On Anonymous, the Loss of Aaron Swartz, and Why You Need to Know About These Things

This is a haphazard blog post because I have a lot of thoughts about this, but it will be quick and I might come back to this. I didn’t think this was ever going to make this blog, but there is a literary connection, I promise!

Anonymous, a loose collective of “hacktivists” who commit acts of hacktivism (computer hacking with a specific societal goal) usually in the name of freedom of information, hacked and took control of a US government website yesterday (USSC.Gov) and published a new video that essentially declared war on the US Department of Justice. Their trigger? The death of Aaron Swartz.

If you didn’t know who Aaron Swartz was, don’t worry. You weren’t the only one. I didn’t know who he was until the court case came up that drove him to commit suicide when a trigger happy prosecutor was going to put him in jail for thirty five years for downloading unlimited academic articles for free. Yep, you read that right. The guy downloaded academic articles and bypassed the paywall, so he was going to go to jail. Aaron committed suicide on January 11th, 2013 under the weight of his legal debt and facing jail time.

Aaron was a lifelong promoter of the freedom of information, especially on the internet. He believed the internet was a space that should be breaking down barriers and not building them. I’m not going to repeat everything that Aaron did in his short life (he was only a year older than me) but needless to say, the internet that YOU enjoy now? It’s thanks to Aaron. Wikipedia, RSS feeds, reddit, OpenLibrary, and Creative Commons? All built in some part by Aaron. That’s YOUR internet. That’s YOUR information. That’s YOUR ability to type into Google something obscure that you’re researching for your latest novel and getting information about it. Aaron Swartz did that FOR YOU. He was a social activist before he was an internet activist and significantly before you could call him a hacktivist. 

Do I agree with Anonymous? Sometimes. I think that the core of their values (freedom of information and free ACCESS to information) is something that I share. Do I agree with their methodology? Rarely. I think in some instances, I worry that it is undermining to more legitimate ways of gaining traction and improving access to information. Do I see the value of Anonymous in our society? Absolutely. Say what you will about Anonymous, but even if you call them a fringe group, fringe groups are beneficial to society. Would we be having a discussion about hacktivism without Anonymous? Doubtful.

If you haven’t read a lot about hacktivism and interesting discussions about the freedom of the internet, I highly recommend Cory Doctorow’s blog and books. Caveat: there are some things that Cory says that make me raise my eyebrows, but on the whole, I’ve done nothing but learn from him. 

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow is a fascinating, incredibly well written book about a future that could be the US if we aren’t our own watchdogs. It taught you as much as it drew you into the story. I picked it up because it had a rec from Neil Gaiman on the cover, but I read the first page, walked to the front of Barnes & Noble, and bought the book. The sequel, Homeland, comes out on February 5th. It’s on my to read list. 

Information should be free. I believe that. I understand that people want to make money, but I believe that we, as a collective society, are bettered when people have access to information and are able to share and collaborate on ideas and projects. I believe that people are social creatures and that information is a byproduct of social behavior. I believe that we are only as good as the community we inhabit and that we have an obligation to constantly work towards the betterment of our communities.

I believe the internet is imperfect. I believe people are imperfect and anything we create is imperfect and the internet is only a reflection of this. I believe the internet is a communal space. I believe that what I witnessed on Twitter during Iran’s Green Revolution and during Arab Spring was as beautiful as any art gallery or any poetry reading or any play or any ballet I’ve ever seen in my life. 

I believe we can do better. I believe that we need to stand up for our rights everywhere and just as we stand up for our rights as minorities and women and Americans, and just as we fight to death for that First Amendment, we need to stand up for our rights on the internet.

Aaron killed himself. He was depressed and he suffered from depression for most of his life according to people close to him. He was also facing prison time and a mountain of debt. That would drive most people to suicide. 

Anonymous is outraged and is declaring war on the DOJ for the purported goals of reforming sentencing, securing freedom of the internet, and total reformation of a justice system that they felt was being used as a weapon of the government instead of as a balancing act as it was intended. 

You don’t have to be Anonymous. In fact, I will publicly encourage you NOT to be Anonymous (we can start with the reason that what they’re encouraging is illegal and I do actually feel like there are legal courses of action that accomplish the same thing and you know, won’t put you in jail. I don’t think I’d do well in jail.)

But you should educate yourself. You should know what SOPA and PIPA were/are about and where you stand on them. You should actually read those links when they fly around Twitter, Tumblr, and the Blogosphere about internet freedom and net neutrality. You should know your rights and know organizations that fight for your rights on the internet

Educate yourself. You are your own best advocate. We are our own best advocate. 

(Really. Read all of the links above. Please.)

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