An MIT hacker named Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation, dedicated to keeping software free for sharing, modification and use—a cause that continues to this day. On the West Coast, a nonprofit activist group called the Electronic Frontier Foundation—with powerful supporters including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Lotus creator Mitch Kapor—formed to ward off government control of digital rights. By the late 1990s the DIY geeks were forging an online underground in the form of file-sharing sites such as Napster and Gnutella. They allowed surfers to swap music, movies and other data directly with one another—much to the consternation of entertainment corporations and the federal government, which sought legal means of shutting them down.
If there’s one thing people like about the internet, it’s access to content. Access to music. Access to video. Access to news, sports, games. The problem is, accessing stuff sometimes pisses other people off. Especially when there’s money or sensitive information at stake. But no one could keep the hackers down. And so the fight over internet freedom grew in size and scope.
I saw this one afternoon in 2005 when I arrived at a small house on a leafy street in Bellevue, Washington to interview Bram Cohen, a 30-year-old hacker who, at the time, was considered the most dangerous man online. Cohen had created BitTorrent—the free file-sharing program that lets people easily swap huge files with one another—which already boasted 45 million downloads. Today, anyone who “torrents” Hangover III or BioShock Infinite is doing it thanks, in great part, to Cohen.
The music and movie industries tried for years to go after the filesharing sites, as they’re now going after Kim Dotcom, the embattled creator of the file-sharing behemoth Megaupload. But this has always been a difficult fight because the underlying technology is not illegal; it’s the use of the programs that can result in copyright violation. Cohen saw how the desire for free information online was never going away. When I interviewed Cohen for Rolling Stone, he told me, presciently, “The model of selling data on physical media is going to melt. This has been obvious for, like, 20 years. The content-distribution industry deserves to go away because it will soon be obsolete. It has no business existing.”
While district attorneys continued to crack down on web start-ups that helped users share content, the smart people chose to adapt instead—to ride the proverbial wave. The smart ones observed the basic tenet of the hacker: It’s about questioning and modifying a system, whether that system is a computer or a way of life.
Take the comedian Louis CK. Tired of others profiting off his shtick by distributing it, he cheaply produced his own comedy special and threw it up on the web, charging $5 for it. No TV, no publishing company, no DVD special. It cost the price of a ham sandwich—why would anyone waste the time to pirate it? He understood the power of online distribution. People paid the $5, and he made more than $1 million. (He ended up giving much of that money to charity.) Tommy Mottola, the music mogul, recently told Howard Stern that the music industry’s biggest mistake was going after Napster instead of getting hip to the net sooner. As a result, he said, the industry was outscored by Apple, which introduced iTunes and completely changed the game before the major music publishers had a chance to set their terms.
Since the early days of the web, hacktivists have grown increasingly bold. In 2006 a fledgling Australian journalist named Julian Assange began running WikiLeaks, a cloak-and-dagger clearinghouse for anonymously leaked secret and sensitive documents. The site was causing much controversy after publishing inside accounts of corruption from Kenya to Guantánamo Bay. But Assange told me it wasn’t just technical prowess behind the site—it was nerve. “You can do a lot,” he said, “just by having balls.”
Few had more balls than a certain 26-year-old who died in 2013, a hacktivist who took the fight for online freedom to the next level.
On January 6, 2011, a young man with longish dark hair, a black coat, blue jeans and an overstuffed gray backpack sneaked into a restricted equipment closet in a basement at MIT. Inside was a tower of computers linked together with thick blue cables. Strapping a bicycle helmet in front of his face to hide from surveillance cameras, the man slipped a hard drive from his bag and connected it to a laptop that he’d plugged into the machines. He finished illegally downloading nearly an entire archive—4.8 million files total—called JSTOR, the premier online repository of scientific and academic research. A few moments later, he removed his hard drive and left.
This was no ordinary thief. He was Harvard fellow Aaron Swartz, one of the most renowned whiz kids of his generation. As a programmer he had helped code some of the most important online programs, including Reddit, the social media site, and (at the spry age of 14) Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, the standard for feeding news and other information online.
Swartz hadn’t downloaded the JSTOR files for himself. He had planned to unleash them online so anyone could access the knowledge instead of just libraries and members of academic institutions. It was part of an ongoing mission he called his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto. “It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture,” he wrote. “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world.”