My friend and colleague Sherwin Siy died suddenly last week, way before his time, way before any of us were ready to lose his friendship, and way before the Internet and the principles he defended could afford to be without his help defending them.
There are some people out there with the very silly idea that the only reason people advocate for the sorts of issues like we do here at Techdirt is because someone is paying us to. The thinking seems to go that “but for” this monetary carrot none of us would bother.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Those of us who fight for these issues do so because we fervently believe they are the right positions to serve the public interest, the Internet, and ultimately the world. Taking on these battles is in many ways a calling, something we feel personally compelled to do.
In the case of both Sherwin and myself (and many others, I’m sure), it is also what drove us to go to law school. As he explained in this interview about his most recent work at Wikimedia, as Lead Public Policy Manager:
“The reason I went to law school in 2002 was because I was inspired by the ability for the internet to be this collaborative, weird place, built out of collections of individuals.”[?]
Deeply inspired by the weirdness of the internet and seeking to protect it, Sherwin made it his mission to support “the unanticipated things that are made by people who aren?t multibillion dollar corporations.”
Sherwin was just slightly ahead of me in getting his legal career going but had so quickly established himself that as I started mine I reached out to him. “Dear Mr. Siy…” I apparently wrote in my first email to him. By that point he was working for Public Knowledge, eventually becoming Vice-President of Legal Affairs. To me (as I embarrassed him years later when I told him this) he was practically a celebrity. He was a key player at a key organization actually making a difference on these important issues, and I was in awe.
But over the years, as I worked to establish myself as someone who could make a difference too, he helped. One of my first amicus briefs was for the Ninth Circuit in the Lenz v. Universal (aka the “Dancing Baby”) case. Public Knowledge was one of my clients for that brief, and that was thanks to him.
Of course, one of the things that has become apparent in the wake of his death is just how many of us he helped, how generous he was with his mentoring, and how unselfish he was with his own power and influence. Naturally he was embarrassed when I told him I’d regarded him as an Internet hero, because of course he was far too humble a person to see himself that way, regardless of how much he deserved such respect for all the work he was doing.
But his loss isn’t just being felt by so many because he was a respected colleague we’d come to depend on as an invaluable ally in our advocacy. For many of us we are equally proud to have called him a friend. He was someone I reached out to every time I was in town, and he almost always had time for a good catch-up. Sure, sometimes our conversations might include deep dives into the latest copyright policy, and I remember another occasion when he regaled me of a deep understanding of the historical regulatory underpinnings of modern privacy law?expertise I was fully planning to tap into down the road at some point but now can’t.
After all, we were both geeks, and that was our idea of a good time. Of course, our friendship wasn’t all work and no play: as I think about my personal memories of Sherwin I remember the time when I was out in his area and suffering from some serious FOMO from seeing all the fun everyone else I knew seemed to be having, per all their pictures that kept showing up on my Facebook feed. So I called up another law geek friend and we planned an outing to go exploring in parkland along a river. And then we called up Sherwin, who hadn’t before met my other friend, and we all had a great day hanging out together just like we’d all known each other forever.
I was fully expecting to know Sherwin forever. It was only just a month or so ago that he’d pinged me for advice. He was thinking about the future, as was I. So we talked about what we wanted from it and promised to help each other go get it. Never could I have ever imagined at that moment that when it came to the future my seemingly so vital friend wouldn’t have one.
It’s impossible to reconcile. In some ways my brain forgets that he’s gone; since we didn’t live in the same place, he wasn’t someone I saw all the time, so to not see him now does not seem that unusual. The kick in the stomach comes from when he pops to mind because it suddenly occurs that I want to hear what he has to say, and then just as suddenly I have to remember that I never can hear it again.
And he’s ALWAYS going to pop to mind. There is hardly a policy battle ? on copyright, net neutrality, privacy, free speech, and more ? where we have not been enormously lucky to have had Sherwin on our team. Sherwin was so smart, so erudite, and so needed in our community of advocates that his loss is incalculable. But it all begs the question: if he could leave this sort of mark in the world, and touch this many people’s lives, in his first forty years, imagine what he could have done with 40 more.
Fate has certainly robbed us all.