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Aaron Swartz on the Fight for Internet Freedom

Cyber activist Aaron Swartz took his life on Friday. We air an address of Swartz’s from last May where he speaks about the battle to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act.

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And that was especially terrifying, because, as you know, because copyright is everywhere. If you want to shut down WikiLeaks, it’s a bit of a stretch to claim that you’re doing it because they have too much pornography, but it’s not hard at all to claim that WikiLeaks is violating copyright, because everything is copyrighted. This speech, you know, the thing I’m giving right now, these words are copyrighted. And it’s so easy to accidentally copy something, so easy, in fact, that the leading Republican supporter of COICA, Orrin Hatch, had illegally copied a bunch of code into his own Senate website. So if even Orrin Hatch’s Senate website was found to be violating copyright law, what’s the chance that they wouldn’t find something they could pin on any of us?

There’s a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading a webpage over and over again like a peaceful virtual sit-in or a violent smashing of shop windows? Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech or like the freedom to murder?

This bill would be a huge, potentially permanent, loss. If we lost the ability to communicate with each other over the Internet, it would be a change to the Bill of Rights. The freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution, the freedoms our country had been built on, would be suddenly deleted. New technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we had always taken for granted. And I realized that day, talking to Peter, that I couldn’t let that happen.

But it was going to happen. The bill, COICA, was introduced on September 20th, 2010, a Monday, and in the press release heralding the introduction of this bill, way at the bottom, it was scheduled for a vote on September 23rd, just three days later. And while, of course, there had to be a vote—you can’t pass a bill without a vote—the results of that vote were already a foregone conclusion, because if you looked at the introduction of the law, it wasn’t just introduced by one rogue eccentric member of Congress; it was introduced by the chair of the Judiciary Committee and co-sponsored by nearly all the other members, Republicans and Democrats. So, yes, there’d be a vote, but it wouldn’t be much of a surprise, because nearly everyone who was voting had signed their name to the bill before it was even introduced.

Now, I can’t stress how unusual this is. This is emphatically not how Congress works. I’m not talking about how Congress should work, the way you see on Schoolhouse Rock. I mean, this is not the way Congress actually works. I mean, I think we all know Congress is a dead zone of deadlock and dysfunction. There are months of debates and horse trading and hearings and stall tactics. I mean, you know, first you’re supposed to announce that you’re going to hold hearings on a problem, and then days of experts talking about the issue, and then you propose a possible solution, you bring the experts back for their thoughts on that, and then other members have different solutions, and they propose those, and you spend of bunch of time debating, and there’s a bunch of trading, they get members over to your cause. And finally, you spend hours talking one on one with the different people in the debate, try and come back with some sort of compromise, which you hash out in endless backroom meetings. And then, when that’s all done, you take that, and you go through it line by line in public to see if anyone has any objections or wants to make any changes. And then you have the vote. It’s a painful, arduous process. You don’t just introduce a bill on Monday and then pass it unanimously a couple days later. That just doesn’t happen in Congress.

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