The Boy Who Could Change the World (9 page)

BOOK: The Boy Who Could Change the World

Right now, technologists insist that they're building neutral platforms for anyone to find data on any issue. Journalists insist that they're objective observers of the facts. And political types assume they already know the answers and don't need to investigate further questions. They're each in their own silo, unable to see the bigger picture.

I certainly was. I care passionately about these issues—I don't want politicians to be corrupt; I don't want cars to kill people—and as a technologist I'd love to be able to solve them. That's why I got swept up in the promise of transparency. It seemed like just by doing the things I knew how to do best—write code, sift through databases—I could change the world.

But it just doesn't work. Putting databases online isn't a silver bullet, as nice as the word
may sound. But it was easy to delude myself. All I had to do was keep putting things online and someone somewhere would find a use for them. After all, that's what technologists do, right? The World Wide Web wasn't designed for publishing the news—it was designed as a neutral platform that could support anything from scientific publications to pornography.

Politics doesn't work like that. Perhaps at some point putting things on the front page of the
New York Times
guaranteed that they would be fixed, but that day is long past. The pipeline of leak to investigation to revelation to report to reform has broken down. Technologists can't depend on journalists to use their stuff; journalists can't depend on political activists to fix the problems they uncover.
Change doesn't come from thousands of people, all going their separate ways. Change requires bringing people together to work on a common goal. That's hard for technologists to do by themselves.

But if they do take that as their goal, they can apply all their talent and ingenuity to the problem. They can measure their success by the number of lives that have been improved by the changes they fought for, rather than the number of people who have visited their website. They can learn which technologies actually make a difference and which ones are merely indulgences. And they can iterate, improve, and scale.

Transparency can be a powerful thing, but not in isolation. So, let's stop passing the buck by saying our job is just to get the data out there and it's other people's job to figure out how to use it. Let's decide that our job is to fight for good in the world. I'd love to see all these amazing resources go to work on

How We Stopped SOPA

May 2012

Age 25

For me, it all started with a phone call. It was September—not last year, but the year before that, September 2010. And I got a phone call from my friend Peter. “Aaron,” he said, “there's an amazing bill that you have to take a look at.” “What is it?” I said. “It's called COICA, the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeiting Act.” “But, Peter,” I said, “I don't care about copyright law. Maybe you're right. Maybe Hollywood is right. But either way, what's the big deal? I'm not going to waste my life fighting over a little issue like copyright. Health care, financial reform—those are the issues that I work on, not something obscure like copyright law.” I could hear Peter grumbling in the background. “Look, I don't have time to argue with you,” he said, “but it doesn't matter for right now, because this isn't a bill about copyright.” “It's not?” “No,” he said. “It's a bill about the freedom to connect.” Now I was listening.

Peter explained what you've all probably long since learned, that this bill would let the government devise a list of websites that Americans weren't allowed to visit. On the next day, I came up with lots of ways to try to explain this to people. I said it was a great firewall of America. I said it was an Internet blacklist. I said it was online censorship. But I think it's worth taking a step back, putting aside all the rhetoric, and just thinking for a moment about how radical this bill really was. Sure, there are lots of times when the government makes rules about speech. If you slander a private figure, if you buy a television ad that lies to people, if you have a wild party that plays booming music all night, in all these cases, the government can
come stop you. But this was something radically different. It wasn't that the government went to people and asked them to take down particular material that was illegal; it shut down whole websites. Essentially, it stopped Americans from communicating entirely with certain groups. There's nothing really like it in U.S. law. If you play loud music all night, the government doesn't slap you with an order requiring you be mute for the next couple weeks. They don't say nobody can make any more noise inside your house. There's a specific complaint, which they ask you to specifically remedy, and then your life goes on.

The closest example I could find was a case where the government was at war with an adult bookstore. The place kept selling pornography; the government kept getting the porn declared illegal. And then, frustrated, they decided to shut the whole bookstore down. But even that was eventually declared unconstitutional, a violation of the First Amendment.

