the kicker

Internet Freedom Day

Celebrating the defeat of SOPA/PIPA and remembering Aaron Swartz
January 18, 2013

Remember the Stop Online Privacy and Protect IP Acts, better known as SOPA/PIPA? It was a year ago that thousands of websites — like Wikipedia, Reddit, and Boing Boing — went dark to demonstrate what could happen were the acts to pass. Both acts were proposed as way to combat copyright infringement on the Internet.

To commemorate successful protests against the acts, open Internet activists have dubbed Friday Internet Freedom Day.

Supporters of SOPA and PIPA said the acts would protect copyrights and intellectual property. Opponents pointed out that the acts could force Internet service providers to shut down entire domains if they hosted copyright infringements or even links to other sites with copyright infringements — effectively removing the Digital Millennium Copyright Act’s protection for sites that rely on user-generated content. Others thought the draconian enforcement of the acts would constitute censorship and violate the First Amendment.

Neither SOPA nor PIPA passed. They never got the chance to: On January 20, 2012, both acts were shelved indefinitely. “From absolutely passing to dead in the water,” as Josh Levy, Internet campaign director at Free Press, describes it.

Levy says Internet Freedom Day is about not only celebrating the past, but also a reminder to be proactive against threats to an open Internet in the future. Those thoughts were echoed by Brett Solomon, executive director of Access Now.

“We want lawmakers to know, wherever they are, that they can’t mess with the Internet,” Solomon says. “As citizens and as part of civil society, we’re prepared to exercise our rights to defend that open space.”

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Programmer and activist Aaron Swartz spoke at one of the biggest SOPA/PIPA protest last year. He isn’t here to celebrate the anniversary of the protests; he died on January 11, an alleged suicide. At the time of his death, he was facing federal charges for downloading 4.8 million articles from JSTOR’s database, accessed through MIT’s network, with plans to upload them and make them freely available to all. He faced a maximum of 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines.

Swartz “had a very clear vision which set out the role of an open Internet and the importance of freedom of information and the requirement of individual access to the Internet,” Solomon says. “He was very proactive, when he saw that SOPA and PIPA were a threat to his vision, to help to mobilize all of us to respond to those threats.”

“It’s with a heavy heart, of course, that he’s not here a year later,” Solomon adds. Levy likened Internet Freedom Day to the Internet “flying the flag at half-mast.” A public memorial service for Swartz will be held in New York City on January 19.

In light of both the anniversary of the legislation’s failure and Swartz’s death, participants are being encouraged to observe Internet Freedom Day by tweeting what the Internet means to them and using the #InternetFreedomDay hashtag, supporting Aaron’s Law, demanding the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, passed in 1986, be updated, and sharing a video of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s copyrighted “I Have a Dream” speech.

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.

Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.