Monday, July 1, 2013

HACKING POLITICS: The Death of Aaron Swartz, The Birth of Maryland Juice & State Senator David Brinkley // Read My Book


Dear Maryland Juice Reader:

Maryland Juice's alter-ego (David Moon) has just co-authored a new book called "Hacking Politics" [Paperback available now & eBook available on a "Pay What You Want" basis for a limited time]. The collection of writings from myself and numerous figures in tech policy and online organizing chronicles the 2012 battle to defeat Internet censorship legislation called SOPA/PIPA. But rather than post some self-congratulatory and shameless plug for the project, I thought it would be better to break my silence on a few matters in the fairly lengthy piece below. 

What does it mean to actually "be the change?"
INTRODUCTION: I thought it was about time for me to provide a little bit of context surrounding the circumstances of this blog's formation and explain why I volunteer my spare time to expose the inner workings of Maryland's political system. Along the way, you'll read some hints about my future plans, and you'll also hear a few untold stories about how my work on Maryland Juice relates to the late Internet activist Aaron Swartz and (oddly) to Maryland State Senator David Brinkley. The collective of political hackers called Anonymous even makes a cameo appearance (kind of). 

I've been steadily working on this piece over the course of the last few months but always found myself lacking the mental energy (and the time) to finish the job. In recent weeks, however, several incidents have pushed this persistent "almost-article" into the front of my mind.

It's been great meeting so many wonderful people around the area over the last year and discovering that they are readers of Maryland Juice. I am truly honored that you've chosen to spend time reading about Free State politics through this progressive civil libertarian's lens. But I've also heard from a few detractors who say my blog is biased, sometimes snarky, and might even have an agenda. Let me be clear: I think that's exactly the point.

Maryland Juice was formed in August 2011, a few months after I started working for an Internet activist group called Demand Progress. I had decided to take a pause from campaign work after several years of back-to-back election cycles on the trail for a range of candidates including State Senators Jamie Raskin & Rich Madaleno; Delegates Al Carr, Ana Sol Gutierrez & Jeff Waldstricher; MoCo Councilmembers Nancy Navarro & Hans Riemer; and the Maryland Democratic ticket in 2010. After that election cycle, I even applied for a job trying to bring my electoral reform experience (built up while working at a group called FairVote), to try and setup an election monitoring system in Tunisia. I needed to be working on something different.

But instead I ended up at Demand Progress, and the work I was doing there very quickly began to influence the way I approached how to use my blog. Remember that nationally Democrats had just gone through the bruising Tea Party cycle of 2010. So somewhere between the models of the Maryland Politics Watch blog and the aggressive activist tactics of The Tea Party, Occupy, Susan G. Komen protests, and more -- I started developing a new theory of change for progressive politics. I had already tried affecting change on the campaign trail, in nonprofits, through ballot measures, with a law degree, with a PAC, in primaries, in generals, and even from within the government itself. But weaponizing information (especially information that might go viral) was something new to me.

Naturally, Maryland Juice began coopting some of the tactics I saw providing some measure of success for online organizers and conservative activists. For example, when the political shaming strategies of Rupert Murdoch's rightwing NewsCorp were revealed to the world, I paid close attention. The curation of Maryland Juice is an experiment in learning from some of the aforementioned tactics -- but unlike some other pratictioners, I've been trying to use these strategies to promote social and economic justice. And during much of the time I've been writing the blog, I've had an entirely parallel activist life that I haven't talked about much on Maryland Juice -- until now.

The tragic events described below have made me impatient for change and determined to shock the conscience of voters into awakening. As a result, the blog itself has over time evolved into an aggressive attempt to hack politics. You and I are participating in an experiment in state-based progressive activism that I call Maryland Juice, and among the central theories driving this project are the ideas that to create change we must insist that decorum and inertia yield to justice, and that we must stop "waiting for Superman" to fix politics.

DECORUM MUST YIELD TO JUSTICE: This point was never so clear to me as it was last January, when my friend and colleague Aaron Swartz hung himself with a belt from the window of his Brooklyn, New York apartment. He was only 26 years old. 

