Aaron Swartz on the Fight for Internet Freedom
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
Cyber activist and computer programmer Aaron Swartz took his life on Friday at the age of 26. We air an address of Swartz’s from last May where he speaks about the battle to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act, orSOPA — a campaign he helped lead. "[SOPA] will have yet another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: The enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared," Swartz said. "Next time they might just win. Let’s not let that happen."
AARON SWARTZ: So, for me, it all started with a phone call. It was September—not last year, but the year before that, September 2010. And I got a phone call from my friend Peter. "Aaron," he said, "there’s an amazing bill that you have to take a look at." "What is it?" I said. "It’s called COICA, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeiting Act." "But, Peter," I said, "I don’t care about copyright law. Maybe you’re right. Maybe Hollywood is right. But either way, what’s the big deal? I’m not going to waste my life fighting over a little issue like copyright. Healthcare, financial reform—those are the issues that I work on, not something obscure like copyright law." I could hear Peter grumbling in the background. "Look, I don’t have time to argue with you," he said, "but it doesn’t matter for right now, because this isn’t a bill about copyright." "It’s not?" "No," he said. "It’s a bill about the freedom to connect." Now I was listening.
Peter explained what you’ve all probably long since learned, that this bill would let the government devise a list of websites that Americans weren’t allowed to visit. On the next day, I came up with lots of ways to try to explain this to people. I said it was a great firewall of America. I said it was an Internet black list. I said it was online censorship. But I think it’s worth taking a step back, putting aside all the rhetoric and just thinking for a moment about how radical this bill really was. Sure, there are lots of times when the government makes rules about speech. If you slander a private figure, if you buy a television ad that lies to people, if you have a wild party that plays booming music all night, in all these cases, the government can come stop you. But this was something radically different. It wasn’t the government went to people and asked them to take down particular material that was illegal; it shut down whole websites. Essentially, it stopped Americans from communicating entirely with certain groups. There’s nothing really like it in U.S. law. If you play loud music all night, the government doesn’t slap you with an order requiring you be mute for the next couple weeks. They don’t say nobody can make any more noise inside your house. There’s a specific complaint, which they ask you to specifically remedy, and then your life goes on.
The closest example I could find was a case where the government was at war with an adult bookstore. The place kept selling pornography; the government kept getting the porn declared illegal. And then, frustrated, they decided to shut the whole bookstore down. But even that was eventually declared unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment.
So, you might say, surely COICA would get declared unconstitutional, as well. But I knew that the Supreme Court had a blind spot around the First Amendment, more than anything else, more than slander or libel, more than pornography, more even than child pornography. Their blind spot was copyright. When it came to copyright, it was like the part of the justices’ brains shut off, and they just totally forgot about the First Amendment. You got the sense that, deep down, they didn’t even think the First Amendment applied when copyright was at issue, which means that if you did want to censor the Internet, if you wanted to come up with some way that the government could shut down access to particular websites, this bill might be the only way to do it. If it was about pornography, it probably would get overturned by courts, just like the adult bookstore case. But if you claimed it was about copyright, it might just sneak through.