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An Open Letter to HN from EFF, Demand Progress, and Cory Doctorow
681 points by davidsegal on Jan 10, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 101 comments
Dear HN,

Two years ago you joined in fighting back against dangerous Internet censorship legislation during the SOPA protests. You blacked out your websites, lobbied your employers to do the same, and started creative campaigns to defeat a threat to freedom on the Internet.

As was often the case, Aaron Swartz said it best: “[We defeated SOPA] because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story.” [1]

In the last 6 months it’s been revealed that government agencies, like the NSA and GCHQ, have twisted laws to create the legal and technical infrastructure for mass surveillance. Surveillance precipitates a dark form of censorship: people become afraid to speak freely. It undermines our security and restricts our ability to communicate privately.

With SOPA we had a clear goal: defeat a specific bill. In this case, we have promising bills (like the USA Freedom Act) and terrible ones (the FISA Improvements Act). But if progress is to be made, we need to send a message to our legislators that we won’t let the Internet be turned into a tool for mass surveillance. We need to push them to have the courage to support comprehensive reform.

Today, on the eve of the anniversary of Aaron’s death, we’d like to ask you to step up once again in defense of a free, open and secure Internet. In memory of Aaron, we’d ask that you to join us in a month of activism, culminating in a day of action on February 11th.

Our organizations—Demand Progress, EFF, and others—will be doing everything we can. We’re creating a banner that sites can add on the day and built a campaign website [2]. But for this to be a real success, each of us must again be the hero of their own story.

Will you join us?

Rainey Reitman, Activism Director, EFF

David Segal, Co-founder, Demand Progress

Cory Doctorow, Co-editor of Boing Boing

[1] http://www.democracynow.org/2013/1/14/freedom_to_connect_aaron_swartz_1986

[2] https://thedaywefightback.org

As someone who has done a fair amount of activism and advocacy work, I'll say this:

Over the last 6 months, I've seen a number of people make comments on relevant HN posts to the effect of "This sucks, but how do we actually change anything" This is what you've been waiting for - here's a chance to actually do something about it.

Don't be discouraged when things seem to be standing still. Because of the way our minds work, single-point events stand out more than continual progress, and we get discouraged when the former seem to have less effect that we'd like.

My work was related to drug policy specifically[0]. During the years that I was actively involved in this, there was very little visible progress on the issues I worked on. We managed to pass a Good Samaritan law[1] in New York state (which I was involved with), but that was the only major success that I can remember, amid a long stream of what seemed to be failures.

On the other hand, when it rains, it pours. We've see a number of major successes very recently on this front (not just with marijuana policy, thought that's what gets the most attention). Looking back, the state of drug policy in 2014 is in many areas much brighter than it was in 2006, even though it certainly didn't seem like we were making any progress at the time.

It's easy to get cynical about large-scale, long-term efforts. As an individual, you're right, it's tough to do much on your own, since no individual has the same stamina as the forces that we're fighting. But showing support for groups that are fighting these longer battles is the best way to see some real action, even if it takes a while to incubate.

[0] On HN, that's oftentimes synonymous with "marijuana policy" - while that was certainly a part of it, my work focused more on the effects of drug laws on students (such as the Higher Education Act) and the socioeconomic impact of an incarceration model.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_samaritan_law

I feel like the more we talk about it, the more everyone becomes desensitized to the U.S. surveillance problem. Then we get the public at large just rolling their eyes and saying "Oh, another paranoid lunatic wants to take over the government".

I want to do more than just like stuff on facebook... hopefully this will present something more tangible. I signed up for the "Add a banner to your site" list. I can tell ~15k visitors about this over the next month at least.

>U.S. surveillance problem

As long as people are willing to pretend that the problem is only the US and not the entire West colluding then the easier it is for these governments to continue.

Case in point, the Canadian government is currently building "the most expensive government building ever constructed in Canada" for CSEC (our version of the NSA) and vastly expanding their headcount:


And GCHQ has less significantly legal restrictions than most other SIGINT agencies.

I feel like the cost is always overblown about this building if you consider the fact that they are currently housed in a building originally designed for the CBC in the '60s and not for actual security work. Given the expansion of their operations and personnel, it only makes sense to create a new building (not coincidentally beside CSIS). And generally speaking, it's going to cost what it's going to cost. Yes it's a government building. Yes they've spent money on particular luxury items (identified as being used to increase social interaction). But if you want people working more effectively and efficiently, you're going to spend money to increase morale (just look at all the lavish spending at startups or ones that are even IPOing, they're all expenses that, at the end of the day, may not be good in the eyes of the shareholders. But they help employee morale).

