Today's post begins with the story of Aaron Hillel Swartz, a former Internet activist and computer programmer who created RSS (Rich Site Summary), from which we have RSS feeds. Aaron was born in Chicago, Illinois, on November 8, 1986. On January 11, 2013, just over a year ago, he was found dead in his apartment in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York; he had committed suicide.
The circumstances that led up to this tragic day were, in short, as follows: In July of 2011, Swartz was federally charged with wire fraud and computer fraud for gaining illegal access to a subscription-only scientific and literary journals website called JSTOR (short for Journal Storage). Swartz had downloaded close to five million journal articles and documents, nearly the entire JSTOR database.
His belief was that such information, and information in general, should be openly accessible on the Internet to anyone.
After being charged with wire fraud and computer fraud, Swartz was faced with the possibility of up to one million dollars in fines and thirty-five years in jail, among other repercussions. His lawyer had put forth two offers for a plea bargain to the prosecution; both times, the prosecution refused. The prosecution refused the second plea bargain on January 9, 2013. Two days later, apparently unable to cope with everything ahead of him, Aaron Swartz hung himself in his apartment.
His activist efforts included founding Demand Progress, which promotes social justice campaigns, including an effort against attempts by Hollywood to censor the Internet. He also created Infogami, a software company which supported the efforts of the Open Library project. Wanting to advance the work of Infogami, Swartz merged with Reddit in the Fall of 2005. One year later, Reddit was bought by Condé Nast Publications, which owns Wired magazine. Swartz decided to work for the magazine, but was unable to adapt to working in a structured office environment. One year after beginning to work for Wired, Swartz left and went on to start Jottit, a website building tool.
Fast forward to this year. Bolstered by the success two years ago in stopping SOPA and PIPA legislation, both of which were intended to censor the Internet, those same organizers have created a new initiative: The Day We Fight Back.
On Tuesday, February 11, 2014, this online protest against mass surveillance will take place, in which politicians will be strongly urged to not approve either the FISA Improvements Act or the USA Freedom Act (H.R. 3361 / S. 1599). Internet sites, such as Access, boingboing, Demand Progress, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, freepress, Mozilla (creators of Firefox), reddit, Taskforce, and ThoughtWorks, will display banners showing and asking for support on this issue. The public will be encouraged to add banners to their sites to further seek support against mass surveillance efforts, as well as sending E-mails and making phone calls to their senators and Representatives to oppose the FISA Improvements Act and the USA Freedom Act.
With the past efforts in Congress to try and pass SOPA and PIPA, and the revelations last year of the wide-ranging extents of such entities like the NSA, we need to stand up and stop censorship and surveillance on the Internet. I encourage all of my readers here in the United States and abroad -- there's information on their website on how you, too, can get involved -- to take part in this important effort.