So, you might say, surely COICA would get declared unconstitutional as well. But I knew that the Supreme Court had a blind spot around the First Amendment, more than anything else, more than slander or libel, more than pornography, more even than child pornography. Their blind spot was copyright. When it came to copyright, it was like the part of the justices' brains shut off, and they just totally forgot about the First Amendment. You got the sense that, deep down, they didn't even think the First Amendment applied when copyright was at issue, which means that if you did want to censor the Internet, if you wanted to come up with some way that the government could shut down access to particular websites, this bill might be the only way to do it. If it was about pornography, it probably would get overturned by courts, just like the adult bookstore case. But if you claimed it was about copyright, it might just sneak through.

And that was especially terrifying, because, as you know, because copyright is everywhere. If you want to shut down WikiLeaks, it's a bit of a stretch to claim that you're doing it because they have too much pornography, but it's not hard at all to claim that WikiLeaks is violating copyright, because everything is copyrighted. This speech, you know, the thing I'm giving right now, these words are
copyrighted. And it's so easy to accidentally copy something, so easy, in fact, that the leading Republican supporter of COICA, Orrin Hatch, had illegally copied a bunch of code into his own Senate website. So if even Orrin Hatch's Senate website was found to be violating copyright law, what's the chance that they wouldn't find something they could pin on any of us?

There's a battle going on right now, a battle to define everything that happens on the Internet in terms of traditional things that the law understands. Is sharing a video on BitTorrent like shoplifting from a movie store? Or is it like loaning a videotape to a friend? Is reloading a webpage over and over again like a peaceful virtual sit-in or a violent smashing of shop windows? Is the freedom to connect like freedom of speech or like the freedom to murder?

This bill would be a huge, potentially permanent, loss. If we lost the ability to communicate with each other over the Internet, it would be a change to the Bill of Rights. The freedoms guaranteed in our Constitution, the freedoms our country had been built on, would be suddenly deleted. New technology, instead of bringing us greater freedom, would have snuffed out fundamental rights we had always taken for granted. And I realized that day, talking to Peter, that I couldn't let that happen.

But it was going to happen. The bill, COICA, was introduced on September 20th, 2010, a Monday, and in the press release heralding the introduction of this bill, way at the bottom, it was scheduled for a vote on September 23rd, just three days later. And while, of course, there had to be a vote—you can't pass a bill without a vote—the results of that vote were already a foregone conclusion, because if you looked at the introduction of the law, it wasn't just introduced by one rogue eccentric member of Congress; it was introduced by the chair of the Judiciary Committee and co-sponsored by nearly all the other members, Republicans and Democrats. So, yes, there'd be a vote, but it wouldn't be much of a surprise, because nearly everyone who was voting had signed their name to the bill before it was even introduced.

Now, I can't stress how unusual this is. This is emphatically not how Congress works. I'm not talking about how Congress should work, the way you see on
Schoolhouse Rock
. I mean, this is not the way
Congress actually works. I mean, I think we all know Congress is a dead zone of deadlock and dysfunction. There are months of debates and horse trading and hearings and stall tactics. I mean, you know, first you're supposed to announce that you're going to hold hearings on a problem, and then days of experts talking about the issue, and then you propose a possible solution, you bring the experts back for their thoughts on that, and then other members have different solutions, and they propose those, and you spend a bunch of time debating, and there's a bunch of trading, they get members over to your cause. And finally, you spend hours talking one-on-one with the different people in the debate, try and come back with some sort of compromise, which you hash out in endless backroom meetings. And then, when that's all done, you take that, and you go through it line by line in public to see if anyone has any objections or wants to make any changes. And then you have the vote. It's a painful, arduous process. You don't just introduce a bill on Monday and then pass it unanimously a couple days later. That just doesn't happen in Congress.

But this time, it was going to happen. And it wasn't because there were no disagreements on the issue. There are always disagreements. Some senators thought the bill was much too weak and needed to be stronger; as it was introduced, the bill only allowed the government to shut down websites, and these senators, they wanted any company in the world to have the power to get a website shut down. Other senators thought it was a drop too strong. But somehow, in the kind of thing you never see in Washington, they had all managed to put their personal differences aside to come together and support one bill they were persuaded they could all live with: a bill that would censor the Internet. And when I saw this, I realized: whoever was behind this was good.

