For Our Information: Politicians Need To Let Go
By Suelette DreyfusJanuary 18, 2013
Last May Swartz recalled being introduced to a United States senator (he did not name the lawmaker) who was one of the strongest advocates of the proposed Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) legislation, later transformed into the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This bill would effectively have broken the internet as we know it today, by forcing search engines, internet service providers, advertising networks and payment facilities to ban access to any site deemed a copyright infringer. Yet, paradoxically, this senator was supposedly a great progressive, who gave speeches about the importance of civil liberties. Swartz asked the senator why he supported such a bill.
The senator morphed before his very eyes, Swartz told the audience at the Freedom to Connect. The “politician smile” drained away from his face, his eyes began to burn a “fiery red” and the senator began shouting at Swartz, “THOSE PEOPLE ON THE INTERNET!”
“They think they can get away with anything!” he yelled. “They think they can just put anything up there! They put up everything! They put up our nuclear missiles! And they just laugh at us!”
But revenge was at hand for the good senator. He continued to sizzle at Swartz, “Well, we’re going to show them. There’s got to be laws on the internet. It’s got to be under control.”
No one has ever put US nuclear missile secrets on the internet, Swartz pointed out. But the senator’s example was useful in its absurdity. As Swartz told the story, “It was this irrational fear that things were out of control. Here was this man, a United States senator! And ‘those people on the internet’, they were just mocking him! They had to be brought under control. Things had to be under control.”
This is the desire of so many politicians and senior bureaucrats, certainly not just in the United States — to be able to exercise control.
About 18 months ago, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) boss David Irvine gave a speech to the Security in Government conference warning of the risks of “rampant use of the internet”. He cautioned that people were absorbing “unfettered ideas and information”. The Twittersphere had a field day with that one.
Irvine’s point was that the “democratisation of information” — yes, he called it that — was a risk. It might lead people to be “radicalised” right at home, “in their lounge rooms”. The implication is the same as the American senator’s: unfettered and out of control. Therefore they are dangerous.
This view is not unique to spy agencies. The current Australian communications minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, much like one of his Liberal predecessors, Richard Alston, supported an ill-hatched scheme to censor the internet in Australia. The proposal was daintily dressed up as a “filter” scheme, which may have sounded innocuous enough, as if it were some new Italian coffee maker. But the reality is that, although he may be the senator for national broadband, Conroy will probably go down in history as the guy who wanted to shut down internet freedom in Australia. No matter how many other good policies he puts in place, he will never be the hero that Aaron Swartz has become, for one simple reason. That is, when it came to the crunch, Conroy’s instincts were toward control, not freedom.
Those “people on the internet” are not space invaders, they are us. When politicians and prosecutors spy on peaceful internet protesters, critics, and those who generally take the mickey out of the powerful, they are attacking our democratic freedoms.
There is a widening gulf between what the citizenry has shown it wants — freedom on the internet — and what many who walk the corridors of power nonetheless think we should have — restrictions and censorship.
Swartz described his encounter with the US senator-cum-Terminator to illustrate how a lawmaker could lose all rationality when confronted by the internet. Rather than acting as an elder statesman carefully weighing trade-offs for the best outcome of society, the senator’s behaviour “was more like the attitude of a tyrant”, Swartz observed.
“So the citizens fought back,” he said. And they won. SOPA, the greatest ever threat to the internet, was not only defeated, it will be forever tainted. SOPA became such a dirty word that now whenever legislators introduce an internet bill in the US Congress they must preface it with how it’s not like SOPA, Swartz said.
This victory of the people against tyranny is one of the best case studies in the young history of this millennium. It is also Aaron Swartz’s legacy. Through the online activist organisation he set up, called Demand Progress, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee which he co-founded, and his work with global campaigners Rootstrikers and Avaaz, he demonstrated this fight could be won — and he showed us how to do it.
In this case, Australia and the US were linked by more than the common problem of politicians who want a tightly controlled internet. It was an Australian who first warned Swartz of the brewing COICA/PIPA/SOPA plot. Peter Eckersley is an Australian who studied at the University of Melbourne and works at the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. His PhD dissertation on copyright bridged the two disciplines of law and computer science, giving him a special lens through which to view camouflaged tyrannical moves like SOPA, a censorship bill dressed up as copyright protection. It was his phone call to Swartz that started this people’s movement in the first place. “This isn’t a bill about copyright,” Eckersley had told Swartz, “It’s a bill about the freedom to connect.” Eckersley explained the bill would let the government make a blacklist of websites that Americans were not allowed to see.
It sounds laughable that anyone could really control the internet. But the truth is that without serendipity (enhanced by the internet) — Eckersley reading the right legislative fine print, Swartz answering the phone call that day, Swartz deciding to take up the cause, and a dozen other bits of good luck along the way — SOPA might have become law.
The US prosecutors have a history of heavy-handed overreach across the globe, as evidenced by the cases of Bradley Manning, Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Andrew ‘Weev’ Auernheimer, Jeremy Hammond, Kim Dotcom, Richard O’Dwyer, Barrett Brown, Gary McKinnon and of course Australian Julian Assange. The operational mode of American prosecutors appears to be simply this: threaten ridiculously draconian penalties to frighten into submission those who would buck control. These penalties cannot be seen as justice.
Aaron Swartz’s suicide has proven the tipping point — the call for the internet to attempt to hold prosecutors to account. More than 42,000 people signed a petition demanding the White House sack US District Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who was responsible for the prosecutors’ handling of the case. A similar petition to fire Stephen Heymann received more than 8,000 signatures in less than a week.
Three days after those petitions went up (and received thousands of supporters), the White House suddenly announced it was raising the threshold from 25,000 to 100,000 signatures before it would have to respond to new petition's demands.
The prosecutors remain unrepentant in the case of Swartz; in their statement yesterday, there was not so much as a word of apology to the family for any way in which their aggressive tactics may have contributed to Aaron’s death. This just shows how far out of touch with community values they have become.
For those who want to keep the freedoms of the internet intact, vigilance is key. There is some reason for optimism, a slow changing of the guard among some in Canberra, if not among our elected representatives. A younger generation is beginning to enlighten the bureaucracy through open government movement organisations such as GovHack and GovCamp. The forward-thinking Australian Capital Territory government is working on the innovative dataACT program, an initiative to publish bundles of government data at a central web portal for the public to access and use online tools to analyse. While still early days, all this marks the very early beginnings of a culture change coming from inside the Australian government itself.
Such changes will inevitably involve some loss of control, and that will be a hard struggle. But politicians and government decision makers on both sides of the Pacific just need to get a grip — and then let go.