There’s been a rash of activity recently by the “hackivist” group Anonymous against US government websites as part of what’s been called #OpLastResort. The attacks started when group attacked Department of Justice computers on January 25th. The attack was significant for a number of reasons:
It appears that via the U.S. government website, Anonymous had distributed encrypted government files and left a statement on the website that de-encryption keys would be publicly released (thus releasing the as-yet unkonwn information held on the stolen files) if the U.S. government did not comply with Anonymous’ ultimatum demands for legal reform.
The #OpLastResort attacks continued: On the 27th, Anonymous took over two .gov sites and literally turned them into the video game Asteroids, eventually causing a massive slowdown as word got out and people mobbed the sites. On February 4th, Anonymous hacked Federal Reserve computers and published the private info of over 4,000 American bank executive accounts.
To understand what’s going on with #OpLastResort, you need to understand the underlying issue that sparked it: the January suicide of 26 year-old computer activist Aaron Swartz. A computer prodigy who helped develop the RSS standard at the age of 14 and co-founded Reddit, Swartz became politically active and a fierce advocate of the idea that “information wants to be free.”
The Harvard research fellow was arrested on January 6, 2011, by federal authorities in connection with the automated downloading of 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, a system that stores academic articles. Swartz had written a small program that would download as many articles as possible, and when the Massachusetts Institute of Technology kicked him off the network, he physically connected his computer to it by splicing in to a connection in a computer wiring closet on the MIT campus.
Federal prosecutors eventually filed charges against Swartz that included eleven counts of violating the CFAA, or Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. The CFAA was written in the early 1980s, in a pre-internet era and many argued that Swartz was facing draconian punishment; potentially a maximum penalty of up to 35 years in prison, a million dollar fine, and more.
After Swartz was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment on January 11th, 2013, his death became a rallying point for Anonymous, as well as a thorny political issue for Democrats. Swartz was zealously prosecuted by Obama-appointed US Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Massachusetts; her future is unclear as it seems that the whole of the Democratic political structure in Massachusetts has abandoned her:
No one else in the Bay State power establishment is rushing to defend the beleaguered Ortiz. But this controversy is bigger than Boston, anyway. To survive, Ortiz needs Holder, the man she met years ago as a law school intern, to stand behind her. How much she can rely on him is uncertain, given the political heat the AG has already taken for some of his own judgment calls.
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick went from dropping her name as a potential gubernatorial candidate to ducking comment about the controversy that embroils her. Elizabeth Warren, the Bay State’s newly minted senior senator, described Swartz as a person who “wouldn’t hurt a fly” and said his acts demonstrate a “powerful commitment” to a better society.
Two Bay State congressmen — John Tierney and Stephen Lynch — sit on the House committee that is looking into the Swartz prosecution. Tierney is an unlikely ally, given that the federal prosecution of his wife for aiding the filing of false tax returns nearly cost him his seat last November. Lynch, who just announced he is running in the special election to fill John Kerry’s Senate seat, also has little to gain from backing the prosecution.
Because Swartz himself was a progressive who dove headfirst into political activism surrounded, for the most part, by people on the left, it’s easy for conservatives to dismiss the calls to change the CFAA in the wake of his martyrdom. The lack of balance was obvious at the Washington, D.C. memorial service for Swartz. Darrell Issa (R-CA) was one of the few Republicans in the room, which was attended by well known liberals and Democrats like Alan Grayson (D-FL), Jared Polis (D-CO), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR).
Most coverage about Swartz’s tragic suicide takes a decidedly leftist view and would be difficult for anyone outside of the far left’s hermetic seal to take seriously. Most rational adults agree that stealing things is wrong, including intellectual property. Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Smith College lecturer Robert Weir points out the practical end game of the “information wants to be free” view of Swartz’s activism:
It’s easy to trivialize what Swartz did because it was just a database of academic articles. I wonder if his supporters would have felt as charitable if he had “freed” bank deposits. His was not an innocent act. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took the not-unreasonable position that there is a considerable difference between downloading articles from free accounts registered with a university, and purloining 4.8 million documents by splicing into wiring accessed via unauthorized entry into a computer closet.
Those who would go beyond mourning Swartz into making him into a political martyr aren’t even comfortable labeling his death a suicide. In the video that Anonymous released, they even go so far as to say Aaron Swartz was “killed.” There have been very few dissenting voices to that hyperbole, save for a few like Brendan O’Neill blogging at The Telegraph in a piece entitled “Only One Person Is Responsible for Aaron Swartz’s Death, and That Is Aaron Swartz“:
Turning Swartz from a tragic suicide case into a political martyr who was “murdered by intimidation” is a really low form of politics. The aim is quite explicitly to force the American authorities to rethink their laws against hacking and how they pursue hackers, through effectively saying: “If you carry on with the status quo, more people will die.” In place of a serious political argument against apparently unjust laws, campaigners turn dead Swartz into a ventriloquist dummy, a political prop, a moral spectre, a ghost who says: “You killed me – don’t kill any more.”
Some free-market, pro-freedom activists have spoken up on the issue and have made excellent points about why the law may actually be in serious need of updating and how aspects of hacking culture are uniquely positive.
Timothy B. Lee wrote about Swartz for The Cato Institute:
As I said at the time of Swartz’s arrest, his actions were foolish and some punishment was probably appropriate. But he probably shouldn’t have been the subject of a criminal indictment and he certainly shouldn’t have faced felony charges.
“It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan,” (investor Paul) Graham wrote. “In those countries, people color inside the lines.”
Going against the leftist stream is never easy, though. Brendan O’Neill was promptly savaged by progressives for speaking out against the politicizing of Swartz’s death. At Swartz’s memorial, Berin Szoka, the president of pro-free market, pro-property rights group TechFreedom was shouted down just for expressing disagreement with Swartz’s flaunting of the law:
Speaking of the Internet activist’s alleged crime of downloading millions of academic articles, Szoka stepped out of the night’s orthodoxy of holding Swartz up as a hero. “I cannot condone what Aaron did,” Szoka started, about to launch into an argument about how Internet freedom should not be a partisan issue. He was cut off before he could go any further.
“Come on!” shouted a man from the crowd. “Come on!”
As Szoka tried to speak again, someone else shouted out: “Knowledge for everyone!”
Then from a different corner: “We’re free!”
“Just don’t come then!” cried another.
For some in the audience, a belief in the free flow of information apparently had a limit.
When the crowd was settled down by Swartz’s girlfriend, Szoka’s message was actually one the crowd would do well to listen to.
Szoka’s point last night was that Republicans and Democrats shared enough in common on Internet freedom issues to join forces, and that the fight to fix the law under which Swartz was charged – the outdated Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA) – should not be an ideological one. “The trick is to marry activism with careful draftsmanship to get the law right,” he said.
Anonymous’ attacks are doing nothing to make it easier to actually change the CFAA; their actions present a danger to any possibility of bipartisan support towards reform. They have a protest mindset that can easily turn counter-productive: shutting down rational voices and morphing a discussion about changing the outdated law into a fringe issue.