> As long as people are willing to pretend that the problem is only the US and not the entire West colluding then the easier it is for these governments to continue.

This may be true to some extent. But let me provide an anti-thesis to the statement.

For nearly a century (or more) everyone has looked at the US to lead in reforms and at times reversing reforms. What happens in the US is often used as a model by world governments as a blueprint.

If the US citizens, corporations and the tech community in general could get the US to positively change the distopian outlook/direction we (the world) seems to be heading in, this change would trickle down to the other countries beginning with the Western countries that you aptly state are colluding together.

> For nearly a century (or more) everyone has looked at the US to lead in reforms and at times reversing reforms. What happens in the US is often used as a model by world governments as a blueprint.

In what respects? I can think of far more cases over the last century of the US lagging behind in reforms than taking the lead. In European politics, the US is more often channelled as the big regressive bogeyman (e.g. "we don't want US conditions, do we?") than somewhere to look to for reforms.

To the extent governments looks to the US, it is more often out of necessity due to the balance of power.

It's be fantastic if that changed and the US became a beacon of progress, but that will still take a lot.

In terms of surveillance, though, just getting the US pressure lifted would make local progress vastly easier.

You're defining the "last century" pretty narrowly. There have been a number of times when Europe has looked to the U.S. The U.S. rendered aid and assistance during its post-WWII reconstruction. It served as the sword and shield of NATO against the Soviet Union. U.S. economic liberalization and deregulation in the 1970's and 1980's was a model that Europe followed in the 1980's and 1990's.

I for one would like to include the other players,Corporate & private industry, with their collusion/lobbying/takeover of lawmaking added to the discussion. Don't forget, when the [Pick-An-Acronym &/or Pick-A-Branch] wasn't doing their own spying, [MaBell, AT&T, Axciom, MS, Dunn&B, Google, etc] were selling the data to them.

More relevant today than when it aired almost a decade ago...


Maybe Hacker News should get its own lobby group, in all seriousness. Politics in DC is about money - it's about legally bribing politicians - until that changes lobbying is the best way to fight back.

Any Good Samaritan law that comes with an obligation is absolutely horrible and dangerous to free societies.

Can you elaborate on why you said this? Searching for "new york drug good samaritan law" brought me to this bill:


Which appears to say that

2. Someone seeking health care for themselves related to a drug or alcohol overdose cannot be prosecuted for drug or alcohol use (based on evidence obtained as a result of seeking care),

1. In recognition that a person experiencing drug overdose may not be in a state to seek health care for themselves, and people sometimes engage in drug use in groups of two, someone seeking health care for a third party experiencing drug overdose cannot be prosecuted for their own drug use (based on evidence obtained as a result of seeking care),

and 5. In recognition that no one would ever engage in drug use in groups of three or more, any evidence obtained as a result of someone seeking health care may be freely used against anyone who neither made the request for health care nor experienced the overdose themselves.

(There is also some text about class A-I and A-II felonies being exempt from the good samaritan provisions.)

I don't see any obligation mentioned in the bill, although point 5 does seem a little ill-advised to me.

We had to cut down Aaron's quote to hit the HN 2k character limit, but the full quote we originally intended to use was:

"[We defeated SOPA] because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom. They threw themselves into it. They did whatever they could think of to do."

Very much hoping the community will rally around and join us in this. In particular, startups and larger tech companies (Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Twitter, etc.) don't get involved with this kind of activism easily. If you care about this issue and work at a tech company, you're the only ones who can exert pressure from within.

Those larger tech companies you mention are on the other side of the fence when it comes to surveillance and privacy.

And I'm not even talking about the accusations of complicity (or have we forgotten that was the opening salvo in the NSA revelations, followed by a boilerplate non-denial and an eery silence?), but the fact that these companies regularly violate privacy laws (at least outside the US) and lobby against privacy protection.

Especially for me as a non-American, the US government and US tech companies like Google and Facebook are two sides of the same coin.

Of course they (or their employees) don't get involved, and they shouldn't. That would be like Elsevier getting involved with supporting Open Access.

