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Activism

Lauri Love is a computer scientist from Stradishall in the UK who has a long history of involvement in political activism. A dual UK-Finnish national on his mother’s side, Lauri registered as a conscientious objector in Finland for his national service in 2009, before he enrolled on a degree in Computer Science and Physics at Glasgow University.

Anti-austerity activism

A wave of anti-austerity protests swept across the UK in 2010-2012, starting with the biggest student protests in a generation in late 2010 and running through to the Occupy movement, which reached the UK roughly a year later.

Students at Glasgow University held an occupation on 1 February 2011 in protest against cuts, job losses and course closures at the university. The Heatherington House occupation lasted for seven months, making it one of the longest-running student demonstrations of that period.

Lauri Love became heavily involved in the occupation, which police were brought in to evict on 6 March 2011. Faced with heavy-handed police tactics, the occupation simply moved to a different part of the university, which effectively forced the university authorities to engage with the occupiers. The occupation was ultimately successful in getting several of its demands – including an end to course closures and compulsory redundancies – met.

On 26 March 2011, Lauri participated in the March for the Alternative in London, the UK’s largest street demonstration since the million-strong marches against the Iraq War almost ten years earlier. Lauri was one of the 150 activists arrested that day – and one of the overwhelming majority of whom charges were shortly dropped – but the coverage of his arrest caused him difficulties in Glasgow. Two months later, Lauri was illegally evicted by his landlord.

In October 2011, the Occupy movement reached Glasgow and Lauri’s commitment and experience in organising helped him play a major role in the occupation of George Square. While Lauri was participating in the occupation, the flat he was sharing was raided by police ostensibly investigating drugs offences. While the charges against Lauri were later dropped, the rent money that was in the flat was not returned and Lauri was made homeless. This experience exacerbated Lauri’s history of depression and made it difficult for him to continue with his degree course.

Lauri lived by himself in Glasgow until July 2012, when he moved back with his parents. His activism, meanwhile, moved online.

Online activism

Online-based direct action forms a parallel narrative to the street demonstrations and occupations of 2010 onwards, particularly those actions associated with the loose online collective Anonymous. Biella Coleman, who is widely recognised as the leading scholarly expert on Anonymous, has drawn out some of the similarities between these contemporary forms of protest:

it is rather unsurprising that a fiery protest movement, often wedded to the Internet, has arisen at this time and in this particular form. As indicated by its name, Anonymous dramatizes the importance of anonymity and privacy in an era when both are rapidly eroding for citizens, and when government secrecy and systematic surveillance are on the rise, especially in the United States. Anonymous has also roared and soared in a tumultuous period of global unrest and discontent, evident in the large-scale popular uprisings: the 15-M movement in Spain, the Arab and African Spring and the Occupy movement. Over the last two years [2011-2012], sharp economic inequalities the world over have been met by a tide of protest activity. While distinct, Anonymous is part and parcel of these trends, symbolically showcasing the ideal for privacy and acting as the popular face of unrest across these movements

Perception of both kinds of protest on the part of authorities in the United States has been extremely negative. At the time of the Occupy protests in late 2011, the response of US police departments was criticised by two separate UN Special Rapporteurs, who wrote to then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton expressing their concern that the “excessive use of force by law enforcement officials against [Occupy] protesters could have been related to their dissenting views, criticisms of economic policies, and their legitimate work in the defense of human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Yet the United States government’s response to online activism has proven even more severe. The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, written in 1986, has been broadly interpreted in recent years to harshly penalize what would be minor offenses offline. Whereas a sit-in demonstration would likely result in a trespassing misdemeanor, its online counterpart, a DDoS, is classified as fraud and prosecuted under the CFAA as a felony that can land protesters in jail for years, if not decades. It is no coincidence that several Courage beneficiaries, lauded activists and writers including Jeremy Hammond, Barrett Brown, and Matt DeHart, are drawn from this category and facing disproportionate punishment for their online activism.

Lauri Love’s work should be considered in this context, as should the potential consequences if he is extradited to the United States. Lauri is alleged to have participated in #OpLastResort, an Anonymous operation that was undertaken in the wake of the suicide of Aaron Swartz. Swartz – a hugely talented and prolific code and activist – committed suicide on 11 January 2013, after relentless persecution by the US justice system over allegations concerning the mass downloading of academic articles he had been entitled to access. His family described their loss as “the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach” over “an alleged crime that had no victims.”

A few weeks after Swartz’s death, the website of the US Sentencing Commission was hacked and a video placed on its homepage that aired grievances about the way he had been treated and concerns about the coercive use of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by US prosecutors. In addition to highlighting concerns that shared by many at the time, the means by which #OpLastResort made its point – making clear the poor security employed by many official websites – clearly caused embarrassment to public authorities in the United States.