Now, the typical way you make good things happen in Washington is you find a bunch of wealthy companies who agree with you. Social Security didn't get passed because some brave politicians decided their good conscience couldn't possibly let old people die starving in the streets. I mean, are you kidding me? Social Security got passed because John D. Rockefeller was sick of having to take money out of his profits to pay for his workers' pension funds. Why
do that, when you can just let the government take money from the workers? Now, my point is not that Social Security is a bad thing—I think it's fantastic. It's just that the way you get the government to do fantastic things is you find a big company willing to back them. The problem is, of course, that big companies aren't really huge fans of civil liberties. You know, it's not that they're against them; it's just there's not much money in it.

Now, if you've been reading the press, you probably didn't hear this part of the story. As Hollywood has been telling it, the great, good copyright bill they were pushing was stopped by the evil Internet companies who make millions of dollars off of copyright infringement. But it just—it really wasn't true. I was in there, in the meetings with the Internet companies—actually probably all here today. And, you know, if all their profits depended on copyright infringement, they would have put a lot more money into changing copyright law. The fact is, the big Internet companies, they would do just fine if this bill passed. They wouldn't be thrilled about it, but I doubt they would even have a noticeable dip in their stock price. So they were against it, but they were against it, like the rest of us, on grounds primarily of principle. And principle doesn't have a lot of money in the budget to spend on lobbyists. So they were practical about it. “Look,” they said, “this bill is going to pass. In fact, it's probably going to pass unanimously. As much as we try, this is not a train we're going to be able to stop. So, we're not going to support it—we couldn't support it. But in opposition, let's just try and make it better.” So that was the strategy: lobby to make the bill better. They had lists of changes that would make the bill less obnoxious or less expensive for them, or whatever. But the fact remained at the end of the day, it was going to be a bill that was going to censor the Internet, and there was nothing we could do to stop it.

So I did what you always do when you're a little guy facing a terrible future with long odds and little hope of success: I started an online petition. I called all my friends, and we stayed up all night setting up a website for this new group, Demand Progress, with an online petition opposing this noxious bill, and I sent it to a few friends. Now, I've done a few online petitions before. I've worked at some of the biggest groups in the world that do online petitions.
I've written a ton of them and read even more. But I've never seen anything like this. Starting from literally nothing, we went to 10,000 signers, then 100,000 signers, and then 200,000 signers and 300,000 signers, in just a couple of weeks. And it wasn't just signing a name. We asked those people to call Congress, to call urgently. There was a vote coming up this week, in just a couple days, and we had to stop it. And at the same time, we told the press about it, about this incredible online petition that was taking off. And we met with the staff of members of Congress and pleaded with them to withdraw their support for the bill. I mean, it was amazing. It was huge. The power of the Internet rose up in force against this bill. And then it passed unanimously.

Now, to be fair, several of the members gave nice speeches before casting their vote, and in their speeches they said their office had been overwhelmed with comments about the First Amendment concerns behind this bill, comments that had them very worried, so worried, in fact, they weren't sure that they still supported the bill. But even though they didn't support it, they were going to vote for it anyway, they said, because they needed to keep the process moving, and they were sure any problems that were had with it could be fixed later. So, I'm going to ask you, does this sound like Washington, D.C., to you? Since when do members of Congress vote for things that they oppose just to keep the process moving? I mean, whoever was behind this was good.

And then, suddenly, the process stopped. Senator Ron Wyden, the Democrat from Oregon, put a hold on the bill. Giving a speech in which he called it a nuclear bunker-buster bomb aimed at the Internet, he announced he would not allow it to pass without changes. And as you may know, a single senator can't actually stop a bill by themselves, but they can delay it. By objecting to a bill, they can demand Congress spend a bunch of time debating it before getting it passed. And Senator Wyden did. He bought us time—a lot of time, as it turned out. His delay held all the way through the end of that session of Congress, so that when the bill came back, it had to start all over again. And since they were starting all over again, they figured, why not give it a new name? And that's when it began being called PIPA, and eventually SOPA.

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