Put yourself in the shoes of a hypothetical progressive tech company. You receive a letter from the government asking you to copy all your network traffic to the NSA for analysis. Threatening serious jail time if you resist or reveal the existence of the letter.

Your lawyers say all that appears to be legal and legitimate, and informal discussions with other tech executives reveal that everybody in your industry does it and it's no big deal.

It takes a lot of courage to resist.

Now that the scope of the surveillance has been revealed, and it's become clear that most of the technology culture, and a big chunk of the general public, is on your side. And the risk of consequences like jail time is much less if you're no longer talking about the government's specific activities in your case, but things that have been published in major newspapers.

It suddenly becomes a lot easier to make a strong statement.

> Elsevier getting involved with supporting Open Access

That's not a fair comparison at all. Open access to scientific research would totally kill Elsevier's main revenue source. The main revenue source for e.g. Google or Verizon is customers, not the NSA. Surveillance reform wouldn't kill their primary business models.

I can not accept a "I had to follow orders" rationalization, especially from the giants like Google. It was routinely used by the Nazi officers at the Nuremberg Trials. They had orders, were "afraid of reprimand", and so they went along.

There's a moral conduct that is above paper orders. Each one of us decides how to act when we face a contradiction. Aaron, Snowden - they did one thing. Google, Facebook - did another.

Ever since the NSA business leaked, I've been thinking about this problem. It took me a few months to wrap my head around all the crazy stuff that's been going on but I've started building some systems that I think might have a chance of helping out.

"Call Congress Now"- using Twilio, you can call Congress folk from your browser (for free). http://www.callcongressnow.org/

Here are some Congress people who are doing some shady stuff: http://www.callcongressnow.org/profile/F000062 http://www.callcongressnow.org/profile/L000174

But it's pretty hard to get the word out about websites like that. In a sense, nobody passively cares enough to call Congress. Only when the Congress folks do something that brings about outrage do people care enough to really pick up the phone (or click the twilio button, as it were). So I built the /u/CongressionalHound, a bot on reddit that hunts for mentions of current sitting members of Congress in submitted articles and displays information about them in the comments: http://www.reddit.com/user/CongressionalHound/comments/

If you are a mod on reddit and want me to run the bot on your subreddit, PM the bot and I'll have it saunter on over and get to work. Slowly putting the bot on subreddits that give me permission or invite me to. My hope is that when articles about the NSA, or Obamacare, or the shutdown, or or or any big political issue comes up, that the bot will channel people towards getting in touch with their representatives and senators and effectively voicing their opinions.

Both of these are prototypes and there are major known bugs in both, but I think they can serve as examples of systems that could help citizens better impact their government through the power of the internet.

Maybe we need to take the shawshank redemption approach "Still, I'd like to try, with your permission. I'll send a letter a week. They can't ignore me forever."

Let's build automated tools allowing people to send out letters, signed petitions, emails, faxes, pre-recorded voicemail etc.

That would would potentially eliminate procrastination.

Just a thought.

A friend worked at a congress person's office a while back. When I told her about automating calls, she was not pleased. Very high noise to signal ratio. I think that effort would be better invested in informing the public and giving them better tools than mindlessly spamming their offices.


This is an excellent idea, thanks for making this.

Along with calling, it might be helpful to have a wiki that outlined the issues and talking points. People often care, but then feel like they don't have enough depth of knowledge to take action.

At very least it would be nice to point to one.

It's the fact that people aren't pleased that helps cause change. Things don't change unless there's something uncomfortable happening that someone wants to stop.

Perhaps I'm missing something, but is there anything actually being planned aside from... a website? It's good that people are trying to do something, but putting up banners on the web and starting yet another website isn't doing something.

Are you going to organize rallies? Provide logistical support for people who want to do so? Even a snail mail campaign would be an improvement over Yet Another Complaint On The Internet.

Don't get me wrong: The cause is great, and drawing attention and support to it is important. But this might as well be a high-profile version of trolling a forum. It's not going to help anything unless you take action that will reach the people in charge and the people who might not currently be aware of what's going on and how important it is.

I don't see this doing much of either.

