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2013-03-04

"After Aaron": Late Activist’s Campaign for Open Internet Continues at Freedom to Connect Conference

Guests

Darcy Burner, delivering the "After Aaron" address at the Freedom to Connect conference. She worked with Aaron Swartz on several projects, including ProgressiveCongress.org, which she formerly directed, as well as the Progressive Congress Action Fund. She is also one of the biggest self-described geeks to run for U.S. Congress, having run for office three times in Washington state. She formerly worked for Microsoft.

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We broadcast live from the Freedom to Connect conference, a national gathering to promote Internet freedom and universal connectivity. It comes as the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act has been reintroduced in the House, calling for a "cybersecurity" exception to existing privacy law that would give immunity to companies that hand over troves of confidential customer records and communications to the National Security Agency, FBI and Department of Homeland Security. Last year at this same conference, Aaron Swartz, the late cyber-activist, computer programmer, social justice activist and writer who committed suicide earlier this year, gave the keynote address, in which he described the battle to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. Swartz took his own life at the age of 26 just weeks before he was to go on trial for using computers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to download millions of copyrighted academic articles from JSTOR, a subscription database of scholarly papers. JSTOR declined to press charges, but prosecutors moved the case forward. Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a million dollars in fines for allegedly violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. After his death, federal prosecutors dropped the charges. We are joined by Darcy Burner, who opens today’s conference with her "After Aaron" address. She worked with him on several projects, including ProgressiveCongress.org, which she formerly directed, as well as the Progressive Congress Action Fund. She is also one of the biggest self-described geeks to run for U.S. Congress, having run for office three times in Washington State. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from Silver Spring, Maryland, at the Freedom to Connect conference. This annual event brings together people across the country to promote Internet freedom and universal connectivity. It comes as the controversial Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act was reintroduced in the House earlier this month. CISPA would add a "cybersecurity" exception to existing privacy law and give immunity to companies that hand over troves of confidential customer records and communications to the National Security Agency, FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

CISPA is not to be confused with another set of bills that could shape our freedom to connect. Last year at this same conference, Aaron Swartz, the late cyber-activist, computer programmer, social justice activist and writer, who committed suicide earlier this year, gave the keynote address here, where he described the battle to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. Aaron tragically took his own life at the age of 26, just weeks before he was to go on trial for using computers at MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to download millions of copyrighted academic articles from JSTOR, a subscription database of scholarly papers. JSTOR declined to press charges, but prosecutors moved the case forward. Aaron Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison and a million dollars in fines for allegedly violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. After Aaron’s death, federal prosecutors dropped the charges against him.

Well, this year’s conference, which is "dedicated to the work Aaron still had left to do." We are joined by Darcy Burner, delivering the "After Aaron" address this morning. She worked with him on several projects, including ProgressiveCongress.org, which she formerly directed, as well as the Progressive Congress Action Fund. She’s also one of the biggest tech geeks to run for Congress, having run for office three times from Washington state. She formerly worked for Microsoft.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

DARCY BURNER: Thanks. Happy to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what Freedom to Connect means.

DARCY BURNER: Well, the Internet has the ability to make it possible for people all over the world and all over this country to communicate with each other, but only if they have access to the Internet; only if you don’t have large corporations censoring what information they can get to, what information they can see; only if you don’t have people who are terrified to communicate because, you know, private emails they send to their friends or their significant others might be intercepted and used against them. It’s the idea that the network and our ability to communicate with each other is important and ought to be free.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, talk about what change can be effected here.

DARCY BURNER: Well, the folks who are here are fighting to ensure that the network remains available to everyone and that people can use it freely, without fear and without censorship. This conference serves as one of the vehicles for people to organize, to understand what’s going on, to understand what the threats are, and to figure out what plans, moving forward, need to be enacted in order to protect the Internet.

AMY GOODMAN: You have talked about many examples of freedom to connect around the world and in this country, what it means, how it—what effect it has on political change and events.

