While other 14-year-olds were clowning around, doing unimportant things, Aaron Swartz was co-writing the RSS (Rich Site Summary) specification. He also started the computer company Infogami, which later merged with Reddit. In January 11, 2013, he committed suicide by hanging himself. He was 26.
Background info on Aaron Swartz
In 2008, Swartz released a Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, urging Internet activists to download scientific journals then upload them to file-sharing networks. He then downloaded one-fifth of the PACER database, the system that allows Americans to access their own (public domain) case-law. Despite being investigated by the FBI, no charges were made.
In 2010, he downloaded scientific papers from JSTOR (Journal Storage, an online service for distributing academic articles), snuck into a computer wiring closet at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and set up a computer to give free access to the JSTOR database. Soon, Swartz started Demand Progress, a political activism organization that runs online campaigns and lobbies against Internet censorship. This team was one of the big fighters against SOPA/PIPA.
In January 2011, Aaron Swartz was caught breaking into MIT and arrested. He was charged in July with computer fraud, wire fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer for downloading 4.8 million articles from JSTOR. He faced up to 50 years in prison and $4 million in fines. JSTOR did not file a lawsuit against Swartz and after two months, enabled free access to more than 4 million articles, stating that they had been planning to do so and that Swartz’s move hastened the decision. Even though JSTOR declined filing a lawsuit, the government pursued the case. In September 2012, federal prosecutors had nine additional felony counts thrown at Swartz, with his trial set on Feb 4, 2013. They also denied plea bargain.
Clearly, Aaron Swartz was a brilliant young man. He was a cyberpunk. He believed that “information wants to be free”. The information he dealt with did not involve national security or personal information; it was information that could advance science. Not all academics and researchers belong to moneyed universities and companies, after all. Would he profit from the information? No.
Some people consider Swartz’s crime a victimless crime since JSTOR did not want to sue. Some believe Swartz broke laws and thus needed to be punished. Some blame Swartz’s depression for his tragic end. No matter which side you’re on, the thing that stands out about this case is proportionality: 50 years in jail and $4 million in fines for a minor and non-violent crime. Meanwhile, high finance executives steal billions and destroy people’s lives and dreams but get away scot-free (or at the most, get a slap on the wrist), even bailed out by the government. What a contrast!
Some believe that even if convicted, Swartz would be sentenced to just a fraction of the time. Somehow I doubt that. Originally he only had four counts then nine more were added. Then his plea deal was rejected. It was not unreasonable to expect that he would be made an “example” by giving him a disproportionately harsh sentence, as a threat to all the other hackers and possibly to help some people’s career.
If there’s anything positive that can come out of this tragedy, it has to do with the push to review the existing cybercrime laws. Swartz was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a federal law passed in 1984, back when computers were not as ubiquitous as they are today. This law vaguely states that it is illegal to “intentionally access a computer without authorization or exceed authorized access”. By that broad statement, nowadays, if you do something mundane such as browse online shopping sites or game sites while you’re at work, losing your job is the least of your concerns, for you are now a criminal who can be prosecuted and sent to jail. If you create a fake Facebook profile, you are violating the site’s terms of service, which is also a violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. You can go to jail as well.
Some governments and their policies regarding Internet pornography.
The Australian government has abandoned a proposed mandatory nationwide Internet filter banning child pornography, extreme violence, and detailed instructions related to crime, drugs, and terrorism. Instead of the filter, Internet service providers have agreed to block child pornography based on Interpol’s list containing 1,400 Web sites.
Anti-censorship advocates welcomed the decision but are still doubtful that blocking kiddie porn Web sites would be effective, as they believe child abuse materials are not traded on the open Web.
Photo: Piast | Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Abdel Maguid Mahmoud, ordered government authorities to ban Internet porn, based on a 2009 court ruling that said “freedom of expression and public rights should be restricted by maintaining the fundamentals of religion, morality and patriotism.”
According to Reuters, Mahmoud wanted the government ministries to block “corrupting pornographic pictures or scenes inconsistent with the values and traditions of the Egyptian people and the higher interests of the state.”
Some people fear that the porn ban is just the start of a crackdown on their other freedoms.
Indonesia intensified its online pornography ban during Ramadan earlier this year, shuttering more than a million pornographic Web sites, according to the Times of India. Previously, Research In Motion, the company that makes BlackBerry phones, was threatened by the government for not blocking porn access in its devices. The phone company complied by developing a filter for Blackberry users located in Indonesia.
When the Philippines’ Anti-Cybercrime Law seemingly came out of nowhere last September 12, a lot of Filipino netizens expressed their outrage. Soon enough, even traditional journalists, lawyers, and international groups supported the rally against this law. The law went into effect in October 3, but due to the citizens’ severe reaction towards it, the Supreme Court unanimously agreed in October 9 to issue a 120-day temporary restraining order (TRO) against it. Oral argument for the case is set on January 15, 2013.
