Aaron

Sun Jan 12, 2014

My co-worker Peter and I were riding the Caltrain from Mozilla to San Francisco a few days ago. A stranger sat down next to us and started talking. When I mentioned that we worked at EFF, his eyes lit up and he said, “Oh! But you guys have won, right?”

Confused, I asked what he meant by that.

He said, “You defeated SOPA and PIPA a couple years ago. So you’ve won.”

We laughed and explained that it didn’t quite work like that. Peter said, “Imagine this: you’re a hero in a comic book. Every time you defeat your nemesis, a new one appears. This happens over and over again. It has to work that way, because you live inside a comic book.”

And so it does. SOPA and PIPA are dead, but now there’s NSA surveillance.

—–

Aaron Swartz died a year ago today. I didn’t know him well at all, but I could tell he believed that he had the power to make the world that he wanted to live in. That’s not something that everyone believes about themselves; in fact, I think very few people live their lives as if it were true.

When Aaron died, I felt like I had to do something. I didn’t understand how to effectively fight for Internet freedom or why governments cared so much about restricting it, but I could see that Aaron’s work had pivotal consequence for the future of human societies. I realized that if the wrong people gained control over the laws of the Internet, ordinary users would quickly lose their right to free speech on the greatest medium of expression that history has ever witnessed.

I didn’t know anything about code or laws or activism a year ago, but Aaron’s death taught me that the fight for Internet freedom is lonely enough that it didn’t matter who I was. One more person, one step forward.

—–

I think SOPA/PIPA was the moment when we, the citizens of the Internet, realized that we could stand up and actually protect ourselves against historically-powerful institutions. As Peter once said, “This was the moment when the Internet had grown up.”

There’s a famous shot of Aaron at a SOPA/PIPA protest, standing in front of a crowd of people and yelling at them, “It’s easy sometimes to feel like you’re powerless, when you come out and march in the streets and nobody hears you. But I’m here to tell you today, you are powerful.”

When the ratio of Congress members supporting SOPA/PIPA to those against it went from 8031 to 65101 overnight on January 18, 2012, we started to think that maybe Aaron had a point: if enough people show that they care about something, the government listens and the people win.

Perhaps this strategy doesn’t apply to the fight against mass surveillance, because it’s a bigger and different sort of enemy than copyright. That’s okay. Comic books aren’t interesting without plot twists, I suppose.

(Thanks to Jacobo Nájera for translating this post into Spanish: http://metahumano.org/log/aaron-yan-zhu/.)



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