DARCY BURNER: I have. I mean, if you look, for example, at what happened in Egypt, if you look at the Arab Spring, a lot of the early organizing work for Arab Spring was done using the Internet, communicating on Facebook, posting YouTube videos. That kind of communication is unprecedented in human history and makes it possible for anyone to have real say in what their government is going to be like and in what their fellow citizens should and shouldn’t accept. I mean, we saw the early vestiges of it even with Tiananmen Square, when the organizing was done by fax machines. The ability to communicate makes such an enormous difference in terms of fundamental freedoms, this idea that government should be by the consent of the governed. Well, in order for people to really consent, they have to be able to talk about what the options are. And the Internet gives us that opportunity.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the Comcast and Eddie Vedder.

DARCY BURNER: So, there was a concert at one point that Eddie Vedder had done some ranting against some of the corporate interests, and Comcast was rebroadcasting it, and they actually censored part of the concert so that people who were watching it over the Comcast network couldn’t see it. There is this notion put forward fairly frequently by Republicans that of course big businesses won’t actually censor anything on the Internet, of course there isn’t any need to worry about what is or isn’t broadcast, because the Internet is already free, but we have demonstrations on a regular basis that that’s not true, that when corporate interests can censor the Internet, they will. And they will do so in ways that are designed to increase their profits or decrease criticism of themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: You worked at Microsoft.

DARCY BURNER: I did.

AMY GOODMAN: How does it fit into this picture?

DARCY BURNER: Well, Microsoft certainly is very sensitive to this set of issues. It’s funny, because the company has a fairly poor reputation in the tech community. But when I was there, they were incredibly conscientious about ensuring that folks using their network were protected, that the privacy of customers was vigorously protected. We weren’t allowed—the data protections were incredibly strong, because the company understood that anything they did could and would be used against them, vigorously. But, you know, Microsoft and other big companies need to have that fear, frankly, that [no audio] violate the basic rights of the people using their networks. And we all need to bring that pressure to bear to make sure that the behavior is good.

AMY GOODMAN: You’re giving, Darcy, the "After Aaron" address today. What does that mean? And what are you saying?

DARCY BURNER: Well, you know, Aaron was a friend of mine. And I—

AMY GOODMAN: And for people who don’t know who Aaron Swartz was?

DARCY BURNER: He was an activist. He started out as a programmer. He was—as a teenager, actually, was a fairly influential programmer, very involved in creating some of the protocols and systems that people take for granted right now, like Reddit, for example. And he went from that to deciding that he wanted to be active in politics. He was one of the very early people at the Progressive Campaign Change Committee, the PCCC, which does a lot of D.C.-based political activism holding Congress accountable. And he was very focused, among other things, on Internet freedom.

And he—while he was a fellow at Harvard and had access privileges to MIT and had access privileges to JSTOR, which is a database full of academic articles, he downloaded a whole bunch of those articles—the electronic equivalent of checking out too many library books at once. And because it was a violation of the terms of service of JSTOR to download that many articles at once, prosecutors decided to prosecute him for federal felonies.

AMY GOODMAN: Though JSTOR hadn’t; said that they wouldn’t press—

DARCY BURNER: JSTOR—right, that’s right. JSTOR didn’t want to prosecute. And facing federal felonies and potentially decades in prison, Aaron ultimately killed himself in January.

What he was fighting for mattered. And he was very clearly a threat to some very powerful people. Frankly, all of what’s done at this conference, the idea of an Internet where anybody can communicate with anybody else, is a threat to people in power. And the way that this played out is a demonstration of how seriously they’re taking that threat and how critical it is that we continue this fight.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to Aaron Swartz in his own words. He was speaking right here at the Freedom to Connect conference last year here in Silver Spring, Maryland. He spoke last May about the battle to defeat the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA. In this excerpt, he is talking about the—how the momentum built against the act.

