Two timeless pieces of writing by the late Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz’s words that I am re-posting here (Creative Commons license) could’ve been a sort of guiding compass during a very specific phase of my life, and I hope that future generations of internet-connected activists will continually return to them for inspiration. Here is the afterword to Homeland, a novel by Cory Doctorow:

Hi there, I’m Aaron. I’ve been given this little space here at the end of the book because I’m a flesh-and-blood human and, as such, I can tell you something you wouldn’t believe if it came out of the mouth of any of those fictional characters:

This stuff is real.

Sure, there isn’t anyone actually named Marcus or Ange, at least not that I know, but I do know real people just like them. If you want, you can go to San Francisco and meet them. And while you’re there, you can play D&D with John Gilmore or build a rocket ship at Noisebridge or work with some hippies on an art project for Burning Man.

And if some of the more conspiracy-minded stuff in the book seems too wild to be true, well, just google Blackwater, Xe, or BlueCoat. (I myself have an FOIA request in to learn more about “persona management software,” but the Feds say it’ll take three more years to redact all the relevant documents.)

Now I hope you had fun staying up all night reading about these things, but this next part is important, so pay attention: what’s going on now isn’t some reality TV show you can just sit at home and watch. This is your life, this is your country — and if you want to keep it safe, you need to get involved.

I know it’s easy to feel like you’re powerless, like there’s nothing you can do to slow down or stop “the system.” Like all the calls are made by shadowy and powerful forces far outside your control. I feel that way, too, sometimes. But it just isn’t true.

A little over a year ago, a friend called to tell me about an obscure bill he’d heard of called the Combatting Online Infringement and Counterfeit Act, or COICA. As I read the bill, I started to get more and more worried: under its provisions, the government would be allowed to censor websites it didn’t like without so much as a trial. It would be the first time the U.S. government was given the power to censor its citizens’ access to the net.

The bill had just been introduced a day or two ago, but it already had a couple dozen senators cosponsoring it. And, despite there never being any debate, it was already scheduled for a vote in just a couple days. Nobody had ever reported on it, and that was just the point: they wanted to rush this thing through before anyone noticed.

Luckily, my friend noticed. We stayed up all weekend and launched a website explaining what the bill did, with a petition you could sign opposing it that would look up the phone numbers for your representatives. We told a few friends about it and they told a few friends and within a couple days we had over 200,000 people on our petition. It was incredible.

Well, the people pushing this bill didn’t stop. They spent literally tens of millions of dollars lobbying for it. The head of every major media company flew out to Washington, DC, and met with the president’s chief of staff to politely remind him of the millions of dollars they’d donated to the president’s campaign and explain how what they wanted — the only thing they wanted — was for this bill to pass.

But the public pressure kept building. To try to throw people off the trail, they kept changing the name of the bill — calling it PIPA and SOPA and even the E-PARASITES Act — but no matter what they called it, more and more people kept telling their friends about it and getting more and more people opposed. Soon, the signers on our petition stretched into the millions.

We managed to stall them for over a year through various tactics, but they realized if they waited much longer they might never get their chance to pass this bill. So they scheduled it for a vote first thing after they got back from winter break.

But while members of Congress were off on winter break, holding town halls and public meetings back home, people started visiting them. Across the country, members started getting asked by their constituents why they were supporting that nasty Internet censorship bill. And members started getting scared — some going so far as to respond by attacking me.

But it wasn’t about me anymore — it was never about me. From the beginning, it was about citizens taking things into their own hands: making YouTube videos and writing songs opposing the bill, making graphs showing how much money the bill’s cosponsors had received from the industries pushing it, and organizing boycotts putting pressure on the companies who’d endorsed the bill.

And it worked — it took the bill from a political nonissue that was poised to pass unanimously to a toxic football no one wanted to touch. Even the bill’s cosponsors started rushing to issue statements opposing it! Boy, were those media moguls pissed…

This is not how the system is supposed to work. A ragtag bunch of kids doesn’t stop one of the most powerful forces in Washington just by typing on their laptops!

But it did happen. And you can make it happen again.

The system is changing. Thanks to the Internet, everyday people can learn about and organize around an issue even if the system is determined to ignore it. Now, maybe we won’t win every time — this is real life, after all — but we finally have a chance.

But it only works if you take part. And now that you’ve read this book and learned how to do it, you’re perfectly suited to make it happen again. That’s right: now it’s up to you to change the system.

Let me know if I can help.

Aaron Swartz

And here is his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto:

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier. 

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable.

"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly legal — there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can, something that's already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral — it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

Aaron Swartz

July 2008, Eremo, Italy

Linux sysadmin/DevOps/SRE privacy & transparency activist 0xB604C32AD5D7C6D8

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