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.