1. Hacking/cracking/data integrity offenses – Penalty: 6-12 years imprisonment and/or a fine of at least P200,000.00 ($5,000); if the acts are committed against critical infrastructure, 12-20 years imprisonment and/or a fine of at least P500,000.00 ($12,500)
possession, use, production, sale, procurement, importation, distribution, or making available of a device, computer program or data (e.g. password, access code) for committing a cybercrime (here, fine is up to P500,000)
2. Computer-related offenses – Penalty: 6-12 years imprisonment and/or a fine of at least P200,000.00
forgery and use of forged products
3. Content-related offenses
cybersex – Penalty: 6-12 years imprisonment and/or a fine of P200,000.00 ($5,000) – P1,000,000.00 ($25,000)
child pornography – Penalty: one degree higher than provided in Republic Act No. 9775 (“Anti-Child Pornography Act of 2009″)
spam – Penalty: 1-6 months imprisonment and/or a fine of P50,000.00 ($1250) – P250,000.00 ($6250)
libel – Penalty: up to 12 years imprisonment and a fine of P200,000.00 ($5,000) – P1,000,000.00 ($25,000)
4. Other offenses – Penalty: imprisonment one degree lower than that of the penalty for the offense and/or a fine of P100,000.00 – P500,000.00
aiding or abetting in the commission of cybercrime
attempt in the commission of cybercrime
5. Corporate Liability — Penalty: at least double the fines up to P10,000,000.00 ($250,000)
Law enforcement authorities can collect or record real-time traffic data (communication’s origin, destination, route, time, date, size, duration, type of underlying service). Content, identities, and all other data will require a court warrant. Service providers are required to cooperate and assist law enforcement authorities in the collection or recording of the information. When computer data (e.g. a Web site) is prima facie found to violate this Act, the Department of Justice (DOJ) can restrict or block access to it. Failure to comply with orders from law enforcement authorities is punishable with six months to six years imprisonment and/or a fine of P100,000.00 for each noncompliance.
Why the Filipinos are furious and why this law needs to go away for good
The former Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos placed the nation under martial in 1972-1981. During that time, activists, journalists, and political opponents were jailed and silenced. Censorship was the norm and several human rights abuses occurred, ending with a lot of people either dead or missing until now.
For the last three decades, Filipinos have enjoyed a democratic form of government and freedom of expression. With the arrival of the Internet, the freedom-loving Filipinos had a platform. In a poor country where crime and corruption are rampant, many Filipinos consider the Internet as one of the few equalizers in life where even poor people can have a say. The libel clause in the Cybercrime Law as well as the power granted to the Department of Justice to block data access bring to mind the censorship during the Marcos regime. To many Filipino netizens, the Cybercrime Law = Digital Martial Law and is unconstitutional.
Under the Cybercrime Law, surveillance of electronic communication is allowed, as well as censorship of Web sites, blocking of cyberspace communication, and seizure of computers and data without due process of the law. Online libel can land you in jail for 12 years, while libel in more traditional media has a maximum penalty of 4 years. Double jeopardy is possible. Just liking, sharing or retweeting something libelous can get you imprisoned. The definition of libel is vague and expansive, so any netizen can be prosecuted, even for messages, posts, and comments that are already existing before the law became active. It does not matter if what you posted is true or not, if your subject thinks it’s libelous, you can be imprisoned even if you’re telling the truth. You can even land in jail if you badmouth a dead person and even if you veil your criticism through sarcasm.
The law was drafted by politicians who don’t have the technical knowledge or enough exposure to the Internet. Many of them have an online presence run by their staff. The lawmakers themselves probably go online every now and then but they are not really familiar with cyberculture and online etiquette. In fact, the comedian-turned-senator who inserted the libel clause in the bill did not see anything wrong with plagiarizing several American bloggers. When he was caught by the netizens and showered with ridicule online, instead of apologizing, he plagiarized the former US Senator Robert Kennedy then claimed that he was a victim of cyberbullying.
The Philippine National Police (PNP), one of the law enforcement agencies that will handle cybercrime cases, assured the public that it would not commit abuses when implementing the Cybercrime Law. Funny, even before the law took effect, PNP already posted these threats on their Facebook page when a guy joked about the PNP extorting money from tourists.
PNP denied owning the said page, but many don’t believe since the page has been existing since January 2011 and compared to their “official” Facebook “page”, it looks more official, has more followers, and is more frequently updated. The fake page still exists, despite the PNP now knowing about it and the confusion such a fake page could generate.
My other problems with this law
The Filipinos’ rage against this law is mostly directed towards the libel and censorship provisions. I have a problem with some of the other offenses laid out in this Act.
