This article by activist April Glaser was published by Electronic Frontier Foundation on Aug. 27.
It’s been more than a year since Aaron Swartz’s tragic death, and now Swartz’s life is the subject of a new documentary, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” directed by Brian Knappenberger. The documentary has received much acclaim and deservedly so. It tells the story of a political activist and innovator who put theory into practice, always experimenting and building new tools and methodologies to animate his theory of change.
Swartz fought for an Internet grounded in community, creativity and human rights. By co-creating platforms like RSS, reddit, Creative Commons and the technology that became SecureDrop, he helped make information accessible. Perhaps more than anything, Swartz helped hundreds of thousands of people participate in the political processes that determine the laws we have to live under every day.
There are so many things that Swartz accomplished by the age of 26 that we thought it may help to make a companion for the film, a guide for those who want to watch with a deeper understanding of the issues behind Aaron’s projects.
We begin with the projects discussed in the film and then examine the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the law that was used to indict him on 11 criminal charges before his tragic death.
Creative Commons And The Problem With Copyright
As a teenager, Swartz was a core member on the team of lawyers and copyright wonks that developed Creative Commons, a project that simplifies sharing with easy-to-use copyright licenses. Swartz helped to design the code behind Creative Commons licensing.
Creative Commons was a revolutionary project that remains significant today. It’s a suite of licenses that artists, writers and other creators can use to enable sharing, remixing and collaboration. Online, it’s incredibly easy to copy and paste, to edit, and to share instantaneously. Doing so can sometimes run smack in the face of copyright law, which requires explicit permissions to be granted in advance of sharing or using a creative work in many contexts.
Creative Commons is more compatible with the intensive sharing environment of the Internet. It allows for artists, makers, programmers, writers and everyone in between to only reserve some rights, not all rights. With a Creative Commons license, one can encourage the sharing of her work while still being attributed. One can choose not to allow others to monetize a work, but either invite remixing or block remixing while still encouraging distribution. Knappenberger has made “The Internet’s Own Boy” available under a Creative Commons license, and it can be downloaded and shared for free from the Internet Archive.
Open Access And Open Government
A large part of “The Internet’s Own Boy” traces Swartz’s various projects aimed at furthering the pursuit of information. He wanted to make it easier to learn about the laws that we have to live with every day, as well as ease access to the academic articles that form the building blocks of our knowledge about the world.
“The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals,” reads the Open Access Manifesto, which was written by Swartz and is quoted in the documentary, “is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.”
Swartz started projects like The Open Library, which seeks to make one Web page for every book published (imagine a future where we don’t link to Amazon when directing people to a book). And during his brief stint at Stanford, Swartz worked with a law student to download the entire Westlaw database of law review articles and found troubling connections between funders of research and favorable conclusions.
Swartz’s quest led him to the PACER system, the federal judiciary’s pay-walled public court record database. PACER charges per page to view U.S. court documents that are a matter of public record. Journalists, students, litigants, academics and all kinds of people need access to the details of the litigation that defines our laws in order to do their work. We shouldn’t have to pay to see the law.
Information activists like Carl Malamud have long been critical of PACER. And in 2009, when the system launched a project to allow free PACER access at 17 libraries nationwide, Malamud encouraged patrons to download PACER records and share them on an online repository. Swartz accepted the invitation and wrote a computer program that downloaded 20 million pages of federal court documents. In the process, scores of privacy violations were found in the PACER documents, which revealed Social Security numbers, Secret Service agents’ identities and the like, leading to stricter privacy enforcement in the courts.
For doing that, Swartz became the target of an FBI investigation that was later dropped. But as Malamud remembers in the documentary, “I’ll grant you that downloading 20 million pages had perhaps exceeded the expectations of the people running the pilot access [PACER] project, but surprising a bureaucrat isn’t illegal.”
Swartz played a central role in the fight to stop the censorious Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) that snowballed into the largest online campaign in history. SOPA was a poorly worded bill that would have allowed the Department of Justice to shut down entire Internet domains because content posted on a single website might be infringing copyright — and without a trial.
Swartz co-founded Demand Progress, a digital rights organization that the Electronic Frontier Foundation continues to work with closely today. Demand Progress was instrumental in organizing the grass-roots outcry; Demand Progress boiled down the bill into super simple language and asked that people take a quick action to stop it. Most people in Washington were trying to make slight improvements to a terrible bill, but Demand Progress, along with EFF, Fight for the Future, Public Knowledge and others mounted a campaign to stop it completely.
Wikipedia, Mozilla, Google and countless others blacked out websites and displayed banners over their logos, sending people to a petition to oppose the bill. It worked. SOPA didn’t pass, and today it remains one of the most important chapters in the history of the digital rights movement.
The Computer Fraud And Abuse Act
“There’s no justice in following unjust laws,” reads the Open Access Manifesto penned by Swartz. And an unjust law is exactly what prosecutors used against Swartz, who was charged with 13 criminal counts for downloading millions of articles from an academic journal database, on MIT’s network. An unjust system charged Swartz in a way that would have put him in jail for years (the maximum sentence possible added up to 35 years, yet we realize that would have been an unlikely outcome) for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.
The prosecution of Swartz also reflected profound problems with the criminal justice system far beyond the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), including the incentives for prosecutors to pursue charges as aggressively as possible to try to make a defendant plead guilty.
Eleven of the 13 counts against Swartz were based on the CFAA, a law written in 1984 that makes it a crime to access a computer without “authorization” or in excess of authorized access. But these terms aren’t clear; and the Department of Justice in the past has argued the CFAA makes it a federal crime to violate a website’s terms of service, meaning that something like lying about your age or your height online could be counted as a federal crime.
Framing Aaron’s Law As A Good Start
“The Internet’s Own Boy” points viewers to Aaron’s Law, a bill proposed soon after Swartz’s passing that would partly fix the broken and outdated CFAA. EFF supports Aaron’s Law. If it passed, everyday computer users wouldn’t face criminal liability for violating a terms of service agreement. And Aaron’s Law would protect users who access information in ways that protect their anonymity. But unfortunately, the bill does not go far enough and does not — currently — have widespread support in Congress.
Aaron’s Law, as drafted, wouldn’t have protected Swartz from the excessive penalties mounted against him. The CFAA currently punishes low-level offenses as felonies that, in a saner world, would be classified as misdemeanors. Currently, the CFAA is structured so that the same behavior can often be double-counted as violations of multiple provisions of law, which prosecutors then combine to beef up the potential penalties to an absurd degree. We strongly believe that CFAA reform should eliminate this kind of double-counting.
The Fight Continues
Swartz sought to make the world a better place; he wanted to share access to knowledge and expose corruption. Our movement to defend digital rights is stronger because of him. And we can only imagine how Swartz would have contributed to the fight to protect our rights and expand our freedoms as more people come to depend on an open Internet.
We will continue to fight. Swartz’s story is one worth telling. That’s why we encourage everyone who has seen this documentary to show it to a friend, host a screening at work or on campus and encourage others to watch it.