[We welcome our newest contributor, Gregg Housh, an activist focused on internet freedoms, censorship, over-prosecution and Anonymous. This article is cross-posted at 0v.org. – Alex.]
It was February 6th, 2011 that I had to give some bad news to my wife. Her pseudonym (one she calls “as subtle as John Zeus”) was on the list of supposed “lieutenants of Anonymous” that Aaron Barr of HB Gary Federal had compiled. Barr’s intention was to identify the people involved in various projects on the AnonOps IRC network by connecting them to real social network profiles, and then to somehow parlay this data into brownie points with the FBI. And there she was, in the cross hairs.
This Saturday, DC saw something it had never seen before.
A city that treats the superficial hatreds of party politics as its lifeblood, saw thousands of people from across the political spectrum gather to denounce NSA mass spying. We heard, and roared approval for, the words of feminist Naomi Wolf, Dennis Kucinich (Democrat), Justin Amash (Republican), and Gary Johnson (Libertarian). Kymone Freeman spoke movingly about the impact of surveillance on minority communities and the civil rights movement. Whistleblowers Thomas Drake and Russell Tice were there, and Edward Snowden sent a message to be read by leading whistleblower-protecting attorney Jesselynn Radack. Tea Party people up from Richmond, VA, proudly put on Code Pink stickers labeled “Make Out Not War”. The press reported wonderingly that it was not put together “by any of the “usual” well-connected DC organizers.” I should know: I’m proud to say that, in a small way, I was one of them, and this was the first time most of us had done anything like this.
That wasn’t all. Here in Boston, activist Joan Livingston put together a solidarity rally at Park Street Station:
Cambridge resident David House got a nasty shock back in December 2010, when on his way back from vacation in Mexico he landed in Chicago, and found himself in a Homeland Security interrogation room. What was House’s crime? Being involved with the Bradley Manning Support Network. He was generally sympathetic to Wikileaks’ efforts to publicize the war crimes revealed by the Bradley Manning leaks. Or, as the “lookout” alert put it, he was “wanted for questioning re leak of classified material.”
[Artwork adapted slightly from Leo Reynolds on Flickr]
After the 9/11 attacks, a traumatized nation considered whether the attacks could have been thwarted by coordinating intelligence-gathering better between the FBI and CIA. From that impulse grew the fusion centers, of which there are now at least 7277 86 across the country. Us lucky SOBs here in Massachusetts get two, the Boston Regional Intelligence Center at One Schroeder Plaza, Roxbury, MA 02120 and the Commonwealth Fusion Center at 124 Acton Street, Maynard, MA 01754. The idea was that they would be able to thwart terrorist attacks before they occur, by gathering representatives from different agencies, and in some cases the military and the private sector, together to report on “suspicious activity”. In practice, it has not worked.
Thing is, actual terrorists are relatively thin on the ground. A network of 7277 86 fusion centers might handle three genuine cases of terrorism between them in any given year. That’s not enough to enable each fusion center to show that it’s doing anything at all. What’s a good bureaucrat to do?
There are no words to describe the loss to the world of brilliant technologist Aaron Swartz, who killed himself this weekend at the age of 26.
Aaron had already helped to develop RSS and Reddit, worked to stop the Stop Online Piracy Act, and was deeply involved in Internet activism. He could easily have devoted his extraordinary skills only to profit; instead, he committed himself passionately to openness and the spread of knowledge. Lawrence Lessig has summarized his work far better than I can. The creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, gave the eulogy at his funeral.
Aaron’s death teaches us an important lesson about how the law operates here in 21st-century America. He was not the only local activist to be unnecessarily persecuted by government agencies. Laws relating to our Internet activities have been drawn so widely and so poorly that eager prosecutors can find grounds for indicting more or less anyone, for things that in former times the law would not have defined as crimes at all. Government agencies can now open investigations on people, and subject them to the sledgehammer of the criminal justice system, on the strength of nothing more than unwise posts on Twitter or translating the wrong materials. Prosecutors answer to nobody regarding the fairness or proportionality of their investigations.
The result is that dissidents who hamper powerful interests can far too easily be investigated and silenced. The result is that brilliant, original and public-spirited souls like Swartz exhaust their energies on meaningless legal battles, rather than developing new and wondrous technologies to solve problems we all face. We’ll never know now what Aaron Swartz would have come up with next, thanks to the casual brutality of a criminal justice system that cares more for creating criminals than for achieving justice.
Know what side you’re on. Overcriminalization hurts us all. We need to stand together, and rein in this crazy system, before it chews us all up.