Aaron co-founded and helped develop numerous cutting-edge sites and online information-sharing technologies including, RSS 1.0, Creative Commons, and (as we discovered after his death) the New Yorker's online system for receiving anonymous news tips. His high-profile pursuits were noted as early as age 14, marking the arrival of one of the most interesting child prodigies of our time. This August Aaron is posthumously being inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame alongside titans like Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and a documentary film is being made about his life (watch the trailer). Lastly, in response to Aaron's high-profile death, last month a bill called "Aaron's Law" was introduced in Congress to prevent future tragedies. 

You see, the U.S. Department of Justice (under Eric Holder's leadership) decided to try and make a criminal out of Aaron and threatened him with thirty-five years in prison for unbelievably trumped up felony "hacking" charges. In truth, if Aaron had been convicted, he would've been a political prisoner. I explain why down below.

"Be curious. Read widely. Try new things. I think a lot of what people call intelligence just boils down to curiosity."
 - Aaron Swartz 1986-2013

Practically the entire time I knew Aaron and worked with him, he was living under the cloud of a menacing prosecution. But he was intensely private about the whole affair and refused to do more than shrug his shoulders when I asked him about it. I would later come to discover that Aaron's friends were being dragged before federal officials to testify against him. All the while, Aaron kept his head high and continued his activist work and projects. He never stopped thinking about ways to make positive change on complex issues of justice. But in some ways I feel I may have let him down, as there would come to be signs that the prosecution was taking a personal toll on him.

MAY 2012: AARON SWARTZ FOR NY MAYOR? - One of the last times I saw Aaron alive, he had come to Silver Spring, Maryland (near where I live) to give the keynote speech at the annual Freedom to Connect conference. I didn't arrive at the AFI Silver Theatre in time to hear his remarks, though the YouTube replay has now been viewed by over 400,000 people. Sadly, I couldn't have known then that this would be one of Aaron's final public addresses. Nevertheless, after his speech Aaron wanted a ride to Union Station so that he could catch the next train back to New York. And as soon as we got in my car, he asked plainly, "what's on your mind these days?" Aaron was always curious to hear more about what others were working on.

I described to him my frustrations with the lack of political courage on criminal justice reforms that would end the mass incarceration of Americans for non-violent offenses (who, by the way, are disproportionately poor and of color). I ranted about the fact that across the nation, Democrats had all but given up on challenging corporate power in our political system. And I also told Aaron I had been thinking about running for public office in Maryland.

Given Aaron's interest in open information, I tried to tickle his interest in experiments with activist legislating for the cause. In particular, I described to him some possible things an elected official could do to force complacent legislative leaders to grant the public access to information about what their government is doing. Maryland, for example, had only recently started publishing committee votes online. But why couldn't a diligent lawmaker simply have gotten some staff or interns to systematically scan and publicly upload all of the committee votes themselves? And just like that, we started gaming out different ways of going rogue to create disclosure of government proceedings that the public ought to be able to see.

It was at this time that Aaron told me he had recently plotted out a hypothetical run for New York mayor in his head, as he wanted to see what it would take to mount a serious bid. Though it didn't seem he was actually talking about running, it was clear to me that this was a continuation of a conversation we had the first time I met Aaron only one and a half years earlier.

DECEMBER 2010: HACKING POLITICS - In September 2010 Aaron co-founded the online activist organization Demand Progress with my high school friend, former Rhode Island State Rep. and congressional candidate David Segal (who grew up in Montgomery County). Aaron and David brought me in to serve as Demand Progress' "Washington Guy" a few months after launching the organization. Though Aaron is not able to see what's become of his work with us, I think he would be pleased to know that we now amplify the voices of 1.5 million members in the aggressive defense of civil liberties, progressive causes and Internet freedom.

At the time, Aaron was most widely known as an open information advocate, who happened to believe that access to taxpayer funded academic research should not be a luxury reserved for wealthy nations and institutions. He was also a wildly creative and idealistic activist who looked for opportunities to make real change. When PACER (the U.S. court system's database of federal court documents) announced a pilot project to provide free access to public records at some libraries, Aaron found a way to download millions of the court documents and upload them into the cloud. Like a modern-day Robin Hood, Aaron made the files publicly available and was investigated by the FBI for his activism. At the time, PACER charged users 8 cents per page for public records and allegedly ran a surplus of nearly $150 million

