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Speak Up, Speak Out, and Think Bigger: Honoring Aaron Swartz

BY Jessica McKenzie | Friday, January 10 2014

Brooklyn, New York (Flickr/Timothy Krause)

Tomorrow, January 11, 2014, marks the one year anniversary of Internet activist Aaron Swartz's tragic death. Since then, activists and programmers around the world have met and worked together at hackathons in his name and an award has been created in his memory. Tomorrow, activists led by Lawrence Lessig will march across New Hampshire to protest the campaign finance system, a cause Swartz encouraged Lessig to take up. But, Swartz's father is still waiting for an apology from MIT for their hypocritical approach to the prosecution of Swartz and a prominent senator is pushing to expand the cybercrime law prosecutors used to come down hard on Swartz. One year later, where are we?

Feeling a bit lost, perhaps. Lawrence Lessig writes in The Atlantic: “A year ago tomorrow, Aaron Swartz left. He had wound us all up, pointed us in a million directions, we were all working as hard as we could, moving things forward. And then he was gone.”

In spite of his loss, and in spite of his pain, Lessig has chosen to mark the anniversary by launching a crusade to reform the campaign finance system and end a system of corruption in Washington, D.C. It is an appropriately large and ambitious campaign with which to honor Swartz, with an outsized name to go with it: The New Hampshire Rebellion.

Lessig explains:

Fifteen years after New Hampshire's Doris Haddock (aka “Granny D”), at age 88, began her famous walk from Los Angeles to D.C. with the sign "campaign finance reform" on her chest, a dozen or so of us will start to walk in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, the place the first 2016 presidential ballots will be cast. For two weeks, with more than 100 joining us along the way, we will walk south across New Hampshire, ending up in Nashua on January 24, the day Granny D was born.

It will be Lessig's first, but not last, march to raise awareness and hope in New Hampshire voters:

Since Aaron convinced me to take up this cause, I’ve written three books and given more than 300 lectures about the problem. But the walk across New Hampshire is not a lecture tour. It is a chance for all of us to talk about this issue, person to person, one citizen at a time. Most politicos believe it is not possible to convince ordinary voters to care about this issue. I believe these experts are wrong. Over the next two weeks, and twice more before the 2016 primary, as we walk across the state, we’ll see. And I will report back.

Meanwhile, activist groups, technology companies, and websites have formed a united force to protest the NSA's surveillance policies and practices. Together they have organized The Day We Fight Back, which will take place on February 11. The protest will be a nod to the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act two years ago, a campaign Swartz helped to organize.

"Aaron showed us that being a technologist in the 21st century means taking action to prevent technology from being turned against the public interest,” said Roy Singham, Chairman of ThoughtWorks, one of the participating technology companies. “The time is now for the global tribe of technologists to rise up together and defeat mass surveillance."

At the New York City Aaron Swartz Hackathon I attended last November, on what would have been Swartz's 27th birthday, there was a lot of discussion on how to honor and work in Swartz's memory without turning him into a martyr. Jason Scott, archivist at the Internet Archive and friend of Swartz, pointed out that many in the open source, open government activism world share his passion and abilities.

“There was a real sense,” Scott said, “for the first few days [after Swartz's death] of 'Now we're screwed, never going to have another person like this' but the fact is there's a spirit he was part of and so part of these things is to bring that spirit back and to keep it alive.”

In that vein of thinking, Demand Progress (an organization founded by Swartz), with several of Aaron Swartz's friends and colleagues, have begun an award in Swartz's memory:

Aaron Swartz was an activist, technologist, and innovator. He revolutionized the Internet and fearlessly defended our freedoms, taking on some of our country's biggest institutions. This award recognizes artists, activists, technologists, and academics who uphold Aaron's ideals and fighting spirit by taking on entrenched power to protect freedom, advocate for justice, and bring about true progress.

Nominations are open to anyone, and the award committee will announce recipients by early spring.

In spite of the best intentions, however, these nascent campaigns organized in Swartz's memory offer small comfort to those who loved him best, like his father, Bob Swartz. He opened up to Boston Magazine about his loss and the “neutrality” of MIT that fell just short of cooperation with the prosecution. The result is a detailed portrait of an institution with double standards for hackers.

Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT's Media Lab Center of Civic Media, brilliantly sums up the conflict:

MIT has long prided itself on creating a space for experimentation, including experimentation that involves bending or breaking rules...This is a university that’s internationally known for student pranks like putting a police car on the dome. One of the first questions, I think, is: Does this only apply when you’re having fun? Or does this apply when you’re engaged in politics or social change?

Meanwhile, Senator Patricky Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, is trying to introduce legislation that would broaden the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a law used against Swartz. If passed, attempted hacking would be considered as serious an offense as successful hacking, incurring up to a five year sentence in addition to fines (and repeat offenses receiving up to 10 years apiece).

This is not exactly the direction activists, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Bob Swartz, called for when they demanded a reform of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. In a “2013 in Review” post, the EFF points out other problematic instances in which people were prosecuted under the overly broad CFAA.

Proposed “common sense” changes to the CFAA, in the form of a bipartisan bill called “Aaron's Law,” will hopefully be presented in Congress this year.

I suppose it is long past the time to be talking New Year resolutions, but I'll leave you with a suggestion anyway. In Swartz's own words: "Think bigger."