Freedom to Connect conference: Aaron Swartz remembered, calls for copyright law ammendment

Freedom to Connect, a conference that usually addresses the “nuts and bolts” of internet connectivity, focused sharply this year on fundamental freedoms.

Conference organiser David Isenberg attributed the need for this shift to recent developments, most notably the January suicide of computer programmer and internet activist Aaron Swartz. Swartz delivered the keynote speech at last year’s conference. At the time of his death, he faced up to 35 years in prison and $1,000,000 in fines for violating the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

Power and its subversion were central themes at the two-day conference.

Darcy Burner, a Washington state Democrat and former Microsoft executive, delivered the opening “After Aaron” lecture commemorating Swartz. She argued that for the purposes of inciting meaningful change, network power built on consent is much stronger than economic, political or military power.

Glenn Greenwald, Guardian writer and Freedom of the Press Foundation co-founder, said Aaron Swartz and WikiLeaker Bradley Manning were both victims of prosecutorial excessiveness and abuse. He added that increasing state surveillance “threatens to turn the internet into a weapon that shields, protects and strengthens power” rather than subverting it. Other speakers reiterated this notion that the internet can be both a tool for democratising discourse and a weapon for control and censorship.

Dan Gilmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, discussed corporate abuse of power. He said consumers often prefer convenience to liberty when technology is concerned. Convenience, or perhaps dependence, explains why users opt in to restrictive terms of service and sacrifice elements of their privacy to use certain online platforms and services like Facebook and Twitter.

Christopher Soghoian, who works on the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, argued that US telecommunications providers are among the worst corporate abusers of power. Soghoian argued that telcos want power over software without assuming responsibility for updating it, leaving consumers vulnerable to cybersecurity breaches. Access Now highlighted the most egregious violations by wireless carriers in its recent Telco Hall of Shame competition.

Former Republican staffer Derek Khanna spoke on Democracy Now!, which broadcast live from the conference both days, about his campaign to reverse a recent US decision that made unlocking cell phones illegal. My Index post from January explains the policy, which AT&T and Verizon pushed for, but which the White House announced Monday it favours overturning after an online petition against it garnered more than 100,000 signatures.

Khanna was recently fired for arguing in a House Republican Study Committee report that the US copyright system should be reformed to expand fair use and limit copyright terms. Copyright was another recurring theme throughout the conference, touched on by artists, entrepreneurs and psychedelic soul legend Lester Chambers.

Gwenn Semmel, an artist, decided not to show the audience where she drew inspiration from for her paintings, saying, “I don’t want to call down the wrath of the copyright gods, because they are temperamental and expensive.”

Ben Huh, CEO of the lolcats and internet meme empire Cheezburger Network, Alexis Ohanian, co-founder of Reddit, and Mike Godwin, famed internet lawyer, discussed their fight against the 2012 US copyright bills SOPA and PIPA.

One of the most interesting presentations came from dominatrix, performance artist and blogger Mistress Clarissa who made the free speech pitch for porn, arguing that the industry pushes cultural boundaries and provides invaluable opportunities for expression and self-exploration.

Several speakers promoted community-owned networks, arguing that the internet represents critical infrastructure that should not be left solely in the hands of self-interested monopolies. Nineteen US states currently impose legal barriers that restrict the building of community-owned fibre broadband systems.

Vint Cerf, famed “father of the internet” and Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist, wrapped up the conference by criticising new copyright alert systems in the US and France, the lack of fair and open ICT competition in many regions, and troubling internet governance developments to come out of December’s World Conference on International Telecommunications in Dubai. Cerf will move to London for six months later this year to concentrate on developments likely to affect our freedom to connect in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. In an increasingly connected world, regional debates have unavoidable global implications.

Freedom to Connect’s increased focus on political freedoms and free speech comes amid increased obstacles to an open and uncensored internet. Taking action on our discussions at this conference will be crucial if we wish to continue preserving and promoting digital freedom of expression.

