Making Internet politics personal

Activists put a face on acronyms like SOPA, PIPA, and CFAA

If you start looking for images to illustrate the fight last year over the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, you won’t find many of people. A Google image search offers pages of acronyms—the failed laws, that galvanized a community of Internet activists into political action, were known as SOPA and PIPA—pasted onto different types of signs. There are seemingly infinite octagonal red stop signs, various circles with a line slashing across, and stark white letters on black backgrounds with simple messages: STOP SOPA AND PIPA. 

But there are a few photos of people—a notably diverse group of people—marching and yelling and holding signs. Most of them come from one day in January, when the NY Tech Meetup organized a rally outside the office of the state’s two senators. 

But the fact that, in general, Internet activism lacks a human face, doesn’t escape the notice of David Segal, the executive director of Demand Progress, the Internet activist group founded by Aaron Swartz, who died in January, a suicide some say is traceable to his facing prosecution under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. “It’s not always easily to find a visualization of online activism that expresses the magnitude of steam that the cause has,” Segal says.

That’s part of the reason why, as the culmination of a week’s worth of action around reforming the CFAA, Demand Progress organized a march in Boston on Saturday. The CFAA, first put in place in the 1980s, governs and punishes computer crimes, the definition of which, critics say, now includes routine Internet activities.

On April 1, the day that Swartz would have faced trial for illegally downloading documents from JSTOR—Demand Progress announced a campaign to improve the CFAA and squash a bill that would “expand and harshen” the law. Throughout last week, the group, along with organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, plus legal experts like George Washington University’s Orin Kerr and Stanford’s Jennifer Granick, worked to raise awareness and educate people about the problems they see with the CFAA and their ideas for fixing it. On Saturday, hundreds of people came out to hold accountable the prosecutors in Swartz’s case and to call on Congress to reform the law. And now there are pictures.

The push to reform the CFAA is shaping up to be one of the next big fights for the political movement that coalesced last year against SOPA and PIPA. In some ways, it’s more natural to connect the CFAA with human faces; after Swartz’s death, US Rep. Zoe Lofgren attached his name to a version of CFAA reform now known as “Aaron’s Law.” And in March, Andrew Auernheimer, a well-known hacker and troll, began serving 41-month prison sentence for CFAA violations. 

When groups like Demand Progress talk about the problems with CFAA, though, they also work to show how this law could ensnare average Internet users, like those of us who routinely violate terms of service agreements by lying about our age on dating websites or sneaking behind the New York Times’s paywall. These groups don’t condone these actions; they just think that the potential punishment for such misdeeds shouldn’t be felony charges or years in prison. Some of the photos from Demand Progress’s rally feature “CFAA felons”—people confessing their Internet sins that, under the law’s current incarnation, could be prosecutable offenses. (This woman, for instance, “committed multiple felonies when I post disrespectful comments on HuffPo, NYT, YouTube,” and other sites.) 

But building awareness through on-the-ground mobilization is just one of the strategies that these groups are employing. Good old-fashioned, face-to-face lobbying also has its place — and seems to be making a difference. 

As part of their push for CFAA reform, groups from across the political spectrum, including the Tea Party-aligned Freedom Works, wrote the House Judiciary Committee to ask that the committee reject a version of CFAA reform that had been circulating. This version did the exact opposite of what these groups were looking for. Instead of limiting the scope of the law, it expanded it. Instead of decreasing penalties for violators, it increased them dramatically. Meetings followed the letter, and on Friday, The Huffington Post reported that the offending draft legislation, which the committee had intended to vote on this week as part of a push on cybersecurity, was being pulled from the agenda. 

The CFAA isn’t the only law groups like Demand Progress is worried about. Congress is also working on the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act, which would allow private companies and public agencies more leeway to share information about Internet users’ activity and which has implications for privacy that worry groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union. Republicans are planning to bring that bill to a vote on the House floor this week. And this bill’s harder to get people to rally around—unlike the CFAA, it doesn’t have a human face.

Disclosure: CJR has received funding from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to cover intellectual-property issues, but the organization has no influence on the content.

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Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications. Tags: , ,