Senator disputes Aaron Swartz's SOPA, Protect IP role

Senate Judiciary spokeswoman denies that a meeting between a committee aide and the late activist Aaron Swartz led to the creation of the anti-SOPA advocacy group Demand Progress.

Peter Eckersley, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's technology projects director and Aaron Swartz's former roommate, speaks at a gathering in San Francisco.
Peter Eckersley, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's technology projects director and Aaron Swartz's former roommate, speaks at a gathering in San Francisco. Declan McCullagh/CNET

Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary committee, is taking issue with a description of how a discussion with one of his aides led the late Aaron Swartz to campaign against Hollywood-backed copyright bills.

At an event in San Francisco last weekend, Peter Eckersley, Swartz's former roommate and the Electronic Frontier Foundation's technology projects director, told an audience that the late activist created the advocacy group Demand Progress after a fruitless meeting with one of Leahy's aides.

Aaron Cooper, who works for Leahy -- the author of the Protect IP Act -- as the chief intellectual property counsel for the Senate Judiciary committee, reportedly told Swartz during the meeting that "the priority of this country is going to be making sure that files cannot be shared, songs cannot be copied, movies cannot be copied," according to Eckersley's account.

Jessica Brady, a spokeswoman for Senate Judiciary Committee, told CNET this afternoon that's absolutely not what happened:

T

he third-party description of the November 2010 conversation between Aaron Cooper and Aaron Swartz is entirely fabricated. It is wrong on the substance, and it is wrong on the very nature of their conversation. The two had a positive meeting, and their discussion focused mainly on whether an agreement could be reached to go after infringers and counterfeiters living in countries where the United States does not have extradition treaties. Aaron Cooper -- a tireless, highly respected and superbly knowledgeable policy advisor on these and other complex issues -- never said anything remotely similar to the quote described in this false account. Further, the timeline provided in this account is inaccurate. The organization Demand Progress began well before the two men met in late November of 2010. And finally, the support Senator Leahy received for his version of the legislation from the Internet service provider community, as well as domain name registries and registrars, is evidence that ensuring the legislation would not 'break' the Internet was a top priority for Senator Leahy and his staff.

Domain name registrar GoDaddy initially supported the Stop Online Piracy Act and Leahy's similar Protect IP Act, but after a customer boycott , backed down and announced its opposition. AT&T said at the time that "we have been supportive of the general framework" of Protect IP, which stopped short of a formal endorsement, and Verizon expressed concerns about SOPA.

Swartz committed suicide on January 11 in New York City. His family and friends have blamed Carmen Ortiz, 57, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, for filing 13 felony charges against the late activist for allegedly downloading academic journals he was permitted to access (although not in large quantities). A congressional investigation of Ortiz, who has denied any wrongdoing, is underway.

Eckersley told the story about Swartz at a retrospective event titled "a year after SOPA/PIPA," organized by EFF, Engine Advocacy, and Craig Newmark's craigconnects. SOPA was, of course, the Stop Online Piracy Act; PIPA was Leahy's Senate counterpart, also known as the Protect IP Act.

In response to the Judiciary spokeswoman's comment, Eckersley said this evening that:

We were at an event for the one-year anniversary of the Internet's SOPA/PIPA victory, and so perhaps it's unsurprising to see some of that old controversy reemerge.

Almost everything in the committee representative's response is a mere re-litigation of the issues in the COICA/SOPA/PIPA fights: was it acceptable to censor various parts of the DNS system in order to "go after infringers and counterfeiters" outside the reach of United States jurisdiction? It was clear that was a question on which the two Aarons disagreed.

Similarly, a willingness on the part of some particular ISPs and parts of the DNS industry to accept these censorship proposals despite their potential consequences for the long-term health of the network later became extremely controversial, as was most strongly evidenced by the grass-roots boycott of GoDaddy.

Nothing in my comments should be taken as a critique of the personal integrity of any committee staff: it was simply clear that their political priorities placed the objective of copyright enforcement categorically ahead of concerns about the wellbeing of the Internet. It was only that kind of prioritization that could have produced legislative proposals like COICA, PIPA, or SOPA, and that is exactly what Aaron Swartz described to me in a conversation after his meeting with Cooper.

Lastly, there is one point on which I stand corrected: it appears that Aaron Swartz did in fact found Demand Progress around six weeks before he met with Aaron Cooper. I was recalling these events from memory for my talk, and their ordering was in fact different.

Last updated at 6:20 p.m. PT with Peter Eckersley's reply

 

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