Groups plan SOPA-style online protest of NSA


Hoping to reprise the successful uprising staged last year against online piracy legislation, privacy advocacy groups have vowed to mark the passing of Internet activist Aaron Swartz with an online protest in February against the National Security Agency's electronic surveillance practices.

On Feb. 11, Access, Demand Progress, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Free Press, Boing Boing, Reddit, Mozilla and other groups are asking Internet users to post banners on their own websites, call and email lawmakers, develop Internet memes, and change their social media avatars to protest NSA's broad collection of metadata as part of The Day We Fight Back campaign.

Swartz, who helped create the RSS Web feed format and Reddit social news site, was a fierce activist for open access and electronic privacy. He was arrested by Massachusetts Institute of Technology police in 2011 and charged with downloading a large number of academic journal articles through the university's computer network. He committed suicide on Jan. 11, 2013 -- two days after prosecutors denied his lawyer's second offer of a plea bargain.

At the time of his death, Swartz was facing charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, computer damage and other felonies that carried a potential sentence of 50 years in federal prison and $1 million in fines. The penalties prompted accusations from Swartz supporters of prosecutorial bullying and excess.

Swartz was a key figure in the 2012 defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Opponents contended that the bill, which sought to protect copyrighted materials online, would have blocked access to legal websites and destroyed the interconnectedness on which the Internet depends. They used many of the techniques in fighting the bill that organizers of the Feb. 11 event are calling for.

Swartz co-founded Demand Progress in 2012 with David Segal, the organization's current executive director, to stop SOPA.

The battle against SOPA also had a darker side as sympathetic hacktivist groups used denial-of-service attacks to block access to the websites of companies and organizations that supported the legislation, such as the Recording Industry Association of America and Some groups have also used hacks to commemorate Swartz. Last January, two MIT websites were hacked and pasted with tributes to Swartz. At about the same time, the university's email system was taken down by hackers. Later that month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission's website was also breached.

Meanwhile, lawmakers are looking for more information about how Swartz's legal case was handled. Eight members of Congress sent a letter to the Justice Department on Jan. 10 seeking additional details on the inquiry.

"We regret that the information your department has provided to date has not been satisfactory -- among other things, it painted a picture of prosecutors unwilling or unable to weigh what charges to pursue against a defendant," the letter states. It was signed by four Democrats and four Republicans, and was a follow-up to a letter sent by Sens. John Cornyn (R–Texas) and Al Franken (D–Minn.) a year ago.

The latest letter also charges that there were inconsistencies between the Justice Department's report and MIT's report.

About the Authors

Reid Davenport is an FCW editorial fellow. Connect with him on Twitter: @ReidDavenport.

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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