Though Aaron's PACER stunt was discussed in the mainstream media, I didn't know about the law enforcement distaste for his tactics when I first started working for Demand Progress. A passage from my new book Hacking Politics describes the first time I met Aaron Swartz, and it also details the beginning of a running dialogue we had about how to get justice-minded candidates to seek public office (excerpt below):
DAVID MOON (VIA HACKING POLITICS) - [Demand Progress'] primary function is to mobilize the public to advance civil liberties and progressive causes. We do so primarily during key moments in the public dialogue, when the actions of a few can be leveraged into results for many more.... Our work to stop SOPA/PIPA ... fits the paradigm for activism today: harnessing grassroots disruption to advance social change....  The Arab Spring protests, Occupy, the Tea Party, and Anonymous have all illuminated this paradigm shift.

My involvement with Demand Progress began on December 20, 2010, when I met the young Internet activist Aaron Swartz for coffee in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle. I had never heard of Aaron or his work -- but over time, I quickly saw that he was trying to trigger many of the same policy changes I sought to advance....

But my first meeting with Aaron wasn't even really about [Internet censorship legislation called] COICA or Demand Progress. Instead, I asked Aaron to describe his broad vision of what he hoped Demand Progress might achieve. Aaron expressed immense frustration with the political process and stated that his dream was to see well-meaning grassroots candidates running for office in every district in the nation. Privately, I thought the idea sounded a bit grandiose (at least in the context of trying to create a short-term strategic plan for an organization), but that was mostly beside the point: it was clear that I shared Aaron's sense of impatience with a broken political system and his desire to go big....

FEBRUARY 2012: A CAMEO BY ANONYMOUS (KIND OF) - By February 2012, Demand Progress was reveling in the glow of the unexpected defeat of the SOPA/PIPA legislation. That month I spoke on a panel at DC Social Media week titled, "Who was Really Behind the Internet Blackout Day? A SOPA & PIPA Case Study." It was a great event and a community celebration for Internet freedom fighters, but after the event I was approached by a gentleman who handed me a business card that had no text on it and simply displayed a bizarre pattern of shapes. When I gave him a puzzled look, he stated, "I'm anonymous. But I may be in touch." I don't know if those were his exact words, but you get the idea. Given recent high-profile news coverage of hacktivism, I assumed my mysterious new acquaintance was affiliated with the Anonymous (eg: the one with a capital "A"). As it would turn out, I never heard from him again, but the run-in would cause some confusion weeks later.

Indeed, soon after speaking at DC Social Media Week, and I can't remember exactly when, I received a USB flash drive in an unmarked manilla envelope in the mail. When I opened the unmarked package and saw the disk drive with no accompanying note, I immediately gulped, as I conjured up all sorts of crazy stories about what was on the drive or what might happen if I inserted it into my computer. By this time, I was already aware of the federal charges facing Aaron, so I thought it best to explore the mystery of the flash drive at a later date. With that decision made, I took the envelope and flash drive and threw them into the trunk of my car -- where they sat for months. Life and work, as is normal, diverted my attention from extracurricular activities such as this new mystery.

JUNE 2012: DARK DAYS FOR AARON SWARTZ - In June 2012, I was invited to speak on a panel at the annual Netroots Nation conference (the topic was SOPA/PIPA organizing again). I remembered that the USB flash drive was still sitting in my car and decided I would bring it to the gathering in Providence, Rhode Island. I was finally ready to explore its contents. 

At this point in time, Demand Progress was still trying to steady its fundraising operations, so I was trying to find other activists to share my hotel room with me. I ended up bunking with Aaron and his girlfriend Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman. Taren and I were both speaking on panels at the conference, and Aaron's attendance was actually a last minute decision. As the story goes, Taren had boarded a train to Providence, and Aaron was feeling down and wanted to be with her. He happened to be near New York Penn Station when talking to her on the phone and realized that the next train to arrive would be the one that Taren was aboard. So Aaron jumped on Taren's train and joined us in Providence.

Admittedly, I found the living arrangements a bit awkward, as I wanted to give Taren and Aaron some personal space. Our first night together was fine, as we were mostly all tired upon arrival, and the next morning Taren and I woke up and departed to our various panels. Aaron, however, stayed behind in the room. When I returned sometime after lunch, he was alone in the room with the shades drawn shut in total darkness. When I asked if he was going to come out with me, he stated that he wasn't yet ready to partake in the conference. I didn't think much of this. 

