Call to action kicks off second Aaron Swartz hackathon

The EFF's legal director delivers harsh words for Google and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi to fire up the crowd at the start of an Aaron Swartz memorial hackathon in San Francisco.

Seth Rosenblatt Former Senior Writer / News
Senior writer Seth Rosenblatt covered Google and security for CNET News, with occasional forays into tech and pop culture. Formerly a CNET Reviews senior editor for software, he has written about nearly every category of software and app available.
Seth Rosenblatt
3 min read
Aaron Swartz's statue at the Internet Archive, unveiled at the memorial presentation on his 27th birthday. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- On the occasion of what would've been Aaron Swartz's 27th birthday, the hacker who was driven to suicide earlier this year by government prosecution was memorialized with a clay statue of his likeness at the Internet Archive.

The half-sized representation of Swartz bears his scruffy, unshaven likeness and neck-length hair, but also an Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) T-shirt and a laptop with an inscription on its lid: "10,000,000,000,000,000 Internet Archive 2012 bytes archived." The Internet Archive crossed 10 petabytes of data archived for free in October 2012.

Employees of the non-profit, headquartered on Funston Avenue in the often-foggy Richmond District, are honored with statues after they've worked for the Archive for at least three years. Joining the 100 or so clay denizens of the Great Room on Friday evening were around 150 friends and hackers inspired by Swartz, who gathered to remember his life and inaugurate the second worldwide hackathon since his death.

But there was no fog in air as the Internet Archive's founder and director, Brewster Kahle, explained the goal of the hackathon: to further coding projects that aligned with Swartz's values, "an open and safe Internet."

"We are making the Internet a safer place," Kahle said of the Internet Archive's work, by resisting National Security Letters, and by protecting reader's privacy by cloaking and obfuscating their IP addresses.

He added that the Internet Archive is also making the Internet more open. Browser extensions supported by the archive help people add public safety codes to the archive's database, an important task because although the codes are public, companies have created what Kahle described as a "multi-billion dollar business" in forcing people to pay to receive printed copies of them.

Turning his attention to potential projects for the gathered hackers to work on, he noted that only 54 of the top 1,000 Web sites were protected by HTTPS, which makes it harder for snoopers to read your Internet traffic.

"I think this is completely doable," Kahle said, suggesting a project to raise that number.

Kahle wasn't the only speaker to encourage action. Cindy Cohn, the legal director of the EFF, took Google to task for not being a more vocal advocate for Aaron's Law, the proposed Computer Fraud and Abuse Act reforms. The CFAA was used by the office of Carmen Ortiz, the US attorney for Massachusetts, as the basis to prosecute Swartz.

Internet Archive director Brewster Kahle encourages the audience at the Aaron Swartz memorial, on what would've been Swartz's 27th birthday on Friday, November 8, 2013, to hack in the name of the values of openness and safety. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

"Bad is Oracle for actively lobbying to strengthen the CFAA," Cohn said. "Worse is Google for not standing up. They won't help us fix the law that killed one of our own. But," she added, "it's not just Google."

Few of the major tech companies, she said, have lent time, money, or resources to reform the CFAA. She said that the EFF has hired its first lobbyist to pursue CFAA reform, something that the online rights group has never done before.

And while she thanked the Aaron's Law authors, Democrats Rep. Zoe Lofgren and Sen. Ron Wyden, and its Republican co-sponsor Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, she questioned why the House Minority Leader had not taken a more active role on Aaron's Law.

"I'd love for our district representative, Nancy Pelosi, to be a leader on this," she said to loud applause from the audience.

EFF director Cindy Cohn asks the audience at the Second Aaron Swartz Memorial Hackathon to push their politicians to support the CFAA reform known as Aaron's Law. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Neither Google nor Pelosi's office immediately returned requests for comment. CNET will update the story when we hear back from them.

Despite the somber reason for gathering, Kahle implored those who planned on participating in the hackathon to remain optimistic.

"Let's celebrate openness," he exclaimed.

The Second Aaron Swartz Memorial Hackathon takes place in San Francisco at Noisebridge, and around the world at 18 other locations, throughout the weekend.

Update, November 15 at 3:50 p.m: to clarify that Cindy Cohn is the legal director of the EFF.