The Digital Self: We all lose with the Web’s last bandits behind bars

andrew auernheimer header

Follow-up: After an insightful reader discussion surrounding the actions and prosecution of Andrew “Weev” Auernheimer sparked by this piece, I’ve written a follow-up column, “Andrew Auernheimer is not Aaron Swartz,” to clarify my stance. 

Infamous Internet troll Andrew “weev” Auernheimer received a 41-month sentence in federal prison on Monday for violating an anti-computer hacking law. The penalty stems from 2010, when the so-called “iPad hacker” revealed a security hole that allowed him and his partner, Daniel Spitler, to snag 114,000 120,000 iPad users’ email addresses from a publicly available AT&T website. The duo then told Gawker about their exploits, which publicized the exposed iPad user data, embarrassed AT&T, and eventually led to Monday’s legal obliteration.

The conviction of Auernheimer comes less than a week after Reuter’s deputy social media editor, Matthew Keys, was indicted for allegedly helping Anonymous hackers deface an article in the Los Angeles Times. According to the FBI, Keys provided the hackers with a username and password to the newspaper’s network, apparently in exchange for access to their private IRC chat room. Keys potentially faces decades in prison and $750,000 in fines.

The technology revolution is over. The other guys won.

The common thread between these two young men – besides having the same attorney, Tor Ekeland – is the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which is so absurdly vague and outdated that even violating the terms of service of any website is grounds for sending a person to federal prison. As such, the attention from law enforcement on both Auernheimer and Keys – as well as Aaron Swartz, who killed himself in January amidst prosecution under the CFAA – has led to calls for laws that don’t give the U.S. Department of Justice the power to impose disproportionate penalties for mischievous activity, just because it involves a computer.

Problem is, ridding ourselves of CFAA is far from the only fight technology users have hanging on their necks. And I can’t shake the feeling that we’ve already lost. The technology revolution is over. The other guys won.

There was a time not so long ago when the Internet felt like an entirely new universe, free of the constraints and rules of the “real world.” Alas, this was never the case – the powers that be were, it seems, simply playing catchup. Any freedom we may have felt was simply an illusion. And the events listed above have blown any lingering fantasy we may have had out of the sky.

Today, we tech users face bombardment from all sides. In addition to the CFAA, we have the privacy-violating Computer Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) making its way through Congress once again. We have copyright laws that make it a federal crime to unlock the cell phones we buy without permission from wireless carriers. And we have national security-related laws that let shadowy entities like the National Security Agency spy on virtually everything we do online.

When the watchdogs of liberty warn us about choked free speech, this is what they mean.

One can’t help but feel that the increased pressure on technology users to remain impossibly vigilant about the laws that rule our digital world is intentional, that we are meant to feel as I feel today: beaten and deflated to the point of surrender. And you know what? Maybe we are.

Thanks to the DOJ’s prosecution of Auernheimer, Keys, and Swartz, the rest of us feel afraid to use the amazing tools at our disposal, in case we upset the wrong crowd. Throughout my time with Digital Trends, I have corresponded with everyone on that list, in one capacity or another. I have lent my support to the same causes, chatted with the same groups online. And while I can’t claim to know a single one of them personally, in light of the events of the past few months, I can’t help but think that I too appear on a list in some dim Washington D.C. office. When the watchdogs of liberty warn us about choked free speech, this is what they mean.

Of course, I am not Andrew Auernheimer or Aaron Swartz. I have not “hacked” AT&T, given out passwords to Anonymous, or broken into a server closet at MIT to liberate millions of academic articles. I have not rustled the feathers of the rich and powerful. I am not a threat. And the prosecution of these men, all of whom are nearly my age, further ensures that I, and maybe you, never will be.

This resulting fear to speak one’s mind strikes at the very foundation on which our democracy is supposedly built. It is a blow against the belief that the Internet and all its capabilities provide any of us with any real power that we lacked before we jumped online. Instead, it has given those who wish to maintain the status quo more power to do so – by tracking our activities, reading our emails, locking our phones, and collecting our tweets. The very thing that was supposed to set us free has only snapped on more shackles. And right now, I can’t for the life of me see how we can shake them. Please, tell me I’m wrong.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.


Leave the laptop at home, the iPad Pro is the travel buddy to take on vacay

The iPad Pro is a powerful tablet that's perfect for creatives and professionals. How does it fare when traveling with it as a laptop replacement? We took it on a two week trek in Japan to find out.
Product Review

With sapphire glass and analog dials, you'd never know this watch is smart

The world of hybrid smartwatches is getting much larger, and the latest comes from a name with history — New York Standard Watches. In our NYSW GTS Activity Tracker review, we find out what makes this watch special, and why we were so…

The best MacBook deals for December 2018

If you’re in the market for a new Apple laptop, let us make your work a little easier: We hunted down the best up-to-date MacBook deals available online right now from various retailers.

Google makes it easy to donate to charity straight through the Play Store

As we head into the holiday season, Google announced a new feature on Google Play that makes it a little easier to donate to charity. Through the new page, you'll be able to choose from a range of charities to donate to.

Smartphone makers are vomiting a torrent of new phones, and we’re sick of it

Smartphone manufacturers like Huawei, LG, Sony, and Motorola are releasing far too many similar phones. The update cycle has accelerated, but more choice is not always a good thing.

Do we even need 5G at all?

Faster phones, easier access to on-demand video, simpler networking -- on the surface, 5G sounds like a dream. So why is it more of a nightmare?
Home Theater

The Apple AirPods 2 needed to come out today. Here are four reasons why

Apple announced numerous new products at its October 30 event, a lineup that included a new iPad Pro, a MacBook Air, as well as a new Mac Mini. Here are four reasons we wish a new set of AirPods were on that list.

Razer’s most basic Blade 15 is the one most gamers should buy

Razer's Blade 15 is an awesome laptop for both gamers, streamers, professionals, and anyone else needing serious go in a slim profile, but its price is out of reach for many games. The new Blade 15 Base solves that problem with few…

Going to hell, again. The Switch makes 'Diablo 3' feel brand-new

I've played every version of Diablo 3 released since 2012, racking up hundreds of hours in the process. Six years later, I'm playing it yet again on Nintendo Switch. Somehow, it still feels fresh.

‘Fallout 76’ may have online multiplayer but it’s still a desolate wasteland

"Is Fallout 76 an MMO?" That depends on who you ask. Critics and players often cite its online multiplayer capabilities as a reason it qualifies. Yet calling the game an MMO only confuses matters, and takes away from what could make…
Digital Trends Live

Microsoft has #*!@ed up to-do lists on an epic scale

Microsoft has mucked up to-do lists on a scale you simply can’t imagine, a failure that spans multiple products and teams, like a lil’ bit of salmonella that contaminates the entire output from a factory.

As Amazon turns up the volume on streaming, Spotify should shudder

Multiple players are all looking to capitalize on the popularity of streaming, but it has thus far proved nearly impossible to make a profit. Could major tech companies like Amazon be primed for a streaming take-over?

Throw out the sandbox. ‘Red Dead Redemption 2’ is a fully realized western world

Despite featuring around 100 story missions, the real destination in Red Dead Redemption 2 is the journey you make for yourself in the Rockstar's open world, and the game is better for it.

‘Diablo Immortal’ is just the beginning. Mobile games are the future

Diablo fans were furious about Diablo Immortal, but in truth, mobile games are the future. From Apple and Samsung to Bethesda and Blizzard, we’re seeing a new incentive for games that fit on your phone.