Share this: Programmer and political activist Aaron Swartz addresses a rally in Manhattan to oppose Internet piracy legislation.
For Aaron Swartz, sharing files on the Internet isn’t just fun and profitable. It’s existential.
The 25-year-old programmer faces criminal charges that he hacked into MIT’s computer system and downloaded 4.8 million journal articles with the intent of posting them online. He pleaded not guilty, but according to a manifesto he penned in 2008 it is precisely such acts of online civil disobedience that are needed to bring rampant Internet file sharing “into the light” and challenge “unjust laws.”
Even before his arrest, Swartz was known for his contributions to the code that runs the Internet—as a teenager, he coauthored the RSS 1.0 specification, which organizes news feeds online. He also helped create the website Reddit, a site for sharing news, ideas, and photos that now logs two billion page views per month.
The hacking case has helped turn Swartz into a political symbol for a generation of young people for whom downloading, re-mixing, and sharing files on the Internet is second nature, even if it sometimes violates copyright laws. While his ideology may seem extreme—he wrote in his manifesto that “we need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world”—his point is that such behavior is already widespread and mostly benefits society.
The tension between Internet sharing and copyright law erupted again this January over the Stop Online Piracy Act, also called SOPA, a bill that would have made it easier for Hollywood studios to shut down websites that stream pirated movies, including by preventing search engines from linking to them. The legislation could have affected many Internet sites, including YouTube, news aggregators, and thousands of others where users regularly upload copyrighted text and images.
The bill was shelved after it became the subject of a massive publicity campaign by Internet companies and activists—during one day in January, websites including Wikipedia went dark in protest. Not surprisingly, Swartz had something to do with the Internet protests. During the very week in September 2010 that prosecutors say he was siphoning the JSTOR database into a laptop hidden in a campus network closet, Swartz was also circulating the first online petition to raise awareness of the controversial anti-piracy law.
Technology Review business editor Antonio Regalado interviewed Swartz via telephone. His lawyer, Martin Weinberg, allowed Swartz to be interviewed on the condition that he would not discuss his pending criminal case or his 2008 manifesto.
TR: What role did you play in the fight to stop SOPA?
Swartz: I first heard of the bill shortly after it was introduced in September 2010—back then it was called something else. They kept changing the name. I heard about it and quickly put together a website, which ended up becoming Demand Progress, to try to make people aware of the issues. Their plan was to rush it through a vote before anyone could have a chance to raise any objections.
Very quickly our protest started going viral. Several hundred thousand people signed the petition, and the vote was delayed. And that began this long fight. Since then, my engagement has been on and off. I’ve had other things to do but have tried to be a catalyst at key moments. The main thing was the incredible community building. That was basically what stopped it in the end.
Why were you opposed to the legislation?
The bill would provide censorship for the Internet, which is something that not only doesn’t exist in the U.S. but previously had been seen as kind of crazy. That was the kind of thing you have in China or Iran. In a country with a First Amendment, I never would have expected the government would be going around deciding which websites Americans are allowed to see.
One problem was a due-process issue. If there is a crime, you find the person who’s responsible, you bring them to court, you have a trial, and you hear evidence. If they’re convicted, then they’re convicted. But under SOPA, there was no adversarial trial, just an ex parte hearing before a judge. To shut down a website, you didn’t even have to show evidence that they had committed a crime—only that it looked like there was copyrighted material there.
What are the lessons businesspeople should draw from the fight over copyright enforcement?
I think it’s often been portrayed as artists versus pirates. That isn’t accurate at all. The recording industry and movie industry are infamous for stealing money from artists. I mean, the phrase “Hollywood accounting” is a cliché. And one of the ways that artists have managed to escape that is by going directly to their fans on the Internet. That’s very threatening to these middlemen who have been stealing some of the money. I think a big reason the movie studios want to have more control over the Internet is to shut it down as an alternative distribution mechanism, to put it back in the bottle and go back to the old ways where they can take their cut.