When it comes to hacking, I run a cyberpunk blog, so it’s obvious that I don’t consider all forms of hacking as criminal. I also want cybersex to be removed from the list of offenses. In this law, cybersex is listed separately from child pornography so it is reasonable to assume that it is meant for adults. Now, if someone is being forced to engage in cybersex, then I agree that there is a crime committed against that person. However, what the Act says about cybersex is this: “the willful engagement, maintenance, control, or operation, directly or indirectly, of any lascivious exhibition of sexual organs or sexual activity, with the aid of a computer system, for favor or consideration.” Just that. To call the cybersex clause vague is an understatement.
If the cybersex is between two (or more) consenting adults and is done in a private place, why the hell is this government getting involved? As far as I know, the Philippines has no law against orgies or one-night stands, yet if you do it virtually, you can go to jail. Besides, with the vague “requirement” to commit the cybersex crime, it seems that one can get imprisoned by having cybersex with his wife or girlfriend. In a country where millions of citizens work abroad, away from their families, making cybersex between couples illegal is stupid as fuck.
Another offense that I find open to abuse is cybersquatting. The USA has the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act (ACPA) but it does not prevent the fair use of trademarks or any use protected by the First Amendment, such as gripe sites (e.g. paypalsucks.com, ebaysucks.com, nodaddy.com) where consumers can post their complaints and criticisms against companies, institutions, and public figures. In the Philippine Cybercrime Law, however, because of the online libel clause, even disgruntled consumers who own such sites can land in jail.
Rich folks and corporations can also claim “cybersquatting” even though the cybersquatters have perfectly legitimate reasons for owning the domain. Remember Nissan Motor calling Nissan Computer a cybersquatter and suing it for owning nissan.com? Nissan Computer is owned by a man named Uzi Nissan who registered the domain name in 1994 — five years before folks at Nissan Motor decided that they wanted it. It didn’t matter that Uzi Nissan and his ancestors have been using the name for generations and that Uzi had used it as part of his business names even before the car company (previously called Datsun) changed its name to Nissan Motor. It didn’t matter that Nissan Motor had been at the other side of the fence in 1992, when the computer company Altima Systems Inc sued Nissan Motor for its Altima line of cars.
The role of Anonymous Philippines and other hacktivist groups
Aside from the 15 petitions filed against the Cybercrime Prevention Act, various hacker groups (PrivateX #pR.is0n3r Anonymous #Philippine Cyber Army Anonymous Philippines) went to work, defacing several government Web sites while reminding their fellow hackers to spare vital public-service ones. In a surprising twist that the government probably did not expect, netizens showed support and approval to these hackings. When media sites and Project NOAH (the government’s online map that is used during storms and typhoons) got hacked during a storm and the different hacker groups denied involvement, people saw what happened as a propaganda move by the government to discredit the hacktivists.
As a whole, the Philippines is not a litigious society. Even those who have reason to file lawsuits seek other ways or just carry grudges.
When it comes to libel, ordinary people don’t bother. It is the rich and powerful who always file libel suits. After all, they have the deep pockets and the manpower to go through those lawsuits. If you’re a poor/middle-class defendant going against a rich accuser, you’re screwed. The other party does not even have to win. The expenses, stress, and hassle of the trial will ruin you.
Various sectors have for years been clamoring to have libel decriminalized in the Philippines. It’s about time.
People have also been clamoring for the government to pass the Freedom of Information Act (FOI). The government may have to pass it due to the intense public pressure. To some people, including myself, the pending FOI is the reason why the Cybercrime Law materialized: even if the FOI gets enacted, with the severe penalty for online libel, journalists and other whistleblowers will still think long and hard before exposing any corruption they unearth.
Oral argument for the Act is set on January 15, 2013. We must all be vigilant — not just Filipinos, but all of us. The fears against SOPA/PIPA also apply here: if a democratic country passes a law that stifles freedom of its citizens, it will set a precedent for other so-called democratic countries to implement the same or even harsher laws.
According to Kim Kap-Soo, head of the content policy division of South Korea’s Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, they are implementing the ban because games are meant for entertainment and “should be used for academic and other good purposes”. The move aims to cut down the time teens waste on acquiring virtual goods, since the ministry sees the collection of virtual items for commercial gain as a hindrance to developing a healthy game culture.
The country has also banned the use of bots within games (such as Blizzard’s Diablo 3), making it illegal to farm gold and other items while the player is away from the computer.
The use of bots is already disallowed by the games themselves, but now, players caught farming, trading or botting will face quite a steep penalty — a fine of up to 50 million won (~$42,000) and a maximum jail sentence of five years.
The government’s crackdown on botting will definitely help game creators who spend a lot of time enforcing bans within the games. The ministry estimates that more than 60% of items traded virtually are collected using bots.