But I returned yet again in the early evening as the famous Netroots Nation happy hours and parties were about to begin and demanded he come out to socialize with some of our activist friends. Aaron promised he would meet up with me at one of the parties being sponsored by this or that progressive organization, and then he disappeared back into the darkness of the cave he had created for himself. Today I wonder whether this was a sign of the mental toll the federal prosecution was taking on him.

For whatever reason, this situation didn't seem so bizarre to me at the time, as I knew Aaron to be a bit eccentric and often not interested in mindless socializing. In fact, he was staying with me once on my birthday, and during my party he shut himself in my guest room as soon as people started singing to Journey. "What's going on down there?" he asked like a father might. That weekend, he enjoyed himself much more in my company when others were not around. I introduced him to the HBO television show Bored to Death and the rock band The Black Keys, and that seemed more his speed. In any case, with that experience in mind, I decided to give Aaron and Taren some space during the rest of the conference. Rather than continuing to intrude on their time together, I slept on the spare bed in the hotel room of one of my friends and former colleagues (Vermont State Rep. Chris Pearson of the Progressive Party -- a disruptive catalyst for change in his own right).

FLASH DRIVE MYSTERY SOLVED BY SEN. DAVID BRINKLEY - The morning after I was exposed to Aaron's dark day of solitude in our hotel room, I went back to our shared quarters to fetch some things. It was around lunchtime and Aaron was sitting in bed clacking away on his laptop. This time he allowed sunlight to penetrate the room.

I told Aaron that I brought a mysterious disk drive with me to the conference, and I disclosed to him the story about the man with the wordless business card. He immediately jumped out of bed and insisted we go down to the business center to explore the contents of the device. Aaron's face lit up with curiosity, and he was alive like I hadn't seen him during the rest of the conference. This was, in fact, the first time I had succeeded in getting him out of the hotel room.

So Aaron and I marched down to the business center at the conference to borrow one of their desktop computers. After all, I had refused to open the flash drive on my own computer. Hilariously, I had my own laptop in my hand, and the clerk at the business center inquired why we needed to use his computer when we had our own. I hadn't considered that one might wonder about this, and I stammered some garbled words in response. I thought the jig was up. But I quickly recovered and stated something about needing to print documents from their machine, and we proceeded to rent one of their computers.

When I finally loaded the USB drive into the computer, my excitement turned into disappointment. There were exactly two files on the drive, and they were both labeled something like "David Brinkley 911 Call." It turned out that the mysterious package had nothing to do with hacktivsm or Anonymous at all. The real story behind the anonymous mailing was that Maryland Republicans were embroiled in a heated primary race for the 6th Congressional seat held by GOP Rep. Roscoe Bartlett at the time. A State Senator named David Brinkley was challenging Bartlett in the primary, and someone had sent me copies of 911 audio recordings relating to a domestic disturbance at Brinkley's house. Obviously, they were hoping I would post the tapes on my blog Maryland Juice. At the time, I had decided to start writing about and weighing in on the horserace aspects of the GOP primary battle, since the mainstream media was seemingly not doing too much in-depth coverage of the race. 

The primary was held during April 2012, but I was so terrified of the unmarked package that whoever sent it to me probably had no idea I wouldn't even look at the contents until well after the election was over. As a result, the anonymous sender was later forced to post the 911 call tapes on YouTube and send them to me by email. Though the resulting Maryland Juice story caused quite a stir in state politics, I didn't even bother to tell Aaron what was on the flash drive. Instead, when he asked what the files were, I didn't think he'd be interested in the story. So I just told him that the fiiles were related to my blog. But now I wish I told him the full story, as I think he would've been amused. Oh well.

JANUARY 2013: THE DEATHS OF AARON SWARTZ & NORM GLEICHMAN - Around 2:30 am on Saturday, January 12, 2013, I received a Google news alert informing me that my friend and colleague Aaron Swartz had committed suicide just hours earlier. Given our work together on Demand Progress, in pro forma fashion, I had subscribed to news alerts mentioning Aaron. I was out of the house the night of Aaron's death and didn't know that the multiple missed calls were attempts to reach me about the shocking news. But when I got home and realized what was going on, I quickly made a late-night phone call to my tired sounding Demand Progress colleague David Segal. After confirming that the news alert was in fact true, I went to bed stunned and emotionally numb.

