A year ago, on January 11, 2012, 26-year-old internet activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide while facing up to 35 years in prison and up to $1 million in fines. Charges against him included violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) as a result of “unauthorized access” for downloading millions of academic articles while on MIT’s network. On this first anniversary of his death, a reinvigorated call to action is taking place. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has launched a “Remembering Aaron” campaign and is reactivating efforts to reform the CFAA, activists are invoking his name for an upcoming day of action against NSA surveillance, “The Day We Fight Back” to be held on February 11, lawmakers are demanding answers from the Justice Department treatment of Swartz, and a host of articles and other tributes are appearing across the internet.
The EFF’s Remembering Aaron campaign includes a tribute to Swartz’s legacy and kicks off a month of action against censorship and surveillance, toward open access. The EFF is reinvigorating efforts to reform the CFAA, encouraging supporters to send a letter to their legislative representatives that criticizes the law for its “vague language” and “heavy-handed penalties,” and its disregard for demonstrating whether an act was done to further the public good. The letter calls for: “three critical fixes: first, terms of service violations must not be considered crimes. Second, if a user is allowed to access information, it should not be a crime to access that data in a new or innovative way — which means commonplace computing techniques that protect privacy or help test security cannot be illegal. And finally, penalties must be made proportionate to offenses: minor violations should be met with minor penalties.”
In addition to calls to change the CFAA, activists are also calling a protest against laws and systems that enable government surveillance to run unchecked. Specifically, a mass movement against government surveillance is being organized by a heavy-hitting group of organizations including EFF; the organization Swartz co-founded, Demand Progress; Fight for the Future; Reddit; and Mozilla. Organized for February 11, 2014, “The Day We Fight Back Against Mass Surveillance” invokes Swartz’s legacy in its call for a day of mass protest against government surveillance: “If Aaron were alive, he’d be on the front lines, fighting against a world in which governments observe, collect, and analyze our every digital action.” In a show of support for the planned protest, on the day before the year anniversary of Swartz’s death, Anonymous defaced MIT’s SSL-enabled Cogeneration Project page, displaying a page that called viewers to “Remember the day we fight back.”
In addition to reinvigorating the fight against laws that are abusive and can be easily abused, the key players in Swartz’s prosecution are also coming under scrutiny: the DOJ and MIT. On Friday January 10, a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers, Sens. John Cornyn, R-Texas; Ron Wyden, D-Ore.; Jeff Flake, R-Ariz.; and Reps. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.; James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis.; Alan Grayson, D-Fla.; Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif.; and Jared Polis, D-Colo, sent Attorney General Eric Holder a letter calling out inconsistencies between the DOJ’s and MIT’s reports and the DOJ’s lack of forthrightness and transparency. Additionally, the letter issues this demand: “In March, you testified that Mr. Swartz’s case was ‘a good use of prosecutorial discretion.’ We respectfully disagree. We hope your response to this letter is fulsome, which would help re-build confidence about the willingness of the Department to examine itself where prosecutorial conduct is concerned.” In Boston Magazine’s Losing Aaron, Bob Swartz, Aaron’s father, voices his deep disappointment in MIT and articulates specific ways in which he believes the institution was complicit in the DOJ’s draconian prosecution contributing to Aaron’s suicide.
Additional tributes to Swartz this month include a documentary by Brian Knappenberger, The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz, which will play at the Sundance Film Festival beginning this week. In Wired Magazine’s article, One Year Later, Web Legends Honor Aaron Swartz, author Angela Watercutter notes “Swartz’s fight for rights online has only been brought more intensely into focus in the year since his death, largely due to NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. To see him talk about government spying in [Knappenberger’s] documentary at a time before the Snowden leaks is especially chilling now.” Further, in Knappenberger’s forthcoming documentary web visionaries, including founders of the World Wide Web and Creative Commons, speak of Swartz’s work and legacy:
“I think Aaron was trying to make the world work – he was trying to fix it… he was a bit ahead of his time.” – Tim Berners-Lee.
“He was just doing what he thought was right to produce a world that was better.” – Lawrence Lessig