This forum has long been a repository of outrage, confusion, and dissapointment. It is high time that the anger expressed transform into something coherent and mobilized, and action be taken against corporate government who are actively trying to take control of our global mind (the internet) and quantify our private lives for who-knows-what (NSA revelations). Aaron Schwartz remains an avatar for this movement, and taught many of us that as hackers, we have a responsibility to society when freedom of information is tampered with, just as a doctor is responsible at the scene of a motor accident.

For whatever it's worth, I cast my vote in favor of this. It's been wonderful reading Paul Graham's comments voicing opposition to the illegal surveillance, and I would urge the HN community to adopt this stance as official policy. I believe we're either very close or right on the edge of a tipping point in public opinion, and this kind of concerted action may just push it over the edge.

I did not know Aaron, but in my mind, I knew Aaron not as an activist, although he was. I knew Aaron as an architect, an engineer, a programmer, a visionary. I'm sure he talked, I'm sure he protested and I'm sure he did many other things, but to me what Aaron did was build the future. He literally built a small part of the future, using computers and algorithms. You can take a thousand activists--tens of thousands--but at the end of the month, if none of them build anything, there will be nothing left after they leave. Not even words.

What would Aaron do? Would Aaron have just passively asked for people to come forward? Would he have asked everyone to post some icon everywhere? Some forgettable meme?

Or would he have created something? Something that maybe wouldn't be obvious to the likes of us, to the likes of the EFF and The New Yorker? Something explosive (figuratively, Ms. Ortiz, figuratively)? Something evolutionary? Would he have banged out some code that would make even die hard Wikipedians feel unwise?

I don't know. I really don't. I don't even know what A/B testing means. But if no one else does, I have a feeling this is going to suck.

Edit: I didn't even know downvoting was possible on HN, but hey, if haters aren't hating then you're doing it wrong

As foreigners, should we care?

Next time someone organizes something similar, can they think of a worlwide action? Can they make something which doesn't sound like "Worldwide anti-american day" but rather "Worldwide day of support to the debate that US citizen started"?

US citizens are only 313 millions and the US law protects you against surveillance. We, the rest of the world, are all subject to this surveillance in unlimited way.

Might sound lame, but as a foreigner, I deliberately avoid posting my opinions on the subject by fear of repercussion for the day I'll cross the US border and they'll have decided unilaterally that my opinions are suspicious.

From my perspective, it's like they read everything, look at your Facebook posts, your emails and what not, trying to profile you as a threat. And when they do so, you'll get on some listed that's automatically generated by some crazy scheme, and you'll no way to change that because you're not American, you're just some unimportant foreigner.

So although I have very strong opinions on the matter, I'm effectively censored by fear of hindering my future.

This is a real concern. I held the same view for awhile. In the end, however, I decide the small risk was outweighed by the importance of the issue.

The more people that voice their opinions, the more impossible it becomes to punish that group (i.e. safety in numbers). Join in!

A person who would post those comments and articles on Facebook and use a false name there... could already be considered as using a fake ID AND be contrary to US interests and therefore, is probably not allowed to enter the US or fly over it.

Frankly, U.S. Congressmen don't care what foreigners think about U.S. surveillance policy. Foreigners aren't going to vote them out of office. I think the EFF, etc. are wise to focus their limited resources in ways that maximize their chances of being heard.

The Snowden revelations make clear that U.S. citizens are not protected against surveillance by their own government. Just because foreigners are less protected doesn't change that.

Frankly, U.S. Congressmen don't care what foreigners think about U.S. surveillance policy.

Frankly, U.S. Congressmen don't care what Americans think about U.S. surveillance policy.

> Frankly, U.S. Congressmen don't care what Americans think about U.S. surveillance policy.

They clearly do, because they spend quite a bit of effort trying to shape what Americans think about it, which is inconsistent with not caring what Americans think.

They're concerned with they want Americans to think about surveillance. That's markedly different from caring what we actually think.

> They're concerned with they want Americans to think about surveillance. That's markedly different from caring what we actually think.

Having a desire for somone to think a particular thing about a subject is exactly caring what they actually think about a subject.

I think the distinction you want to draw is more between being influenced by what Americans actually think, on the one hand, and attempting to influence what Americans actually think, on the other.

But then, again, the only rational reason for members of Congress to try to influence what Americans think is because they think that what Americans actually think impacts the prospects for their political agenda, e.g., by influencing their likelihood of getting elected or influencing the behavior of other members of Congress or the President (perhaps by influencing those actors electoral prospects), so, really, I think that even that distinction is somewhat false. The reason politicians want to shape opinions is because politicians actions do respond to opinions.

