"We've got the most incredible distribution system ever created [in the Internet]," says EFF member Parker Higgins, summing up hacker idealism and resistance, "and there are people who want to say, 'Instead of using this as an amazing library, let's use it as a surveillance machine, to keep track of what everyone is doing.'"

SOPA was essentially a copyright issue. At the time, it seemed unlikely that anyone was going to care about it; its lack of sexiness as an issue was advantageous to the massive entities that sought to pass it. But once the rhetoric of censorship was introduced, it was a cause that was easy to get passionate about. Swartz helped influence that rhetoric and EFF helped disseminate it. When EFF's Peter Eckersley approached Swartz to begin fighting an early version of SOPA in 2010, Swartz accepted, going so far as to found the activist organization Demand Progress, which, according to Eckersley on EFF's website, "mobilized over a million online activists and proved to be an invaluable ally in winning that campaign."

Higgins joined EFF right after SOPA was introduced in the House of Representatives on Oct. 26, 2011. "I started on November 1st," chuckles Higgins. EFF dived headfirst into the fight, spearheading the grassroots campaign that eventually ended up toppling the bill. Along the way, the bill gained the attention of many notable web outlets, not least of which was Google, which protested SOPA prominently on its homepage. Wikipedia staged a blackout. "That was all Aaron," says Higgins. As of Jan. 20, 2012, plans to draft the bill were officially postponed.

A staunch opponent of SOPA, Swartz admitted he didn't care about the issue of copyright initially and couldn't see how it pertained to his life. "Health care, financial reform — those are the issues I work on. Not something obscure like copyright law," said Swartz in a 2012 keynote address at the Freedom to Connect conference in Washington, D.C. Yet as Eckersley told him, it was not copyright that was the issue, but the freedom to connect. "Now," said Swartz to him, "I was listening."

Swartz understood what happens when someone runs afoul of copyright laws all too well. As he said in that same keynote from 2012, "everything" is potentially copyrighted, including the speech he was giving — an inherently absurd idea that can lead to dangerous abuses of power. Such was the case with the Computer Fraud and Abuses Act (CFAA), a 30-year-old act that was the legislative pivot point around which the case against Swartz was based.

As Higgins explains, "[The government] didn't know what hacking was [in 1984, when the act was passed]. They wanted to future-proof it, so if you 'exceed' your authorization, you are committing a felony." This is essentially equivalent to violating a "terms of service" agreement, only in this case if the computer one uses to access said information is defined as a "protected computer," the crime is considered a criminal offense instead of a civil one. According to Higgins, two courts, the Ninth and Fourth circuit, have already rejected it, acknowledging that a prosecutor needs more than a "terms of service" violation to create a federal case.

Shortly after Swartz's January suicide, EFF, in cooperation with San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren, began to codify these changes as an amendment to CFAA called "Aaron's Law," which specifies what is meant by the excessively broad offense of "exceeding authorization." Currently, even the common computing practice of deleting cookies can be considered exceeding authorization. Some do this to evade a pay wall by, say, tricking The New York Times into believing that a new user is accessing the system after hitting the free article limit. Some, however, delete cookies simply to protect their privacy, to not be monitored while browsing the Internet, and to avoid receiving advertisements relating to their most recent Google search. Technically, that's a punishable offense under the CFAA.

Perhaps most importantly, Aaron's Law prevents prosecutors from stacking charges; each one of Swartz's violations was counted separately, such that he faced 13 felony charges. What's more, the charges were purposely trumped-up to avoid a trial and coax Swartz into a plea bargain.

Currently, EFF is advocating on behalf of the podcasting community — anyone who hosts or patronizes a podcast — against a so-called "patent troll" claiming to own the patent on podcasting technology. Patent trolls, according to the EFF website, are "companies that assert patents as a business model instead of creating products." These include a Texas-based patent-holding company called Lodsys which targeted numerous app developers, issuing cease-and-desist letters for using a payment feature that it owned. Many of these developers were spooked into compliance, and gave up on their work. This suggests a downside to the free-market structure of the Internet: If compensation inhibits innovation, doesn't everyone lose?

Hacking in its ancestral form, as creative solutions, as open-source innovation, is brought into "the desert of the real" at Noisebridge. A block away from EFF's headquarters resides this Mission District hacker haven and work space. Noisebridge is the creative heart of the open-source movement and the hardest to define of the three organizations. "It's what a library should be," says member Mek Karpeles, a software engineer and entrepreneur. "It offers culture and an outlet for people to get involved, not just consume knowledge."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

Actually, "Copyright, of course, exists to protect the rights of a creator's intellectual property" is simply wrong.  Per the US Constitution (Article 1, Section 8, Par. 8), (Congress shall have the power) "To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries;"  THAT's why patents and copyrights exist.  There's a good case to be made that much (most) patent and copyright enforcement these days has the direct opposite effort of "promoting the progress of science and the useful arts."

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.