BOSTON/South Boston - Members of the Internet collective known as Anonymous took to the streets of Boston yesterday in memory of fellow activist Aaron Swartz, who took his own life earlier this month, and to protest the criminal prosecution that they believe contributed to this death.
But despite the sinister grins of their characteristic Guy Fawkes masks, the protest had a much more somber tone than many of Anonymous’ previous public actions.
“Two weeks ago today, we lost one of our own. Today, first and foremost, we honor Aaron, and remember all of his wonderful contributions to the online community,” said one protest organizer into a bullhorn, while fighting back tears, outside the John Joseph Moakley Courthouse.
“Unfortunately though, Aaron’s beliefs and dedication put a target on his back for the U.S. Department of Justice.”
She was one of a handful of protestors who spoke Friday, some spontaneously and emotionally, to a crowd of between 40 and 50 people attending a rally in Swartz’s memory, organized by Anonymous in both Boston and Washington, D.C.
Swartz was a prominent programmer known for co-developing popular Internet services like RSS and Redditt, but was also a bold activist for an open and free Internet. At the time of his death, he was facing 13 felony counts and a potential maximum sentence of 35 years in prison for allegedly entering a computer closet at MIT and downloading 4 million papers from the academic library JSTOR. Friends and family have said the bullying nature of the prosecution contributed to Swartz’s suicide.
“They wanted to get a high profile conviction, advance their careers and send a message to online activists that we will not be tolerated,” the Anonymous speaker said Friday. “Well guess what, the Internet is at their door today and we will not tolerate such abuse of power.”
Since his suicide, electronic freedom activists have harshly criticized MIT, but mostly the U.S. Department of Justice for what they deem a legal overreach. Critics say U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who oversaw the investigation in Massachusetts against Swartz, was seeking to create an example out of what was essentially a victimless crime.
Ortiz has countered with a statement that her office acted appropriately and had never intended to seek the maximum sentence, instead suggesting six months of jail time in a low security setting.
An online White House petition to remove Ortiz from office has gathered nearly 50,000 signatures, and House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa is investigating the attorney’s handling of the case. MIT, which has been under fire for not coming out against the federal charges, is conducting an investigation of its own, led by professor and founding director of Creative Commons Hal Abelson.
Meanwhile, the death has drawn the fury of the online activist community. Attacks from hackers have crashed the MIT website. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has committed to, in Swartz’s memory, fight to “open up closed and entrenched systems that prevent ordinary people from having access to the world’s knowledge,” and “attack the computer crime laws that were so horribly misused in the prosecution of Aaron.”
The main policy target is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986, a set of laws that attempted to crack down on hacking of financial institutions, but has been criticized as overly harsh and providing excessive latitude for prosecutors to throw the book at the accused.
Anonymous has endorsed California Rep. Zoe Lofgren's bill to amend the Act, called “Aaron’s Law.” The bill would remove the felony charge for breach of a website’s terms of service allowed under the Act. Activists like the EFF support the law as an important start, but also seek more extensive reforms.
Protestors in Boston Friday slammed the CFAA, Ortiz and prosecutor Stephen Heymann, saying that both the maximum sentence and the plea deal Swartz was reportedly offered, were an attempt to bully Internet activists into submission.
“He had a good heart and a good head, and it was just prosecutorial overreach, and a zeal to get that conviction at all cost that cost him his life,” said Matthew Krawitz in an interview after speaking at the protest. He doesn’t consider himself a member of Anonymous but was outraged by the Swartz case to the point that he attended and spoke before the crowd. “I’m out here to say, not on my watch. Not in my name. It’s not okay.”
While there was a good deal of emotion, with participants breaking into tears at times, there was also measured encouragement for people to take political action in favor of Aaron’s Law and reform of computer fraud laws.
“A lot of people show up and say a lot of interesting things, a lot of great things, and they all feel the same way about what’s going on right now,” said Gregg Housh, an Anonymous activist who lives in Boston. “But the only thing that’s actually going to get change is to reach out to your senators and get these laws actually changed.”
One speaker, a local professor who also asked to remain anonymous, came to the defense of Swartz’s efforts to free academic information.
“It’s our blood and sweat and tears, and what Aaron was trying to do was to free that work and make it so the stuff that we do isn’t owned by the people who steal it from us,” she said. “Try to make it so that the people who copyright our work don’t get to lock it up and make money off of it.”
After the initial rally at the courthouse, protestors marched to Faneuil Hall, through the mall and past City Hall, chanting “Justice for Aaron Swartz” and handing out flyers calling for passage of Aaron’s Law and demanding removal of Ortiz and Heymann.
While Anonymous has long been a presence in online activism, it has evolved in recent years as it has taken on weighty issues and worked to channel its momentum into policy change. While it still is known for crashing the websites of its targets, and has a reputation as something of an online troublemaker, it has also somewhat aligned itself with the Occupy movement, and was a major opponent of Internet legislation like SOPA and PIPA.
After the protest, Housh said he’s seen the tragedy of Swartz’s death rally a wide group of people, including Anonymous members, together to seek reform.
“To get this going and the fact that there’s already a law going through an attempt to get it passed…it really speaks to how big an issue this is and how wide an audience this actually speaks to.”