I believe the hypothesis is stated as "Foreign legs good, American legs better"

US Congressmen care about what the money thinks about the US surveillance policy.

The tech industry has more money now than anybody else outside of finance, including the oil industry. It's that simple. Use it.

> Frankly, U.S. Congressmen don't care what foreigners think about U.S. surveillance policy.

Congress might care when US corporations' bottom lines are affected by the surveillance. In fact, it's starting to be reported that US corporations are being affected already.

EDIT: To be clear, when US corporations bottom lines in sales to entities in foreign countries. IBM and Cisco have already attributed slumps in sales to foreign entities due to NSA surveillance.

This is true. I doubt that most Congressmen are able to see this obvious consequence in advance, but when the corporate lobbying picks up as a result they'll start to care.

You should care, because without any protection for our own citizens, there is no possibility of protection for non-citizens.

That being said, if you best wanted to ensure that no US agency ever spies on you, a good start would be for your government to prove it never spies on US citizens. That runs both ways: you want to trust us, we want to trust you.

So, it takes both: a strong localized protection, and a verifiable remote protection. We're working on our side of the first part, if you already have the first part on your side, the next best thing to do is start working on the second.

What about the Five Eyes countries? This is less of an adversarial "you are spying on us, so we should be able to spy on you," and more of a "the NSA has invited our country to spy on US citizens so that they can get data from us." At the very least, some of that responsibility comes from the NSA.

I'm not speaking to specific actions, or existing agreements, I'm speaking to reciprocity. The most effective way to get from others is to give the same.

Edit: actually, 5 eyes is a perfect example of a negative (in this context) reciprocal agreement. We should work to create the opposite sort of reciprocal agreement.

But You-Don't-Spy-On-Me-I-Don't-Spy-On-You agreements aren't really worth much. If you're doing spying it's not out in the open, and how many countries would be willing to (e.g.) embargo trade with the US if spying every came to light? This goes the same way with China too. The US has called out China on espionage, yet where are the repercussions for China? Did the US terminate trade with China?

Haha, the last American who uses a French service shuts off the lights, please ;) Wait, no, we're already in the dark.

You're right in saying it should be symmetrical. It goes this way: - US person is protected from US abuses by US laws, - French person is protected by French laws, - We have Safe Harbour so French's people data goes freely to the US, - French people aren't protected by US laws, - And symmetrical.

The cross-country problem is a big one, prompting for the creation of international organizations for the protection of international citizens.

The letter focuses on trying to enact change in the US government with regard to internet surveillance, for everyone. It gives no indication that the efforts are intended only to improve the situation for American citizens.

> ... and the US law protects you against surveillance.

The recent revelations would suggest otherwise.

> It gives no indication that the efforts are intended only to improve the situation for American citizens.

It gives no indication for foreigners either. Actually the letter is very fuzzy about the demands to the government(s). It should list action points and criteriae so governments/crowds know when the movement will be dissolved and don't get afraid of the limits.

Moreover the way we leverage politics in France is quite different from the US ;) So we may need to adapt the mode of action to local traditions.

> The recent revelations would suggest otherwise.

The recent revelations suggest the law was broken, so at least you had some rights. But we foreigners have no law about not being spied by the US intelligence.

At multiple points during the planning calls for this campaign, we significantly changed our plans, the language, and our tact to make sure that our call was viewed as being considerate of international concerns. This letter originally had language to that effect, calling out GCHQ as a major part of the problem, and that surveillance does not only effect US citizens. For evidence of this, take a look at the "And Everyone Else Too" in one of the Facebook share graphics, which I added early this morning in response to concerns that that particular graphic was too US-centric.

When the banner goes live, we'll likely do IP-geolocation and offer users who are like outside the US a link to necessaryandproportionate.org, a petition to be delivered to international lawmakers.

However, given that many of the organizations behind the movement are US-based, it definitely still leans US-focussed. In some ways that's for the best: many of our organizations don't know how to be effective in changing laws in other countries. For example, during our planning it was suggested that we set up dial-in numbers for each country. After some research, we found that in many countries legislator's offices view calls as a nuisance and do not respond positively to them.

