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Aaron Swartz Hacks the Attention Economy

A digital guerrilla fighter explains what’s wrong with anti-piracy laws, why the Internet and copyright law don’t get along, and how he got into politics.
February 10, 2012

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. 

Can you think of anyone in the movie industry making the transition to the Internet way of doing things?

The Hollywood unions were in favor of SOPA, but one was against it, and that was the Writer’s Guild of America. During the writers’ strike a couple of years ago, all these writers took that time off from working on Hollywood films to start making things directly for the Internet. There was this explosion of “I might as well make TV shows” and “I might as well make short films.” That raised a lot of writers’ profiles and built them an audience independent of the studios. The strike helped them understand the value of the Internet, and I’m hoping that they can explain it to the rest of Hollywood.

Do you think there is a clash of generations on the Internet?

There was this big hearing on SOPA where a whole bunch of members of Congress basically admitted they didn’t really understand how this Internet thing works and they didn’t personally use the Internet. Their staff had to explain it to them. I think for a lot of young people that was like, you know—that was ridiculous, right?

So there was outrage that the Internet was being regulated by people who didn’t even know how to use it. If you use YouTube and Facebook on a regular basis, you realize why it’s not okay to require these companies to have people reading every post, every video that goes up. It’s totally comprehensible to a young person that there could be a website with a handful of employees that receives 24 hours of video each minute. Whereas I think members of Congress come from an era where … well, there’s no movie studio that produces 24 hours of footage a minute, right? To them, it’s totally reasonable that a studio has to watch every movie that they make and get it approved by certain people.

The Internet is a crucial part of young people’s lives; it’s the place you hang out with your friends, the place you get your news. What struck a chord was this notion that it could be taken away. That basic Internet companies like YouTube could be taken down and outlawed without even having been found guilty of any crime.

That sounds a bit exaggerated. Is “Save the Internet” becoming like abortion or gun control—a way to rally people on an emotional, irrational level?

To back up the specific point, the way the bill was written originally, any site with a significant amount of infringing content would be subject to a takedown order. The government was always like, “We’d never go after YouTube.” And that’s probably right. YouTube is probably too big and powerful a company at this point. But it’s very easy to believe that when YouTube was just starting, they could have gotten shut down and it would never have grown to the point where it is now. It would have been snuffed out as an infant.

The movie studios complained it wasn’t a fair fight, because companies that control Internet sites actually used those media to fight the bill. Any thoughts?

This is what used to be called public relations, right? Propaganda. The difference now is that groups of everyday citizens can do it. I think that’s a big part of what we saw with the fight over SOPA. It was not about legal strategy or lobbyists. It was about how do we use these techniques to get people’s attention? Wikipedia went dark for a day, Tumblr asked all their bloggers to phone Congress—I think they had over 86,000 calls that one day. There was a guy who built a tool that would automatically dial each member of Congress and the head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). If you wanted to inform everybody of your position, he could do it with a couple of clicks. What’s different about this fight is that a whole community took up the banner and tried to raise attention, and that it’s all organized over the Internet.

What can you tell me about your upbringing?

I grew up in a Chicago suburb—you know, pretty lonely. There wasn’t a city. There weren’t a lot of people around, and so I ended up making a lot of friends on the Internet and getting involved. I learned to program and when I was in sixth or seventh grade got involved in building Web standards and began working with Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the Web.

I really got to see the thing from the inside and understand how the technology works. After that I went on to found Reddit, which is an online news website that would have been threatened by these bills. It was clear to me that no one else was going to be able to see or explain these issues the way I was—to understand how it affected technology, how it would affect business, and also to have some idea of a way to stop it politically.

Are your beliefs shaped by the Internet itself, by things you read there? What were the strongest influences?

It’s a little hard to put a finger on what one’s influences were. My parents aren’t particularly political. I would say they’re slightly left of center. My dad was a software entrepreneur, so that’s why we had the Internet very early on. I had a computer since the day I was born. It was a part of my life growing up. Over the dinner table we had a culture discussion and debate. I came from a family that prided itself on talking and taking different positions because it forces people to think.

When I surfed on the Internet, and even to this day, the technology community has a very techno-libertarian view: “If we just get the government out of the way and let everyone write software, everything will be fine.” I read a lot of that, but I was never persuaded by it. I’m pretty far from being a libertarian. More than anything, it’s a personality quirk of mine of just having an incredible sense of empathy for people. I knew I needed to help people. I think the technology community often lacks a sense of empathy.

Do you feel any empathy toward the Hollywood middlemen the Internet is putting out of business?

I know it’s got to be hard, and I’m totally empathetic for them as people. But empathy has to be tempered with a sense of perspective about doing the most good for the most people. It’s a logic that says, okay, yes, there is a handful of rich people who are going to be hurt, and that’s unfortunate. I think the Internet is the thing that is going to change their industry, and it’s a little too late to stop the Internet now.

What are your goals for 2012 and beyond?

We’ve seen this enormous sense among people that they are capable of making a difference over the Internet. I think that feeling of collective efficacy is incredibly powerful. What I am doing now is I’m exploring different ways to capitalize on that with social structures and technological tools to help people organize.

The rest of my life is to figure out what can be built to give people ways to change the way their lives are structured. I think there’s a consensus for most people everywhere in the world about the way they want things to be. They want climate change to end, they want people lifted out of poverty, and they want to stop corruption. And I think the Internet provides a way to make this happen.

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