How Aaron Swartz helped to defeat Hollywood on SOPA

Aaron Swartz's former roommate, Peter Eckersley, says the late activist started Demand Progress because from D.C.'s perspective, it "doesn't matter" if their laws break the Internet.

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

SAN FRANCISCO -- A fruitless Capitol Hill meeting to discuss digital copyright legislation prompted the late activist Aaron Swartz to launch the Demand Progress advocacy group, his former roommate said at a gathering here last weekend.

Swartz was so frustrated with congressional willingness to break the Internet on Hollywood's behalf that he created a group to channel online outrage into political activism, said Peter Eckersley, the Electronic Frontier Foundation's technology projects director.

Eckersley said Swartz had met with Aaron Cooper, who works for Protect IP author Patrick Leahy as the chief intellectual property counsel for the Senate Judiciary committee. A spokeswoman for the committee denied that's what happened at the meeting, calling the account "entirely fabricated" and "false." (Here's the full statement.)

Last weekend's remarks came 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 the Senate counterpart also known as the Protect IP Act.

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 authorized to access (but not access in such large quantities). A congressional investigation of Ortiz, who has denied any wrongdoing, is underway.

We've reproduced an excerpt from Eckersley's remarks -- he said he had contacted Swartz to help defeat SOPA and Protect IP -- below.


he first thing he did he got on a train and went down to D.C. and he met with another Aaron. There was another Aaron who worked in Senator Leahy's office. These two Aarons, the one wearing a suit inside D.C., and our friend Aaron Swartz wearing a Reddit T-shirt or an EFF t-shirt or whatever he was wearing that day, hunched over his belly and unable to see anything through his glasses, the two of them met and talked for two hours about this bill.

And he explained why this was a terrible idea. And Aaron Cooper replied: "Oh, yes, but what you don't understand is that copyright and copyright enforcement is more important than the Internet. Sure, you've got this Internet thing. But actually this thing is more important. And it doesn't matter if things break or need to be reorganized. The priority of this country is going to be making sure that files cannot be shared, songs cannot be copied, movies cannot be copied. And we'll break things -- if that's the easiest way to do it, we're going to have to do it."

So Aaron came away from that meeting kind of despondent because he thought he'd be able to talk these people out of it. And I came away worried that he might have explained all of our best arguments to the other side. Two hours of explaining exactly all the details about this was a bad idea seemed like an extreme warning to them: they'd be able to tailor a message that was exactly perfect at defeating us everywhere.

I shouldn't have worried. Because then Aaron got so angry he went back and somehow started a new organization called Demand Progress... In two weeks he put together a campaign organization and it did things differently from than the way we had done them at EFF. We were very good at figuring out the relationship between a complicated piece of law and a complicated piece of technology and explaining that to you guys and our community, and our community of technologists, primarily.

We had allies in D.C. who were good at knowing the inside game. But at least some of them were going to be focused on amending the bill, cutting a deal, trying making it 50 percent as bad. And we knew if that happened, we were still going to lose. What we needed was a left flank. Aaron at Demand Progress provided that to us. They showed up and they'd send out these e-mails with a link to a page that had only two or three incredibly simple -- sometimes overly simplified, sometimes just nailing it in two sentences -- descriptions of the problem and a giant graphic saying "Take Action."

And overnight he got close to a million people engaged in fighting this thing. Later on when we had a bigger coalition and more groups, everyone was able to sort of learn the campaign lessons. You'll see now when EFF does these big actions, things are a little simpler and more elegant because we learned to copy Aaron and copy that method of simplicity. But back then Demand Progress was kind of the only thing that helped to get us through a few weeks when we thought this bill was going to sail out of committee and sail through the 2010 Congress and we would be living with SOPA or PIPA or in fact COICA, which was worse than those bills today.

And that was just one amazing thing that I saw Aaron do in the time that I knew him. I saw him do a lot of other amazing things. And I'm incredibly sad I didn't get to see 50 years more of him changing the world in the same kinds of ways. But I didn't. Aaron isn't with us anymore. And we're going to have to figure out how to finish some of the projects that he started.

Last updated at 3:50 p.m. PT with a response from the Senate Judiciary committee.