So, what I'm trying to say is: we're definitely trying to address this. And if privacy groups in other countries join us in setting up similar actions (as with the German rallies in solidarity with StopWatchingUs), we'll happily send international visitors their way.

Awesome, thank you, I value your efforts. The whole world is with you and it gives credit to the American people when they care about those problems.

Then it ignores the reality of the law which is very specific regarding the difference between American citizens and the rest of the world. Not that the NSA cares either way.

>US citizens are only 313 millions and the US law protects you against surveillance.

This actually isn't true. The USA PATRIOT Act, Title II expanded surveillance procedures greatly so that pretty much anything is covered under it, it is so broad and encompassing. Someone on TV even quoted from it that it said it allowed surveillance for "any reason whatsoever" or some words to that effect.


At least one of the three OPs is a foreigner. The problem is much larger than the US.

With all due respect, using Aaron Schwartz's case about copyright as motivator for the case against surveillance seems weird. Why do you even need some personification?

I didn't know Aaron Swartz, but my understanding is that surveillance and whistleblowing were important issues for him. For instance, he developed software for anonymous whistleblowing for those like Edward Snowden: http://motherboard.vice.com/blog/aaron-swartz-inbox-for-whis...

"surveillance and whistleblowing were important issues for him"

There you've conflated them again, and then provided another point about Swartz being in favor of access to information. You specifically did not address the grandparent's question about why Swartz would be against access to information for some cases and for access to information in other cases.

I'm not suggesting that he wouldn't (I don't know offhand, but it's clear that pro-whistleblowing folks often self-identify as anti-surveillance, too), but it's not clear what information-related principles are being used to justify these positions.

I don't think there is a necessary contradiction in "favoring access" to government-promoted or funded arts and sciences, as well as "favoring access" to full disclosure of surveillance programs and desiring effective judicial oversight, and not "favoring access" when the government wants to have a large amount of data about the lives of its citizens.

The current surveillance is being performed without oversight and in secret: so a "favoring access" stance aligns with wanting full disclosure of the surveillance, and a judicial process that allows for oversight of what is being surveilled and when.

Within the surveillance issue is a desire for privacy (which is not "favouring access" to information, as you note), which I think comes from two issues: that the government is a public institution for the public good and so it has less expectation of privacy than an individual. and also that there is a power imbalance between what the ability to act on information between governments and other entities, and an individual.

Publicly-funded research that the public is denied access to is an issue of both government openness and power imbalance.

Government promotion of the arts and sciences (which is the reason for copyright) being used to unduly deny the public access to aspects arts and sciences falls into both as well, IMHO.

I wish you were kidding. Very few people who care about these issues are confused about the difference between access and control over published cultural and scientific information and other inherently public things versus private unpublished personal things. The Free Culture movement is totally aligned with valuing privacy. It doesn't say everything should be public, it says that the public must have freedom regarding things that are in fact public, i.e. things that are published and otherwise necessary for democratic transparency and such.

I guess that's a fair point. I am definitely operating under the assumption that those who worked closely with him would not be using his name for a campaign he would not have supported. Having worked with these organizations and folks in the past, I find that highly unlikely, but I understand why that might not be a convincing argument to everyone.

He was also the founder of Demand Progress.

Nice! I wasn't aware of that, thanks.

"Why do you even need some personification?"

People need to be anchored in something they can relate to or is memorable or of note.

Think of all the laws like "megans law" etc.

Somewhat common to use a person as a rallying point for a cause.

But let's be honest with ourselves. In the case of, say, a "Megan's Law", Megan was an innocent little girl who deserved none of what happened to her. Aaron, on the other hand, entered a networking closet, configured his computer in such a way to bypass the network's security/authorization protocols and then violated the terms of service of JSTOR to download all their content. He knew he shouldn't have been doing he was doing, but did it anyways.

>Aaron, on the other hand, entered a networking closet, configured his computer in such a way to bypass the network's security/authorization protocols and then violated the terms of service of JSTOR to download all their content.

If you think that's all Aaron did with his life, or that this is what his life should be defined by, then that is a tragedy.

As stated by others, Aaron happened to be involved in a copyright issue relating to his legal situation. But his most significant impact on the world is not about copyright specifically but freedom in general. He founded Demand Progress and was key in the fight against SOPA. That's the significance.

I, and I guess others judging.by the votes my post got, had no idea. Thanks!

