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Friend’s Death Becomes Call to Action

Demand Progress Executive Director David Segal didn’t set out to build a grass-roots movement of Internet activists, but after the death of his close friend Aaron Swartz, he may not have a choice.

A former member of the Providence City Council and the Rhode Island General Assembly, Segal was running for Rep. Patrick J. Kennedy’s vacant House seat in 2010 when he met Swartz, who was affiliated with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. The two were kindred spirits and worked closely together on the campaign. After Segal lost the Democratic primary, he teamed up with Swartz to start Demand Progress.

The group quickly found its calling in the early battles over Internet piracy legislation in 2010. Demand Progress launched an online petition arguing that pending legislation would infringe on free speech and lead to potential censorship. The effort took off, bringing what Segal called an “incredible response.” It was clear the group had struck a nerve, at a time when few other grass-roots groups were engaged in tech policy issues.

“We decided to concentrate on that space, where there was a void of organizing at the time. Mass membership campaigning in the online space was just not happening in this sort of magnitude before,” Segal said. “So we decided to just sit in this space and see what we could do with it, which transitioned into the SOPA fight.”

SOPA, or the Stop Online Piracy Act, and its companion legislation PIPA, the Protect IP Act, seemed to be on a path toward becoming law in early 2012 when the grass-roots campaign led by Demand Progress and other groups took hold, resulting in huge online protests that forced Congress to back down.

Having helped awaken the Web to the importance of policy debates, Segal said, Demand Progress chose to become part of the activist community. When Swartz was indicted in July 2011 on computer-hacking charges, Demand Progress began rebutting some of the Justice Department’s arguments regarding the degree of his alleged offenses.

But Segal and his team didn’t start focusing on problems with the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act until Swartz’s death last month, which prompted an outpouring of support from the same activist community that had opposed SOPA and PIPA.

“For most people that were close to him, the initial reaction was sorrow,” he said. “And it’s transitioned into more of an anger at the systemic issues that make this sort of thing happen.”

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