The day Aaron Swartz helped make the Internet go dark

Aaron Swartz speaks against SOPA/PIPA in New York City on January 18, 2012. (Flickr/Daniel J. Sieradski)

Aaron Swartz speaks against SOPA/PIPA in New York City on January 18, 2012. (Flickr/Daniel J. Sieradski)

Jan. 18, 2012: The Internet went dark. Google slapped a solid, black rectangle over its logo. Wikipedia turned to shades of gray with the words “Imagine a world without free knowledge” and a zip code tool for contacting Congress. More than 115,000 websites and blogs participated that day; many sites not only posted protest messages but also encouraged people to email Congress. Over four million emails were sent, 10 million signatures were collected by Google, eight million phone calls were made and three million tweets called on Congress to dump the House’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Senate’s Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA). It was anything but a dark day for the diverse and expansive community that came together to beat back the attack on the free Internet.

Jan. 11, 2013: Aaron Swartz, founder of Demand Progress and a key architect of this brilliant and successful SOPA/PIPA campaign, took his own life.

On the one year anniversary of this tremendous milestone for Internet freedom, the web is full of discussion about Aaron, the 26-year-old activist and technologist who died after putting so much of himself into fighting the aggressive reach of corporate money in politics and our daily lives. It is painfully fitting to commemorate, as a tribute to him, the victory against SOPA and PIPA, which involved a tremendous mobilization of tech companies, online gurus, street activists, nerds, students, suits and every kind of user imaginable joining together to defend the accessibility of information. His commitment to the free flow of information put him in the federal prosecutors’ line of fire.

To honor Aaron, and all the thinkers, schemers and visionaries who use their bodacious technical skills to fight for a more compassionate and ethical world, let’s take a look at some of the most creative ways that websites voiced their protest last January. Many examples are posted or linked to at SOPAstrike.com. My three favorites of the batch:

1. Wired magazine set up its home page to look like a heavily redacted file straight from some would-be Comprehensive Regulatory Anti-Piracy Punishment agencY (aka C.R.A.P.P.Y.). It looked like a page from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for a beleaguered left-wing activist; almost everything was censored, except the instructions to contact Congress and “Say No to PIPA and SOPA.” Anyone who has seen a FOIA document will recognize this play on censorship immediately — and wonder: Is this the world we are committed to in the future?

Wired magazine's website on January 18, 2012.

Wired magazine’s website on Jan. 18, 2012.

2. Boing Boing’s website took advantage of an HTTP error code to make a pithy and compelling statement: “503: Service Unavailable. Boing Boing is offline today, because the US Senate is considering legislation that would certainly kill us forever.” Accessibility of information, freedom to roam and connectivity are essential to the power of the Internet; what would the web look like if unrestrained corporations with profits as their bottom line were in charge?

3. Zachary Johnson’s blackout page looked like a dark alley in East Germany or a stage with a search light, playing on the danger of a government snooping around trying to capture violators of pro-corporate, draconian laws, a future in which many of us would be constantly trying to avoid the spotlight. It would force people to live in the shadows, in the online underworlds that would surely develop in response to limitations and repression on the mainstream web. Prohibition made us all teetotalers, right?

The January 2012 blackout will be remembered as a tremendous day of online activism, the culmination of about two years of campaigning that paid off in the indefinite shelving of the congressional Internet censorship bills. Interestingly, this blackout tactic is reminiscent of theater-based resistance practiced well before the Internet existed. In 1943, Danish actors and theater staff protested the Nazi occupation by canceling performances in defiance of the occupiers’ orders. They then used blackened theaters for political proclamations and memorial services. Danish booksellers also covered their storefronts with black paper to demonstrate their grievances.

In 1989, resistance to the communist occupation of Czechoslovakia took place in theaters as well. Messages critical of the regime were passed on from the stage and often called “black theater” — and they, too, took place in a surreal setting under black lights.

Perhaps this tactic of going dark is so compelling because it paints a graphic picture of how things might be if we each don’t stand up and say no. It is intended to shock people out of complicity and inaction by making tangible what is at stake: access to information, the ability to communicate and connect, and the freedom to express oneself, whether online or onstage. Dramatizing the stakes is a critical task for any activist; as the saying goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone … dark.

It is critical that we take the lessons of the SOPA/PIPA fight to heart and be ready with ever more creative and determined resistance in the future. As Aaron Swartz said: “[SOPA] will have yet another name, and maybe a different excuse, and probably do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: The enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. Next time they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.”

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