How to Start an Internet Revolution, in Three Easy Steps

A week after Aaron Swartz's tragic and untimely death, the same collective of Internet activists that helped bring down SOPA are rising up against a new cause. How they might do it all over again.

Jan 18 2013, 11:22pm

The fury's in the air again. Friday marks the one year anniversary of Internet Freedom Day, the culmination of the weeks-long protest against SOPA and PIPA, the potentially-oppressive anti-piracy bills that, to many, symbolized lawmakers' ignorance and arrogance when it came to how the Internet works. It was an amazing thing to watch — 115,000 different websites protesting the measures, 50,000 of which were blacked out completely. At the time, a lot of people wondered where this all came from. How did so many people rally behind this single specific issue, eventually bringing Congress to its knees, leading it to shelve the bills in the face of a seemingly global wave of outrage? And how is it going to happen again?

A week after the tragic and untimely death of Aaron Swartz, who himself rallied against SOPA, the same collective of Internet activists that helped bring down the bills are rising up against a new cause: the outdated anti-hacking laws that landed Swartz in the government's crosshairs. Swartz's suicide, his family says, was the result of overzealous federal prosecutors who threated to send Swartz to jail for 35 years after he used MIT's network to download about 5 million academic articles from JSTOR without permission. While MIT and JSTOR decided not to press charges, the Justice Department threw the book at him in an apparent attempt to make a point about cyber crime. They were also hungry for some media attention, Swartz's lawyer said, and well, they got it. But thanks to the same groups that battled SOPA, those federal prosecutors and the aging Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) upon which they built their case are the new villains in the latest chapter of Internet history.

So what's the secret? How have the advocates of Internet freedom — groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), communities like Reddit, individuals like Larry Lessig — managed to capture the nation's attention once again and bring what had previously been a relatively obscure issue into the mainstream? And how, once again, have they managed to turn that attention into action? This week, Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee, launched an investigation into the federal prosecutors who were after Swartz, and his colleague Rep. Zoe Lofgren, the ranking Democratic on the Oversight Committee, announced on Reddit that she was introducing a set of reforms to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, caling it "Aaron's Law." Lofgren's bill stands to amend meaures that have been in place for nearly three decades. All because the Internet said so.

The Internet freedom movement's recipe for success is actually pretty simple. Whether planned or improvised, they've managed to come up with a way to turn small causes into major crises in three easy steps. This isn't an official strategy, but rather a pattern that's emerged. And it's proved pretty effective.

Step One: Figure Out the Problem

As with many causes in the world, there's a small circle of uniquely committed academics, activists and advocates who have been paying attention to Internet freedom and computer law reform for quite some time. Among the host of nonprofits devoted to these kinds of causes, the EFF is probably the most prominent and action-oriented. Founded in 1990 in San Francisco by John Perry Barlow and others, who were concerned that "America was entering the Information Age with neither laws nor metaphors for the appropriate protection and conveyance of information itself," the group now invests a solid amount of effort not only into spreading awareness about digital rights but also providing people with ways to act on issues that are on their radar. The EFF also employs a small army of lawyers who will mobilize and offer assistance to groups or individuals that run into problems with the authorities over digital rights issues. They defended KaZaa's parent company, for instance, in the landmark Supreme Court case between file-sharing sites and the recording industry.

In the case of file-sharing then and anti-hacking laws now, the EFF and similar organizations had been working on the issue for years before it rose to the greater public's attention. They've also been able to latch on to very specific issues with specific reforms in mind. This is sort of what non-profits do, but unlike other causes, like AIDS research, the issues that the EFF takes on tend to effect most people's lives on a daily basis. (Even if you don't share files, for instance, you probably listen to mp3s.) And so when the time comes, when the right court case pops up, when Congress is considering a new law, the EFF already has reams of research that it can tap into to help educate people on the issue. Their archive of information proved to be crucial in helping people to understand the implications of SOPA and PIPA for instance. And the same is proving true in the burgeoning battle to reform anti-hacking laws.

Leading the charge alongside the EFF is Demand Progress, a group founded by Swartz himself. Originally set up to fight SOPA, Demand Progress is now more broadly committed to progressive causes, but it looks like they're committing all of their efforts to fighting anti-hacking law reform. They've set up a page on their website that details the different ways to join the fight and have thrown their support behind Rep. Lofgren's "Aaron's Law." They're also the ones that got Rep. Issa to open an investigation into the federal prosecutors who bullied Swartz to the extreme.

