Film 'War for Web' warns of CISPA, SOPA, future threats

The late Aaron Swartz said in an interview for the documentary film, set to be completed late this year, that he was more worried about the U.S. government than about teenage hackers in basements.

Declan McCullagh Former Senior Writer
Declan McCullagh is the chief political correspondent for CNET. You can e-mail him or follow him on Twitter as declanm. Declan previously was a reporter for Time and the Washington bureau chief for Wired and wrote the Taking Liberties section and Other People's Money column for CBS News' Web site.
Declan McCullagh
4 min read
The film's producers say "War for the Web" features an unseen interview with activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide before his criminal trial was due to begin.
The film's producers say "War for the Web" features an unseen interview with activist Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide before his criminal trial was due to begin. War for the Web

From Aaron Swartz's struggles with an antihacking law to Hollywood's lobbying to a raft of surveillance proposals, the Internet and its users' rights are under attack as never before, according to the creators of a forthcoming documentary film.

The film, titled "War for the Web," traces the physical infrastructure of the Internet, from fat underwater cables to living room routers, as a way to explain the story of what's behind the high-volume politicking over proposals like CISPA, Net neutrality, and the Stop Online Piracy Act.

"People talk about security, people talk about privacy, they talk about regional duopolies like they're independent issues," Cameron Brueckner, the film's director, told CNET yesterday. "What is particularly striking is that these issues aren't really independent issues.... They're all interconnected."

The filmmakers have finished 17 lengthy interviews -- including what they say is the last extensive one that Swartz, the Internet activist, gave before committing suicide in January -- that have yielded about 24 hours of raw footage. They plan to have a rough cut finished by the end of the year, and have launched a fundraising campaign on Indiegogo that ends May 1. (Here's a three-minute trailer.)

Swartz, who was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, faced a criminal trial that would have begun this month and the possibility of anywhere from years to over a decade in federal prison for alleged illegal downloads of academic journal articles. He told the filmmakers last year, in an interview that took place after his indictment, that the U.S. government posed a more serious cybersecurity threat than hackers:

They cracked into other countries' computers. They cracked into military installations. They have basically initiated cyberwar in a way that nobody is talking about because, you know, it's not some kid in the basement somewhere -- It's President Obama. Because it's distorted this way, because people talk about these fictional kids in the basement instead of government officials that have really been the problem, it ends up meaning that cybersecurity has been an excuse to do anything...

Now, cybersecurity is important. I think the government should be finding these vulnerabilities and helping to fix them. But they're doing the opposite of that. They're finding the vulnerabilities and keeping them secret so they can abuse them. So if we do care about cybersecurity, what we need to do is focus the debate not on these kids in a basement who aren't doing any damage -- but on the powerful people, the people paying lots of money to find these security holes who then are doing damage and refusing to fix them.

It was an eerily accurate prediction of how CISPA author Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican, would defend his controversial cybersecurity legislation this week. During a contentious House Rules committee meeting, Rogers said opponents to CISPA were "a 14-year-old tweeter in the basement" -- prompting a flood of snarky responses on Twitter from adults who said they had serious constitutional and privacy concerns about his bill.

CISPA, of course, is a bill approved by the House of Representatives two days ago that would authorize e-mail and Internet providers to share certain confidential customer data with the federal government. The vote came after a closed-door meeting of Rogers' House Intelligence committee last week that approved the bill in an unusual debate that took place in secret.

Rogers and his allies defeated a series of privacy-protective amendments, including one (PDF) that would have required Homeland Security or other agencies to obtain warrants before searching this database of shared information for evidence of criminal activity. Another unsuccessful amendment (PDF) would have made Internet companies' promises to protect customer privacy legally enforceable.

Also interviewed is Richard Clarke, a former White House cybersecurity coordinator and the author of "Cyber War"
Also interviewed is Richard Clarke, a former White House cybersecurity coordinator and the author of "Cyber War" War for the Web

People "really aren't paying attention" to the way Internet-related legislation is being drafted, said "War for the Web" writer Michael Wooldrige. "We're ignoring CISPA. We're ignoring SOPA. These are all conversations now that are happening behind closed doors. We need to bring those to the public."

The documentary aims to tie them all together, said Brueckner, the film's director. "It's not so much that we're breaking it down by exploring each of these individual issues," he said. "We're looking at the through-line of how they're all related. We have to step back and look at everything."

Other topics in the film include the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, an antipiracy measure that prompted an unprecedented public outcry last year based on fears it would jeopardize constitutionally protected online speech. The producers also plan to revisit the Net neutrality debate, which is temporarily on hold because the FCC's regulations are being challenged in court as illegal. If the FCC loses, Congress would likely revisit the topic.

Swartz also told the filmmakers he was concerned about private companies' effective ability to censor the Internet. Mastercard and Visa cut off Wikileaks from receiving donations, he said, and "you can imagine Facebook doing the same thing -- certain groups of people can't share things on Facebook -- that entire community gets shut down." He added: "It's terrifying to imagine what happens when our infrastucure is controlled by these private corporations that can then decide basic things like what we can talk about."

Interviews finished so far, the producers said, include ones with Google's Vint Cerf, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), former government cybersecurity aide Richard Clarke, and Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo School of Law who's been talked about as a possible next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Wooldrige said he would like to interview Rep. Darryl Issa, the California Republican who became a leading foe of SOPA.

Ben Caspi, the film's director, said he plans "another round of production this summer." Then, he said, once the last interviews are complete, "we'll transition straight to postproduction" with a scheduled release date of early next year.