After just a few hours of uneasy rest, I bolted awake the next morning and quickly grabbed my smartphone to read any email messages that may have come through while I was sleeping. Though I was seeking more information about Aaron's death, I was instead astonished to read a Facebook message from a friend in Takoma Park informing me that our mutual friend Norm Gleichman died suddenly and unexpectedly while on vacation with his family. I first met Norm, a senior attorney in SEIU's national office, while managing Jamie Raskin's insurgent campaign for State Senate in 2006, and though we both mingled in some overlapping political circles, I actually knew Norm mostly in a non-political context. I had been over to his house a few times to have dinner with his family and also saw him shine as a thespian taking on the lead role in the Greenbelt Arts Center's 2009 production of the play "Amadeus." One of my friends briefly dated Norm's daughter and yet another had been working with Norm in SEIU's legal department for the past couple years. So when my wife Melinda and I moved close to Norm and his wife Marie's house in Takoma Park last year, we were excited to reconnect with them and have them over to our house for dinner. We've finally completed a year of mayhem living in a house undergoing renovations and are ready to entertain, but alas we will now miss the company of Norm, too.

Aaron Swartz and Norm Gleichman died on the same day under wildly divergent circumstances, and attending the two funerals in quick succession left me with a lasting psychic scar. But somehow Aaron's voluntary taking of his own life rattled me more than perhaps I've been able to comprehend. I had only weeks earlier met up with him at the December 2012 RootsCamp organizing conference in Washington, DC. That was the last time I ever saw Aaron in-person, but in our final conversation together, we caught up on our discussion about my potential run for office and Aaron followed-up by connecting me via email to an academic he knew who was working on the issue of mass incarceration in America. We also talked about maybe getting together later that weekend, but again I got too busy to actually meet up with Aaron. That would've been my last opportunity to chat with him about anything.

Aaron did, however, contact me on Twitter ten days before his death with a warning to protect one of my own accounts, which was probably spamming him with nonsense. His final message to me (though helpful at the time) now means something more to me than its ordinary tone would suggest. With all that must have been going on in his head, I can't even believe that he spent a nano-second writing this message to me:

CONCLUSION: Aaron and I never had the opportunity to finish our ongoing conversation, let alone even continue it. And so now I am continuing this dialogue directly with you instead. Maryland Juice is obviously not a mainstream media outlet, nor are we just another news blog or online political column. This operation is yet another experiment in Hacking Politics ... one reader at a time. Much, much more on the next steps soon. In the meantime:


MORE DETAILS ON MY BOOK: HACKING POLITICSHacking Politics chronicles the 2012 battle to defeat Internet censorship legislation called SOPA/PIPA. I co-authored the book with former Rhode Island Rep. David Segal, and former George W. Bush webmaster Patrick Ruffini. The strategies and work style reflected in the chapters I wrote are a window into the ethos of Maryland Juice. Though the book widely concerns a policy battle over Internet Freedom, I hope it is a useful case study for thinking about organizing more broadly. Our coalition's efforts culminated in a dramatic Internet-wide blackout of websites including Google, Wikipedia, Craigslist, and Mozilla. Along the way, our ragtag coalition came to include technologists, Tea Partiers, progressives, businesses, civil libertarians, and literally millions of ordinary Internet users around the nation. We went up against a massive coalition of industry interests including giants in the pharmaceutical industry, Hollywood, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce -- and we prevailed

Hacking Politics details how it all went down from the perspective of numerous key participants, and in doing so shines the light on the massive influence of special interests in Congress -- and how to fight back guerilla-style. The book includes colorful stories and insightful commentary from Aaron Swartz, lawmakers including Ron Paul and Rep. Zoe Lofgren, musicians like Erin McKeown and Jonny 5 of the Flobots, as well as advocates from a range of websites including Google, reddit, Megaupload, Cheezburger, Suicide Girls, and more. I hope you might check it out at:

You can also watch a crude trailer I previously made for the book below:

NOTE: I am doubtful that simply mentioning my interest in public office in a single article on a blog that predates the creation of my committee requires an authority line, but just in case, this particular article alone may be considered: By Authority: Friends of David Moon. Treasurer: Usman Ahmed.

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