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Breaking the domain

Digital platforms have progressively advanced the regulation of users on the Internet. The battle for personal freedoms on the Internet has been fought by activists since the first attempts to establish the United States Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA) in 2010. COICA was a precursor to what later became the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA).These bills sought to allow Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to shut down or limit access to websites deemed to be “dedicated to infringement activities.”' As has been presented by David Moon in his documentation of the organized efforts to stop SOPA:

SOPA’s provisions were thought to cover platforms for user-generated content—even if the platform’s owners harbored no intent to host infringing material, and even if they were unaware of said content. It was ostensibly targeted at foreign sites—bad enough in its own right—but COICA’s proponents had also targeted the domestic web, making clear their ultimate designs. Many feared that under SOPA domestic sites like search engines or social media platforms that merely linked to targeted foreign sites could also be penalized.8

SOPA has been described as an attack on net neutrality. Fundamentally, an attack on net neutrality is an attack on the Commons, in terms of the way in which knowledge is accessed, constructed and disseminated. The romanticized idea that all of our disciplinary knowledge defines a public Common that is constantly becoming a driving force for new knowledge is destroyed by formal attempts such as SOPA to legally limit such access and protect forms of intellectual property and practices of monetization from public knowledge. As we have discussed, intellectual property and copyright are rent-seeking mechanisms that operate as value extraction rather than value production.

An activist who understood the implications behind PIPA and SOPA was Aaron Swartz. From an early age Swartz participated in the construction of the Internet’s infrastructure. He contributed to the development of the RSS protocol when he was a young teenager and contributed to the development of the Creative Commons. His politics have been linked to allowing the Internet to become a tool for access, dedicating most of his work to designing mechanisms of access to common knowledge. In 2008 Swartz decided to work on a project that would allow public access to federal court data in the United States.This data was kept in a system called Pacer. Swartz adapted a scraping algorithm to automate the downloading of Pacer documents from free access computers that were installed in public libraries.9 This placed Swartz under the eye of the FBI.1" In time, Swartz became more interested in the idea of further “freeing” public knowledge and he started looking at journal gatekeeping companies such as Elsevier and JSTOR. Swartz couldn’t comprehend how the accumulation of scientific public knowledge stored in journal publications like JSTOR were behind expensive subscription protocols that ultimately restricted access to this information. Swartz was later caught running a scraping operation of his network access at MIT. He was downloading a large number of articles from the JSTOR catalog. Prosecutors utilized his writing, in particular his “Open Guerrilla Access Manifesto,” to make the case that Swartz was attempting to fully download the JSTOR catalog with the intention to sharing it in the public domain.This is an excerpt from Swartz’s “Open Guerrilla Access Manifesto”:

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.11

Swartz actions break from the standard predictable behavior of a user. His transgressions aimed to reclaim the space of potentiality granted by the Common that had been victim of market enclosures. He utilized his access and knowledge to redefine the domain that citizens could operate in, one that was progressively shrinking due to the implementation of gatekeeping technologies. He was prosecuted by the Secret Service’s Electronic Crimes Working Group, which sought to make an example out of Swartz’s case. He was indicted on federal felony charges and was facing more than 50 years in federal prison when he took his own life at the age of 26.

Swartz wasn’t operating within a system of expectations such as Taleb’s White Swan, nor was he operating as a virtuoso player who would reveal patterns rare to come by such as Taleb’s Black Swan. He was an expert who was aware that the domain of possibilities was larger than what was being presented to the public. He was an agent who sought to redefine the space of potentiality. Swartz’s actions do not belong to the expectation of the network and could not be forecasted or predicted, therefore they were rendered illegal. Swartz understood that it is not enough to play between White and Black Swans. His actions echo Elie Ayache’s criticism targeting the system of provision and expectation:12 the fixed, regulated domain. Swartz’s actions operate as “Blank Swans” and fundamentally defend the attack on the Commons, resisting the shrinking of personal freedoms in the public realm of the Internet. Swartz’s actions seem to be aware of Aureli’s notion of the Common, as a pre-individual reality that antecedes any personal contribution, an action that is not yet tabulated into a domain.13

Swartz as an activist and hacker aimed to defend the pre-individual freedoms that had been colonized by digital networks, hoping for new avenues for self-provision. Under this critical lens of possible actions of users within a pre-established domain, Swartz demonstrated the capacity of users to dynamically alter the domain that they operate in, as they are the source of value and meaning emerging from a network.

Allowing users to alter and redefine the domain of platforms is highly inefficient for commercial network providers, as it suggests breaking the protocol of user standardization that has been put in place by platforms. Yet the possibility of altering the rules of the playing field through popular consensus is what is called democracy. What is necessary for technology today is not only its democratization but more importantly, the bringing of democracy into technolog}'. The illusion of “open platforms” that is presented in the forms of plug-ins, add-ons or mods that are developed by third parties to expand the functionality of a software does not permeate the authoritative governance residing in the hierarchy of the network. None of these modes of contribution challenge the standardization of users being implemented by platforms, nor do they contribute to the embedding of democratic values into networks.These contributions only aggregate and legitimize the building of predictable domains for users.

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