Index Index – International free speech roundup 15/01/13

The European Court of Human Rights deemed today (15 January) that a woman working for British Airways was unfairly discriminated against for her religion. Nadia Eweida was fired by BA in 2006 for refusing to stop wearing her crucifix visibly. Judges ruled that Eweida’s rights under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights were violated. Three other Christians who had taken their employees to court lost their cases. Shirley Chaplin, whose employer also stopped her wearing crucifix necklaces, Lillian Ladele, disciplined after refusing to conduct same-sex civil partner ceremonies — and Gary McFarlane, a marriage councillor fired for saying he might object to offering sex advice to gay couples.

 Elizabeth Brossa - Creative commons Flickr

Aaron Swartz’s suicide prompted calls for cyber law reform

The suicide of US activist Aaron Swartz on 11 January has prompted calls to reform computer crime laws in America. The 26 year old was awaiting trial, charged with 13 felony counts of wire fraud and hacking two years ago. Swartz had downloaded millions of academic papers from online archive JSTOR and was due to face trial in April, for which he could have been jailed for decades and faced massive fines. Calls for amendments to The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act have been widespread, with critics alleging that certain internet hacking laws are too vague and broad, and impose overly harsh penalties.

On 9 JanuaryIran’s Supreme Court ratified the death penalty of five Ahwazi (Arab-Iranian) human rights defenders. Hadi Rachedi, Hashim Shabani Nejad, Mohammad Ali Amuri Nejad, Jaber Al-Bushoke and his brother Mokhtar Al-Bushoke were arrested by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and National Security in the spring of 2011. They were charged with spawning mischief, threatening national security and inciting propaganda against the Islamic Republic. The activists had been protesting for their right to speak Arabic, rather than the national language of Persian – a right that is written into Iranian constitution. They were allegedly tortured into giving false confessions in detention.

App developers Tencent have apologised to users of social media app WeChat, after the programme appeared to be censoring controversial terms globally. Tencent, China’s most widely used internet portal, blamed a “technical glitch” after it had blocked terms such as Southern Weekend and Falun Gong, a banned group in China often referred to as a sect. Activists have voiced concern that authorities are hacking the app, in order to increase surveillance on some of its 200million users. WeChat has subscribers in the UK and America, and will soon be launched across Asia.

US Vice President Joe Biden met with the president of the Entertainment Software Association on Friday, to discuss the gaming industry’s influence over violence, following a school shooting in Connecticut that prompted calls for reforms on gun policy. Biden’s White House meeting aimed to establish whether America was undergoing a “coarsening of our culture”, discussing how to eliminate the culture of violence, a happening the gaming industry is frequently blamed for. The National Rifle Association (NRA) had accounted the rate of gun crime in America to media and video game violence, which the gaming industry refuted, expressing fears that they could become a scapegoat in the Connecticut debate.

Open data activist Aaron Swartz dies at 26

Open data activist and developer Aaron Swartz was found dead Friday in his New York home. The 26-year-old activist, who tirelessly campaigned for net freedom, was facing federal charges for allegedly downloading 4.8 million academic articles from JSTOR on the MIT campus in 2011. Even though JSTOR decided not to bring charges against Swartz, federal prosecutors decided to pursue charges anyways. If found guilty, Swartz faced $1 million in fines and 35 years in prison.

Swartz, who suffered from depression, committed suicide and his loved ones alleged in a statement that his death was tied to stress caused by his legal woes:

Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.

The aggressive pursuit of Swartz by federal officials has drawn criticism over the severity of the charges, and questions over the types of laws used to pursue crimes committed online. Charges were brought against Swartz under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act — the same law used to bring charges against Bradley Manning.

US-based privacy expert Chris Soghoian told the Associated Press that the laws, as they are, don’t differentiate between “malicious crimes committed for profit” and “cases where hackers break into systems to prove their skillfulness or spread information that they think should be available to the public”.

Swartz was at the forefront of a fight for keeping the online world open, condemning the sticky tape of copyright and restrictions on information online. While at Mozilla Fest, I feel like I caught a glimpse of the kind of world that Swartz was working for — one that places the most value on sharing information, ideas, and knowledge freely. The director of MIT’s Media Lab, Joi Ito said the following during his speech at the conference:

You’re all political. Everything we’re doing today is gonna destroy businesses it’s going to take power away from those in power. You have to understand that what we’re doing we’re being very disruptive. It’s very scary for people. The problem is that those people who are afraid of us are trying to shut us down.


Sara Yasin is an Editorial Assistant at Index. She tweets from @missyasin