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Activists, web companies plan NSA surveillance protest in honor of Aaron Swartz

Posted by Matt Rocheleau  January 13, 2014 03:51 PM

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Activist groups and some prominent online companies plan to hold an international, day-long, mostly-web-based protest of the National Security Agency’s surveillance programs next month in memory of the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz.

Swartz, 26, took his own life a year ago as he faced years in prison for federal felony computer charges. Those charges were filed about two years before his death, when MIT police arrested him – he was a fellow at Harvard at the time – for breaking into a closet at the school where he used a laptop to download millions of academic journal articles.

His death shocked and saddened many fellow Internet activists, while some blamed his death on MIT and prosecutors. Numerous memorials, rallies and hackathons have been held in Swartz honor, including protests calling for more humane prosecution of federal computer laws.

On Feb. 11, several groups – including web companies Mozilla and BoingBoing; Reddit, a social site Swartz helped create; and Demand Progress, a web activist group he helped found – will lead an anti-NSA surveillance protest to be called "The Day We Fight Back."

The coalition of protesters plan to call and email lawmakers and will post banners on their websites encouraging others to do the same. The group will also ask web users to create and post anti-surveillance memes, messages, websites or other online tools and to change their social media avatars to include photos and text supporting the campaign.

The group announced the planned protest on Jan. 10, the eve of the anniversary of Swartz’ death.

"Today the greatest threat to a free Internet, and broader free society, is the National Security Agency's mass spying regime,” David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress said in a statement. “If Aaron were alive he'd be on the front lines, fighting back against these practices that undermine our ability to engage with each other as genuinely free human beings."

Swartz helped lead a movement that eventually defeated – for the time being, at least – the Stop Online Piracy Act, a US bill that aimed to make it easier for law enforcement to fight copyright infringement on the Internet.

Next month’s protest will also honor and celebrate that accomplishment, organizers said.

Other groups that will participate in the day of action include: Access, DuckDuckGo, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Fight for the Future, Free Press, The Other 98%, and ThoughtWorks.

Meanwhile, filmmaker Brian Knappenberger whose crowdfunded documentary about Swartz “The Internet’s Own Boy” is scheduled to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival next week, released a new trailer in conjunction with the announcement about next month’s protest.

"Aaron's story is more powerful and important now than ever,” said a statement from Knappenberger. “Telling the story of SOPA for the film reminded me how dynamic that effort was – new tools were marshaled to change the political landscape in ways that seemed to perfectly modernize democratic government. We need to keep that creativity, drive and ability for people to tell their own story alive. We are going to need it to address the failings of the surveillance state.”

Also, members the hacktivist group Anonymous said it changed a page on MIT's website over the weekend to feature an announcement about the plans for the Feb. 11 protest.

And, in separate interviews published this month, Swartz' father, Robert Swartz, and well-known MIT professor Noam Chomsky faulted MIT for playing a role in Swartz' death.

For more information and updates about the planned protest, visit TheDayWeFightBack.org.

Matt Rocheleau can be reached at matthew.rocheleau@globe.com. Looking for more coverage of area colleges and universities? Go to our Your Campus pages.

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