AARON SWARTZ: I was at an event, and I was talking, and I got introduced to a U.S. senator, one of the strongest proponents of the original COICA bill, in fact. And I asked him why, despite being such a progressive, despite giving a speech in favor of civil liberties, why he was supporting a bill that would censor the Internet. And, you know, that typical politician smile he had suddenly faded from his face, and his eyes started burning this fiery red. And he started shouting at me, said, "Those people on the Internet, they think they can get away with anything! They think they can just put anything up there, and there’s nothing we can do to stop them! They put up everything! They put up our nuclear missiles, and they just laugh at us! Well, we’re going to show them! There’s got to be laws on the Internet! It’s got to be under control!"

Now, as far as I know, nobody has ever put up the U.S.'s nuclear missiles on the Internet. I mean, it's not something I’ve heard about. But that’s sort of the point. He wasn’t having a rational concern, right? 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. And I think that was the attitude of Congress. And just as seeing that fire in that senator’s eyes scared me, I think those hearings scared a lot of people. They saw this wasn’t the attitude of a thoughtful government trying to resolve trade-offs in order to best represent its citizens. This was more like the attitude of a tyrant. And so the citizens fought back.

The wheels came off the bus pretty quickly after that hearing. First the Republican senators pulled out, and then the White House issued a statement opposing the bill, and then the Democrats, left all alone out there, announced they were putting the bill on hold so they could have a few further discussions before the official vote. And that was when, as hard as it was for me to believe, after all this, we had won. The thing that everyone said was impossible, that some of the biggest companies in the world had written off as kind of a pipe dream, had happened. We did it. We won.

And then we started rubbing it in. You all know what happened next. Wikipedia went black. Reddit went black. Craigslist went black. The phone lines on Capitol Hill flat-out melted. Members of Congress started rushing to issue statements retracting their support for the bill that they were promoting just a couple days ago. And it was just ridiculous. I mean, there’s a chart from the time that captures it pretty well. It says something like "January 14th" on one side and has this big, long list of names supporting the bill, and then just a few lonely people opposing it; and on the other side, it says "January 15th," and now it’s totally reversed—everyone is opposing it, just a few lonely names still hanging on in support.

I mean, this really was unprecedented. Don’t take my word for it, but ask former Senator Chris Dodd, now the chief lobbyist for Hollywood. He admitted, after he lost, that he had masterminded the whole evil plan. And he told The New York Times he had never seen anything like it during his many years in Congress. And everyone I’ve spoken to agrees. The people rose up, and they caused a sea change in Washington—not the press, which refused to cover the story—just coincidentally, their parent companies all happened to be lobbying for the bill; not the politicians, who were pretty much unanimously in favor of it; and not the companies, who had all but given up trying to stop it and decided it was inevitable. It was really stopped by the people, the people themselves. They killed the bill dead, so dead that when members of Congress propose something now that even touches the Internet, they have to give a long speech beforehand about how it is definitely not like SOPA; so dead that when you ask congressional staffers about it, they groan and shake their heads like it’s all a bad dream they’re trying really hard to forget; so dead that it’s kind of hard to believe this story, hard to remember how close it all came to actually passing, hard to remember how this could have gone any other way. But it wasn’t a dream or a nightmare; it was all very real.

And it will happen again. Sure, it 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. The fire in those politicians’ eyes hasn’t been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp down on the Internet. And to be honest, there aren’t a whole lot who have a vested interest in protecting it from all of that. Even some of the biggest companies, some of the biggest Internet companies, to put it frankly, would benefit from a world in which their little competitors could get censored. We can’t let that happen.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Aaron Swartz speaking last year here at the Freedom to Connect conference. This past January, he took his own life. Our guest today, Darcy Burner, is going to be giving the "After Aaron" address this year. This is Democracy Now! When we come back, we’ll also be joined by a former Republican staffer on the Hill who was asked to write a paper about copyright law. They didn’t like what he had to say. Stay with us.

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