Aaron Swartz as it explored the lines between Anonymous, Internet activism and idealism.
The Good Wife has already drawn attention for its writers' tendency to use recent events as material. The episode, which first aired Sunday, also evoked Steubenville rape case and that of a Kentucky teenager who was charged in 2012 for naming her alleged attackers on Twitter.
In the episode, the law firm Lockhart Gardner represents a teenager in a civil trial against a classmate she has accused of rape. But the case runs into trouble when the judge sends the girl to jail for accusing the boy of rape on Twitter, violating a gag order and refusing to apologize.
Main character Alicia Florrick, played by Julianna Margulies, finds out about the setback when she is about to meet with another client of the firm, Dylan Stack, an information rights lawyer. Stack sought the firm's help in a previous episode, when the U.S. Treasury was pressuring him to reveal the identity of his client, the anonymous creator of Bitcoin, leading to courtroom debate over whether Bitcoin is a currency or a commodity.
As they discuss the ins and outs of their cases, their dialogue turns to Swartz:
STACK: "Speaking of idealism ... do you know who Aaron Swartz is?"
FLORRICK: "The computer activist, who died ..."
STACK: "The computer activist who committed suicide after an unrelenting campaign from federal prosecutors to imprison him."
FLORRICK: "Of course."
STACK: "In his memory, I'm attempting to organize a class action against prosecutorial overcharging."
Stack wants Lockhart Gardner to join the class action, but Alicia notes her partners are skeptical of getting involved in "causes for causes' sake." Stack responds by placing wads of cash on the table, as he is wont to do.
As Alicia promises to run the case by her partners, with her recommendation, Stack gets interested in her ongoing case, which he senses the firm is losing. Soon, Alicia's children are receiving online messages from anonymous sources with incriminating videos and pictures of the defendants. But the judge is unwilling to accept the evidence because it appears to have been illegally obtained — by hacking phones belonging to the defendant and the defendant's friend, who thought they had permanently deleted the material. Alicia soon connects the messages to Stack, who admits that he mentioned the case to "friends" of his, hackers associated with Anonymous.
"The police don't know how to hack for it," he tells her. "My friends do."
Anonymous members begin to try more directly to help, and eventually emerge in the courtroom, wearing masks and yelling, "Justice for Rainey Selwyn." They then go public with a typical over-the-top Anonymous-style online accusation video linking that case with footage of protests and violence around the world. The video includes the incriminating footage from earlier, criticizes the judge for rejecting the evidence, and reveals the home addresses of the defendant and his friend.
Meanwhile, Stack is becoming a problematic client for possible Supreme Court nominee Diane Lockhart. An official vetting her for a possible nomination by future Governor Peter Florrick expresses concern that he "advocates the overthrow of government."
This is not the first time that The Good Wife has taken on online activism and impact of technology on public life and politics.
Emily Nussbaum wrote last year in the New Yorker how the show "became the first great series about technology." She explained:
This [previous] season alone, Lockhart Gardner took a case involving the online currency bitcoin; used Twitter to upend British libel laws; handled a military case involving drone warfare; litigated crimes featuring violent video games and a “date rape” app; and dealt with various leaked-image disasters (a corporation fighting a viral video, an Anthony Weiner-like dirty photograph). In one dizzyingly self-reflective story line, a Zuckerbergian entrepreneur sued a Sorkinesque screenwriter; the episode had a confident structural wit, subjecting a writer who defended distorted portrayals to his own distorted portrayal. Over time, such plots have become a dense, provocative dialectic, one that weighs technology’s freedoms against its dangers, with a global sweep and an insider’s nuance. In this quality, “The Good Wife” stands in contrast not merely to other legal shows, with their “The Internet killed him!” plots, but also to the reductive punditry of the mainstream media, so obsessed with whether Twitter is making us stupid. Put bluntly, “The Good Wife” is to the digital debate as “The Wire” is to the drug war.
Other previous episodes, such as Live from Damascus, explored the responsibility of technology companies when their tools are used against activists in authoritarian countries, while another one, The Great Firewall, focused on an Internet company revealing a dissident's identity in China. This season's opener focused on accusations of illegal police conduct recording leveled against Alicia's son. Law firm partner Will Gardner finds himself in trouble after another case against a search engine company results prompts queries for his name to bring up the suggestion: "Did you mean Will Gardner disbarred lawyer?”
Early on in the series, Alicia's daughter was tracking news of their father's scandal via Google Alerts. Since then, the Florrick campaign has confronted trackers, merciless bloggers, and viral videos by self-proclaimed campaign supporters that are not always in the candidate's interest.
Whether or not Lockhart Gardner ever does take on that specific class action, the technology focus and modern politics focus of The Good Wife, recently renewed for a fifth season, looks likely to continue. The next-to-last episode this Sunday will include a plot line, involving, among other things, a case about software coders in a contract dispute. The season finale, focusing on election night in the show's gubernatorial race, will include emergency court deliberations after Alicia's son claims to have witnessed vote tampering, and an appearance by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as himself.
The full episode is available here for the next several weeks.