Step Two: Spread the Word

Internet activists and digital rights advocates aren't much different than other kinds of activists and advocates. They have been uniquely success at breaking down complex legal issues into seemingly simpler problems that have ostensibly simple solutions. I say "seemingly" and "ostensibly" because there's nothing simple about Internet regulation or digital rights. In fact, it's quite complicated and difficult to comprehend fully, but that's where groups like the EFF and, even more, communities like Reddit, come in handy. With the help of some well organized leaders (who refused to be identified as leaders) SOPA opponents were able to send a message that these new anti-piracy laws would open up the doors to government censorship, in a way not unlike the Great Firewall of China. Full stop. This wasn't entirely true, but it made for good press.

Then came the big guns. Facebook, Google, Wikipedia and many other major Internet companies — all companies that would be directly affected by SOPA — banded together in opposition of the proposed law in an unprecedented way. Even if they were unlikely bedfellows with Internet freedom activists, big companies took their cues from the digital rights experts but angled their message around how the legislation would directly affect their users. The messages were direct, to the effect of, "Do you like watching YouTube? If Congress passes SOPA, YouTube videos might go away." The new push to reform anti-hacking laws hasn't quite bubbled up to the corporate level yet, but the well-branded campaign to press Congress into action is happening in a similar manner. People who never knew that the CFAA existed are now bellowing for its reform.

That message, brodly speaking, is that anti-hacking laws are too vague and the punishments are too severe. Swartz's case served as a perfect example and illustrates just how severe the consequence could be. His crime was minor or severe, depending on your reading of the law, but the Justice Department assumed the worst and threatened him with punishment that many have labeled "bullyish." The fear of such severe punishment may have driven Swartz to commit suicide. Call him a victim if you like. Or join the chorus and call him a martyr.

Step Three: Hit the Gas

Just to a quick recap of the recipe so far: First, you have to identify a very specific cause that has a clear solution or at least an actionable problem. Examples include stopping a law from being passed and pressuring Congress into reforming an existing law. Then, you package the cause into a powerful message that everyone can comprehend and that makes everyone feel affected. For SOPA, it was the threat of government censorship. For anti-hacking laws, it's the danger of committing a felony without even realizing it. "Aaron Swartz wasn't a hacker like those crazy Anonymous types, so what if the government thinks I'm a hacker because I violated some terms of service somewhere," you might think. Where the terms of using the Internet aren't clear, everyone should be concerned.

The next thing to do is just push harder. The anti-SOPA contingent that started with a handful of Internet activists soon grew into a petition that included millions of signatures. (That petition, believe it or not, was sponsored by Google.) The burgeoning campaign to reform anti-hacking laws already has a petition of its own going on the White House's website — they'd gathered nearly 50,000 signatures at the time of this writing. The movement became so successful simply because it didn't stop growing until it declared victory. Even when some people thought they'd been victorious, like when the bill got delayed, the amorphous leadership found ways to remind them that the fight wasn't over. Now, a year later, the anti-SOPA crowd is still crowing about battles that remain undecided.

And there's much more to be done to keep the Internet free, in the U.S. and elsewhere. One way to keep the fight alive is to identify new villains. When Congress cooled on SOPA, the bill's opponents went after its supporters, namely GoDaddy. This meant that money got involved — money that GoDaddy lost as a result of a boycott by tens of thousands of people, money that the anti-SOPA supporters gathered to launch offensives. Shit got ugly, because sometimes that's what it takes.

After a year of dormancy, Aaron Swartz's suicide has already spurred many of the activists who propelled the anti-SOPA movement to challenge other laws that haven't kept pace with the Internet, in ways that blend old politics with new activism. “When Aaron’s death happened, it refocused on Internet freedom that it isn’t just retweeting and calling a congressman one day,” First Amendment lawyer and Demand Progress board member Marvin Ammori told Politico today. “It reminded us that the spear tip of the law is the police officer and the prosecutor.”

The blueprint is there. And to activists like Swartz, who described it in a speech last year, so is the need to put it to use again, and teach the powers that be how the Internet works.

And it will happen again; sure, it will have 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. The fire in those politician's eyes has not been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who wanna clamp down on the Internet.

Image via Flickr