Still, sopa and pipa were copyright/censorship, not surveillance.

it didn't feel "weird" to me per se, i see the value. but, also with all due respect, i'm concerned the people who need to read this probably won't be at all familiar with Aaron and it might hinder the message.

That's just kinda how people/movements work.

I'm in. It's long past time that we channel our outrage into political action on this issue

I hope you guys won't stop at pushing just for the USA Freedom Act, which sounds pretty decent, but not like it's going far enough. To me Rush Holt's Surveillance State Repeal Act sounded close to ideal, but he's going to need some co-sponsors for it.

Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Rand Paul's bill also I think sounded better than the USA Freedom Act. I always forget its name because they chose a pretty bad and long one ("intelligence oversight something"). So I hope you keep working on passing those (or others like it), too, and don't stop at the USA Freedom Act (or try getting some amendments to that pushed, too).

Relevant news: NSA and GCHQ activities appear illegal, says EU parliamentary inquiry


No matter how imperfect this initiative is, it is so much better than nothing. I frankly never grok the negativism. (Is it a form of nihilism?) I give to the EFF. I speak up whenever the subject comes up. You can, too, and you should find your personal path to support freedom. Our freedom. "An injury to one is an injury to all." Aaron's persecution and death was an injury to all. The Clipper chip was crushed under Clinton -- many other interferences with our lives can and must be crushed. It's never over, it's always worth fighting.

If you think it's insufficient action, you be our new Sam Adams or Patrick Henry! I'll join, with determination and passion.

I strongly disagree with the way you're using Aaron Swartz / his memory here.

At first reading, I too am uncomfortable enlisting someone's memory like this. Not sure why. And not that I am on one side or the other, but at first thought I would have said advocating for reform to the CFAA would be a more fitting to tribute to Aaron's memory. No?


I didn't know him but I am not trying to rally around him for a cause either.

A general comment on the nature of activism and the political process: one of the goals of activism in the political area is to move both public sentiment (awareness / consciousness raising) and public policy. Now, one of the things to realize here is that this is a never-ending back and forth process, and sometimes the same battles are fought in different forms over time - and this can be incredibly frustrating unless you realize that this is the case. It's easy to believe that it's like fixing a bug; once you've patched policy/changed the mind of society on a topic, that it's fixed forever. Not so. New forms of an idea pick up; your favored policy falls out of favor due to changing events/other beliefs/ideologies/cultures that become popular; a new generation is born that has none of the bad experiences you had, and can have bad policies foisted on them; zombie ideas rise from the grave once more.

This can be disheartening, frustrating, even despondency-inducing. I've been there more than once, and activists across the world have probably been experiencing this since the first protest happened outside the first town hall.

For those stating "it will do nothing" - it can sometimes be hard to see the distant / second-order effects, but they do matter. Registering dissent matters. Now, I would add that there is a threshold beyond which activism loses its potency (for a variety of possible reasons) and you need to go to the next level (everything from non-violent resistance to revolutions.) In this particular case, we're nowhere near that, and by the looks of it, the tide is firmly against the anti-surveillance bloc, so pile on.

Finally, I'd say that the idea that the arc of the universe bends towards justice is wrong; people bend societies towards it.

I would like to add that there is another goal of activism, IMHO: solidarity among activists. Demonstrations don't just demonstrate to the outside world, they also demonstrate to the participants. When things look bleak this is very important. In the 60s, people would do sit-ins and sing together - maybe not because that was the most effective way to bring about change, but simply because it was a good additional thing to do. Every bit helps, nothing is wasted.

This might seem like an off the wall idea but as (in my mind ) this issue is part policy and part engineering problem, would co-ordinated themed hackathons focused around the idea of creating disruptive & secure communication techniques and protocols both further this general cause and appeal to the HN crowd at large?

This is already being worked on by a few folks. [1][2]

If you have the skills and drive to help, I would suggest looking into those two projects.

[1] https://crypto.cat/

[2] https://whispersystems.org/

As a long time EFF supporter in spirit and dollars I have to say this is a strange way of coalition building. Since ycombinator previously supported a similar effort it seems like they would be thought of as allies. Whenever I have been involved in a project like this allies and previous supporters were contacted privately. This sort of "open letter" is the kind of thing you do to pressure (read shame) someone into doing something that they have expressed reservations about doing.

