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Demanding Progress: From Aaron Swartz To SOPA And Beyond

from the foundations-of-activism dept

It’s a great irony — and an awkward thing to admit — that I’m not sure if the organization of which I’m executive director, Demand Progress, would exist but for SOPA and PIPA (or really their progenitor, COICA).

This month marks not just the 10th anniversary of the SOPA blackout, but also the 9th anniversary of the passing of my partner in the effort to get Demand Progress up and running, Aaron Swartz. Aaron took his own life while facing charges under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act for allegedly downloading too many articles from the JSTOR academic cataloging service — to which he had a subscription — using MIT’s open network. We hope the organization still upholds the values that governed his work — and he certainly serves as an inspiration for so much of what we do. 

Aaron was several years younger than me, but we came to activism from similar perspectives — more or less unreconstructed utilitarianism — and first connected during my unsuccessful campaign for Congress in 2010. A few days after the primary we launched our first couple of online campaigns as Demand Progress, which was originally intended to be a multi-issue progressive populist concern. 

While Aaron is above all else remembered for his advocacy for an open internet and intellectual property reform, his priorities increasingly included contesting concentrated corporate power, implementing a more equitable vision for our economy, and opposing war-making. Some observers this fall noted the continued resonance of his final tweet — an entreaty to Treasury to mint a $1 trillion coin as a solution to a debt ceiling impasse.

But a second irony attendant to our founding is that, as we sought to identify a base of activists to support this progressive populist vision, Aaron was promptly pulled back into the firmament of online rights and IP activism. A petition we put forth in opposition to COICA gained hundreds of thousands of signers over a few days, demonstrating a certain void in the online campaigning ecosystem and imbuing the new organization with a sense of purpose — and providing a base of activists we could organize to make a difference. 

Everything Demand Progress has become since was built on that foundation. 

Over the course of the next year or so we worked together to build a movement to use the open architecture of the internet to save the open architecture of the internet. Aaron had a much more intuitive sense than I did of how to activate and harness the potential energy of online networks. 

My time in politics, starting before MySpace went online, had been shaped by a more traditional conception of political organizing – tactics like knocking on doors and phone banking. But my contribution was that I understood the legislative process and had a sense of what politicians recognize as demonstrations of power.

As time passed, kindred spirits — most notably Fight for the Future — emerged. Policy groups — Public Knowledge and EFF also come to mind, but there were many organizations that undertook the often unsung work of engaging with hundreds of Congressional staffers to attune them to the details of our coalition’s concerns.

It all culminated in the “blackout” of which others here have written: countless thousands of sites and users each serving as beacons, alerting their combined networks of tens of millions of people to the threat at hand, urging them to make their voices heard, and providing them the tools with which to do so. Is it cringey to say that it kind of felt transcendent? Well, it did. 

Idealism about the internet’s potential can seem quaint today — even to me — but for most who took part, the SOPA effort was a demonstration of a fundamental, visceral human yearning to connect with one another. You can watch a talk Aaron gave a few months later, where he discusses what all of this meant to him. 

We and our allies have wielded the tactics we learned and the relationships we built over the course of the SOPA campaign to agitate for other causes that have helped shape the workings of the internet — for instance in support of net neutrality and against mass surveillance.

Without them it’s unlikely that we’d have secured the strong net neutrality rules that were put in place in 2015 (with the explicit backing of millions of people) only to be repealed by the Trump administration a couple years later (over the will of millions of people). We are likely on the cusp of a new proceeding to reinstitute net neutrality rules, which are overwhelmingly likely to pass because of those broad demonstrations of support — and stand a chance of being longer-lasting. 

My second-to-last in-person conversation with Aaron was about how we might fight against suspected abuses of the Patriot Act to spy on a vastly broader universe than was understood by the public — a case Edward Snowden would crack open just a few months later. Demand Progress’s research and lobbying efforts would eventually, during the spring of 2020, prove dispositive of the sunset of several Patriot Act provisions, including that under which the telephonic metadata collection that Snowden revealed was taking place. (Government surveillance practices remain opaque, and there’s every reason to assume nefarious behaviors continue under a variety of other real or imagined authorities.)

And in the years since SOPA, Demand Progress has become an organization with a modicum of influence on the national stage — and has even been able to take on that broader remit we envisioned upon our founding. 

Today we work not to just to help forward online rights, but also in support of expansive macroeconomic policy, against endless wars, and for regulation of concentrations of corporate power — inclusive of some of the major platforms that were allied with us during the SOPA effort, because we think reforms are needed to bring the internet back in line with a more ideal, horizontalist conception of what it could be.

The Demand Progress team and I are grateful to Techdirt for pulling together this retrospective and inviting us to participate, and for giving us the opportunity to reflect on that exciting and hopeful work so many of us undertook together a decade ago. We’d also like to acknowledge the many people and groups carrying forth causes that Aaron cared about — SecureDrop, CFAA reform, and public access to court records and scientific research, to name just a few.

Davd Segal is the executive director of Demand Progress and a non-residential fellow at Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society. He is a former Rhode Island State Representative.

This Techdirt Greenhouse special edition is all about the 10 year anniversary of the fight that stopped SOPA. On January 26th at 1pm PT, we’ll be hosting a live discussion with Rep. Zoe Lofgren and some open roundtable discussions about the legacy of that fight. Please register to attend.

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