Aaron Swartz on the Fight for Internet Freedom
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But this time, it was going to happen. And it wasn’t because there were no disagreements on the issue. There are always disagreements. Some senators thought the bill was much too weak and needed to be stronger: As it was introduced, the bill only allowed the government to shut down websites, and these senators, they wanted any company in the world to have the power to get a website shut down. Other senators thought it was a drop too strong. But somehow, in the kind of thing you never see in Washington, they had all managed to put their personal differences aside to come together and support one bill they were persuaded they could all live with: a bill that would censor the Internet. And when I saw this, I realized: Whoever was behind this was good.
Now, the typical way you make good things happen in Washington is you find a bunch of wealthy companies who agree with you. Social Security didn’t get passed because some brave politicians decided their good conscience couldn’t possibly let old people die starving in the streets. I mean, are you kidding me? Social Security got passed because John D. Rockefeller was sick of having to take money out of his profits to pay for his workers’ pension funds. Why do that, when you can just let the government take money from the workers? Now, my point is not that Social Security is a bad thing—I think it’s fantastic. It’s just that the way you get the government to do fantastic things is you find a big company willing to back them. The problem is, of course, that big companies aren’t really huge fans of civil liberties. You know, it’s not that they’re against them; it’s just there’s not much money in it.
Now, if you’ve been reading the press, you probably didn’t hear this part of the story. As Hollywood has been telling it, the great, good copyright bill they were pushing was stopped by the evil Internet companies who make millions of dollars off of copyright infringement. But it just—it really wasn’t true. I mean, I was in there, in the meetings with the Internet companies—actually probably all here today. And, you know, if all their profits depended on copyright infringement, they would have put a lot more money into changing copyright law. The fact is, the big Internet companies, they would do just fine if this bill passed. I mean, they wouldn’t be thrilled about it, but I doubt they would even have a noticeable dip in their stock price. So they were against it, but they were against it, like the rest of us, on grounds primarily of principle. And principle doesn’t have a lot of money in the budget to spend on lobbyists. So they were practical about it. "Look," they said, "this bill is going to pass. In fact, it’s probably going to pass unanimously. As much as we try, this is not a train we’re going to be able to stop. So, we’re not going to support it—we couldn’t support it. But in opposition, let’s just try and make it better." So that was the strategy: lobby to make the bill better. They had lists of changes that would make the bill less obnoxious or less expensive for them, or whatever. But the fact remained at the end of the day, it was going to be a bill that was going to censor the Internet, and there was nothing we could do to stop it.
So I did what you always do when you’re a little guy facing a terrible future with long odds and little hope of success: I started an online petition. I called all my friends, and we stayed up all night setting up a website for this new group, Demand Progress, with an online petition opposing this noxious bill, and I sent it to a few friends. Now, I’ve done a few online petitions before. I’ve worked at some of the biggest groups in the world that do online petitions. I’ve written a ton of them and read even more. But I’ve never seen anything like this. Starting from literally nothing, we went to 10,000 signers, then 100,000 signers, and then 200,000 signers and 300,000 signers, in just a couple of weeks. And it wasn’t just signing a name. We asked those people to call Congress, to call urgently. There was a vote coming up this week, in just a couple days, and we had to stop it. And at the same time, we told the press about it, about this incredible online petition that was taking off. And we met with the staff of members of Congress and pleaded with them to withdraw their support for the bill. I mean, it was amazing. It was huge. The power of the Internet rose up in force against this bill. And then it passed unanimously.