Today, as is our tradition, we write to mark the anniversary of the passing of Demand Progress’s cofounder, Aaron Swartz.
As many of you know, Aaron took his own life six years ago — while absurdly being threatened with more than 50 years in prison for allegedly using MIT’s open campus internet network to download too many academic articles from the cataloging service JSTOR, to which he had legitimate access.
Aaron is often described as a technologist and and internet freedom activist. He was indeed both, but he was also so much more. The richness of his vision is perhaps best observed through a negation: While he was was a formidable programmer held in the highest esteem by the foremost coders of his generation, he was conspicuously not a cyber-utopian, an acolyte of the so-called California Ideology that naively (and sometimes cynically) espoused the notion that new technology and information access would, on their own, necessarily change the world for the better.
Rather, Aaron understood that technology could be used for good or for ill, and its promise would be realized only if it were made appropriately subject to democratic control.
We always miss working alongside Aaron, but that’s truer than ever in this moment as we have come to recognize the imperative of asserting popular authority over not just technological phenomena, but over our government and society more broadly.
Aaron would recognize both the promise of the present political moment alongside its inherent danger. We wish he were here with us — and know we’d be more formidable if he were — as we persist in the perpetual struggles to ensure that our communications infrastructure is one that facilitates democracy, that monopolists are forced to relinquish their outsized power over our economy and politics, that we are able to roll back unconstitutional wars and constrain the authoritarian tendencies of our current President. We wish he could join us and our allies as we more broadly strive to compel the institution of a progressive social contract that can sew our society back together and build the foundation for generalized prosperity for generations to come.
While Aaron is no longer by our side, we are ever hopeful that he would be proud of what Demand Progress has become — and we’d like to take a moment to share with you some of what we’ve accomplished over the last year or so.
–David and the Demand Progress team.
We are confronting corporations that have too much power over our economy and our government:
- Demand Progress has fought the ISPs like Comcast and Verizon tooth-and-nail as they seek to undermine net neutrality and gain more control over the online content we are able to access. While our opponents have had more structural power than we have over recent years (controlling the Presidency, House, Senate, and Federal Communications Commission) we were able to make net neutrality a top tier issue of concern for ordinary Americans and politicians across the country.
- We organized more than 250 events across the country and sent more than one million constituent messages to Congress, and convinced a bipartisan majority of Senators to vote to overturn the FCC. The groundswell of support has led states across the country to take action.
- While we haven’t won yet, we are confident that meaningful national net neutrality rules will be restored in the years to come.
- We are leading efforts to buck up a regulatory state that has too long been captured by the industries over which it is supposed to have authority, helping install regulators who care about the public interest — and not about making huge profits — at the agencies that have authority over the banks and other big businesses.
- We are taking on Silicon Valley’s extraordinary power over our lives, through campaigns like Freedom From Facebook — which urges the Federal Trade Commission to break up Facebook. We have also helped call out collusion between major platforms — like Amazon — and the federal surveillance apparatus.
We are helping push a more progressive foreign policy and national security vision:
- Demand Progress helped drive unprecedented efforts to have Congress use the War Powers Act to assert that a war was not authorized — in this case ongoing American support for a Saudi-led coalition’s hostilities against Yemen, which is the cause of the world’s broadest humanitarian crisis.
- We organized hundreds of thousands of constituents to take action and helped steward the resolution through the Senate last month. A similar measure failed in the House by just a few votes. We have reason to be hopeful that these measures will pass both chambers in coming weeks — and the attention we and others have helped bring to the issue has led to ongoing peace talks regarding Yemen.
- We pushed the reauthorization of domestic warrantless wiretapping authority to the brink of defeat — losing a filibuster to block it in the Senate by just one vote. (But we’ll be back in the coming months as the Patriot Act’s metadata collection authority is about to sunset.)
- We helped turn nominations of key administration officials — like Mike Pompeo (Secretary of State) and Gina Haspel (CIA) into serious throw-downs, while highlighting the nominees’ historical support for mass surveillance and torture.
We are helping fix Congress to make it more democratic and progressive:
- Demand Progress has organized, alongside a couple of key allies, a slate of more than 150 motivated, progressive candidates for key staffing positions in the new Congress. As Elizabeth Warren says, “personnel is policy.” Our day-by-day work on the Hill makes us know how much more successful our movement would be with more likeminded staffers in place.
- And once great staff is in place, we need to make sure that Congress is a place where they want to work: We’ve helped get the House and Senate to commision a study of Congressional staff pay and retention, including a review of whether staff are paid appropriately and get equal pay for equal work.
- We have been at the center of coalitions helping usher new and progressive members of Congress onto the most powerful committees, which have control over critical matters like tax policy, corporate power, and mass surveillance.
- We proposed — and saw the House adopt — an array of new rules that will make governance better. For instance, they instituted an Office of Whistleblower Ombudsman to help protect whistleblowers who want to communicate with Congress, created a committee to oversee the modernization of key Congressional functions, and will study re-establishing the Office of Technology Assessment, a legislative branch agency that historically provided advice to Congress on technology matters.
- We have helped ensure that Congress will become more transparent: The Library of Congress began publishing its Congressional Research Service Reports online, and by March, the Library of Congress will publish an online calendar for all House and Senate committee hearings and bill markups, including links to video of the proceedings. The House and Senate passed, and the President is expected to sign, the Open Government Data Act, which requires federal agencies to make data open by default and conduct regular inventories of public data assets.
Thank you for taking a moment to remember Aaron with us, to consider his legacy, and to learn more about the work we carry forth in his name.
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