Internet rebels

Since the early days of the Internet, net rebels and hacktivists have been fighting for a censorship-free net.

The fight for a free Internet is as old as the Net itself.

Ever since the first e-mail was sent more than fifty years ago, internet rebels and hacktivists have been fighting for free access to the net and a censorship-free exchange of information: Richard Stallman, Tim Berners-Lee, and the late internet prodigy Aaron Swartz.

Net rebels (Ger), May 12, 2023
Aaron Swartz ©Daniel J. Sieradski

The first email was sent in the USA in 1971. 13 years later, in August 1984, the time had also come in Germany. From then on, the Internet went blow by blow. The focus was always on faster and more direct communication and the exchange of knowledge.

TV moderator: “Good evening, this is ‘Report from Berlin’. Today’s important topic: it’s about chat control. It’s about your chats, your chat data. And it’s about the European Commission. If it goes after them, your chats are to be read out systematically.”

When Tim Berners-Lee created the World Wide Web in 1993, he already suspected that the sheer infinite possibilities of global networking would arouse desires – not only from commercial companies, but also from governments. The British physicist and computer scientist therefore deliberately refrained from patenting his invention. Access to the network and the exchange of information should be free, for everyone. A beautiful dream.

To this day, individuals and groups are fighting to make this dream come true. The beginning was made in 1983, now forty years ago, by the American programmer Richard Stallman, when he launched the so-called free software movement.

According to Stallman, Free Software guarantees “four freedoms”: One may 1) use and 2) modify the program and source code free of charge for any purpose and also 3) pass it on to others – but 4) only again as Free Software. Stallman calls this principle “copyleft” – in contrast to copyright, which restricts the use. This is also the difference to open source products, whose source code can be protected, as in the case of Microsoft and Windows, for example – or which can only be obtained for money. Charles Gregory from North Carolina says you can money also with free software:

“The same way lawyers do: they do not write the legal code. It is their intelligence and their ability to interprete this code and make it possible for others to work within it. Red Hat were the first to create a corporation to sell Free Software. They didn’t sell the software but they put it on a CD, they created a manual, they offered service. Nowadays, Red Hat software is on the New York Stock Exchange.”

One person who knew how to use free software better than anyone else was Aaron Swartz of Chicago. At the age of just 14, he had helped develop the Web standard RSS, and since then has been considered an Internet prodigy. In January 2012, at the age of 25, he took on the USA government for the web as he saw it – and won.

Aaron Swartz was proud to have achieved the impossible. Under pressure from the film and music industries in particular, the Obama administration wanted to regulate the web more tightly to prevent piracy. Under the bill, it would no longer be just the person who infringes copyright who would be liable to prosecution. Search engines would not be allowed to link to the site where the copyright was infringed. Advertising and payment service providers would not be allowed to do business with that site. And Internet providers could be forced to block access. Aaron Swartz saw the freedom of the Internet in danger. On his action platform Demand Progress, he unceremoniously designed a website – as a tool for anyone who wanted to protest the plan. Charles Gregory was one of them:

“On his website, I was able to find out the exact status of the legislation and the further timing. All I had to do was type in my zip code – and I got links and phone numbers to my local congressman. To my knowledge, nothing like this had ever been done before.”

Information, communication and democratic participation on one website: Swartz started an avalanche. Millions of people protested. The English-language Wikipedia went offline for a short time, and other pages remained black in solidarity. Google’s logo showed a censor bar. More than 100,000 websites took part in the biggest protest in the history of the Internet. Eventually, the law was off the table. For Swartz, only a brief triumph. Because at that point, the public prosecutor’s office had already been investigating the Hactivist for a year. They accused him of having downloaded 4.8 million articles from the JSTOR scientific database that were behind a paywall. But from Swartz’s point of view, they should be accessible to everyone.

“For members of the knowledge elite, students and professors, it’s free; the rest of the world has to pay. I didn’t see at the time how much this injustice bothered him.”

Lawrence Lessig

Lawrence Lessig, a law professor at Harvard University, is considered Aaron Swartz’s mentor. At 15, Swartz wrote the code for Lessig’s Creative Commons licenses, providing one-click access to alternative copyright rules. Even today. That brings legal certainty – and saves expensive legal fees at the same time. Swartz became a co-developer of the social news platform Reddit and a millionaire through its sale.

Rüdiger Weis, a computer science professor at the Beuth University of Applied Sciences in Berlin, teaches Swartz’s programming language Markdown. He says:

“RSS and Markdown are among the most important formats for simple text representation. For example, at Git-Hub, Markdown is recommended language for documenting software projects. Git-Hub is one of the largest providers for so-called version management of software projects. This means programmers can collaborate on common projects even from different time zones.”

His idealism to make the world a better place was Swartz’s undoing. Although he immediately returned the downloaded science files, the U.S. Attorney’s Office continued to investigate him. It’s 2011: Julian Assange, with Wikileaks, has just taken advantage of the freedom of the web and published masses of classified documents from the U.S. military, leaked by whistleblower Bradley today Chelsea Manning. Does the government want to make an example of Swartz as a deterrent? He faces up to 35 years in prison.

On January 11, 2013, his girlfriend finds him in their shared Brooklyn apartment – Aaron Swartz had hanged himself with his belt. He was 26 years old.

Swartz’s digital legacy also includes an encryption system that allows journalists to communicate securely with whistleblowers. The open-source system is now used under the name SecureDrop by the New York Times and CNN, the Guardian and the German Süddeutsche Zeitung, among others. The technology is also significant because the fight for a free Internet has long since shifted from copyright to content. The chat control planned by the EU Commission is just one example of many.

“Current developments show that the question of how people can inform themselves on the Internet without censorship, as well as how they can post their own articles and comments, has become a central question for our further social development.”

Rüdiger Weis

Computer science professor Rüdiger Weis, who co-founded the Digital Society Association, is convinced: Swartz would have fought current developments. He would have criticized governments for trying to use laws to influence the exchange of knowledge and opinions in their favor. That online media are increasingly relying on a paywall. And that social platforms are controlled by a few companies or, like Twitter, even by a single person. Charles Gregory, who wants to bring Swartz’s vision of net freedom and free software closer to laypeople, says:

“All of them are thinking in the old world way. Aaron said: ‘Knowledge is not power: shared knowledge is power’. They do not see it. They think that’s how you are safe – by control.”

On the Net, however, control can be very limited. Many browsers that are based on free software can withstand attempts by governments to gain access. Moreover, any restriction of content means censorship. The core of the free web, however, is freely available knowledge for all and free communication. Rüdiger Weis:

“Democracy means that very many different and also painful opinions have to be endured. That is a fundamental difference to authoritarian states. For this reason, I see any censorship as very critical.”

Please read more about Aaron Swartz on my website.

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