I still support the cause but this is not how you treat friends or conduct a political activism campaign.


It is possible that the folks at ycombinator were previously contacted. If that is the case this letter should say so, if only to let current allies know that they do not need to worry about being bullied into continued support.

Did this letter get a penalty? With 581 points, it's now off the front page.

EDIT: Interestingly enough, "Female Founders" plea to the public by PG is at 360 points, whooping 402 comments, and the 2nd place. Clearly, "sexism" drama is a lot more popular with the tech crowd :)

We begin therefore where they are determined not to end, with the question whether any form of democratic self-government, anywhere, is consistent with the kind of massive, pervasive, surveillance into which the Unites States government has led not only us but the world.

This should not actually be a complicated inquiry.




I personally think of this as pg's site and us all as honored guests here. I'm not opposed to the idea of an open letter on principle, but I do have a little bit of an issue with a letter addressed to HN in general.

I also personally take issue with Aaron Swartz as a poster child for SOPA related activism. There are many of us who did what we could to prevent SOPA and who are opposed to illegal aspects of mass surveillance who nonetheless believe in a proper place for intellectual property.

Only if we can call ourselves 'Agents of S.H.E.L.L.'.

Better than CREEP.

I agree with the message and the goal but why is this an open letter rather than just an email to PG? Rather, the subject seems confused. It could be they're trying to reach all the HN users, but when they write "You blacked out your websites, lobbied your employers to do the same, and started creative campaigns to defeat a threat to freedom on the Internet" that seems directed at the people who run HN.

I think they're talking about the readers of HN, many of whom are workers in tech and represent many more websites than just HN. HN blacking out would do relatively little to affect public opinion, all of the websites represented by HN users would do much more.

> Will you join us?

"Not wittingly."

I'm not willing to demand progress, but I DEMAND MY CORY DOCTOROW! RIGHT NOW! PLEASE?

can someone verify user id davidsegal?

I can. It's the same David Segal that's a signatory to the letter.

can someone verify user id sethbannon?

Call me skeptical, but this is yet another sign of the degeneration of Western civilization and the indoctrination of being apathetic. If you really think slamming a website online and calling people to post memes on Facebook will change anything but some link scoops on CNN, you are delusional. About 5 months ago I posted a related comment (https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=6147370) and it's as true as any other day.

"B-but this time it will be different! We have logos of relatively big companies on our website!" - hang in tight, brother, because "The Day We Fight Back" isn't anywhere close.

It appears to be nothing but slactivism.

At least everyone involved will fee like they did something.

Whereas you get the smug satisfaction of feeling superior to people who are actually doing anything at all.

Actually I get the smug satisfaction of not wasting my time.

This is not doing anything, but damn if you don't feel like it.

Just like the online action against SOPA/PIPA was a waste of time and didn't do anything?

You mean how shutting the a site down for a day actually showed people what would happen if SOPA passed? Wikipedia participated in the SOPA protest, wikipedias users did not, they were impacted by Wikipedia's participation.

That seems EXACTLY like changing your avatar and spamming Facebook. How does spamming Facebook or changing your avatar show the effects of the NSA's spying?

That is how it is useless. It does nothing.

Part of the issue with mass surveillance is that a lot of people don't know about it / don't understand how it affects them. Anything that helps more people to start understanding and caring about this issue will push lawmakers toward doing the right thing and curtailing it.

> don't understand how it affects them

And this doesn't change that.

> helps more people to start understanding and caring

And this does nothing of the sort.

That's why it's useless. It is the very definition of slacktivism.

If sufficiently popular websites do a "black out" or whathaveyou, it becomes a major media action. Imagine if wikipedia and google simply returned a page that described the problem instead of what you looked for. This affects a great deal of lives.

That said, I don't think there's any substitute for people on the street and other people talking to the political & bureaucratic workers to change policy and procedure.

The first step to getting political attention (and therefore political respect) is to show that you are not a motley collection of individuals, but a large group capable of organizing. After that, you can meaningfully debate the merits of different strategies. But before you can show organization, you have no winning moves.

The average honey bee only makes 1/12th of a teaspoon of excess honey in their lifetime.

The average skeptic/cynic makes none.

That is because they are not bees.

This really is the last time you are left in charge of the hives. And I don't care if Diogenes says he likes it in there, he's probably just drunk.

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