Aaron’s army

January 24, 2013 | Leave a comment

This speech, in honor of Aaron Swartz, pretty much sums up why I work on the web. This is why it’s worthwhile.

Aaron was part of an army of citizens that believes democracy only works when the citizenry are informed, when we know about our rights—and our obligations. An army that believes we must make justice and knowledge available to all—not just the well born or those that have grabbed the reigns of power—so that we may govern ourselves more wisely.

He was part of an army of citizens that rejects kings and generals and believes in rough consensus and running code.

[...] Aaron Swartz was not a criminal, he was a citizen, and he was a brave soldier in a war which continues today, a war in which corrupt and venal profiteers try to steal and hoard and starve our public domain for their own private gain.

Read the full text of the speech over here. It was given as part of a memorial for Aaron Swartz at the Internet Archive tonight.


August 20, 2012 | Leave a comment

Tim Berners-LeeSir Tim Berners-Lee, on August 19, 1991:

WorldWideWeb is a hypertext browser/editor which allows one to read information from local files and remote servers. It allows hypertext links to be made and traversed, and also remote indexes to be interrogated for lists of useful documents. Local files may be edited, and links made from areas of text to other files, remote files, remote indexes, remote index searches, internet news groups and articles. All these sources of information are presented in a consistent way to the reader. For example, an index search returns a hypertext document with pointers to documents matching the query. Internet news articles are displayed with hypertext links to other referenced articles and groups.

[...] This project is experimental and of course comes without any warranty whatsoever. However, it could start a revolution in information access. We are currently using WWW for user support at CERN. We would be very interested in comments from anyone trying WWW, and especially those making other data available, as part of a truly world-wide web.

Tim Berners-Lee’s original WWW announcement.

Almost twenty-one years later, Sir Tim tweeted from the London 2012 opening ceremony, following a multi-million-pound song and dance routine in his honor:

Tim could have chosen to license the system he developed, and he and CERN would have probably made some decent revenue through doing so. Instead, though, he had the foresight to open it to the world, even recognizing in his initial announcement that it could start a revolution in how information is accessed.

This website is hosted in Dallas, Texas, and runs open source software written all over the world. The words were written in Berkeley, California. The photo was uploaded from São Paulo, Brazil, and was served from one of Yahoo!’s datacenters. The embedded tweet was pulled from Twitter’s servers. It took me 20 minutes to pull all of this together and post it, and no more than a couple of seconds to reach you, and none of this is magic any more.

That any of us can reach each other, no matter who we are or where we are in the world, and can publish to a wide audience, is no longer something amazing or rare in 2012. It’s a baseline; something incredibly common in the developed world, that we hope to provide to the places that don’t have it yet, because they should have it too.

It’s a democratizer, a unifier, a tool of empowerment and social freedom, all because one man decided it should be free.

Thank you, Tim.

SOPA and PIPA: how lawmakers are out to take my job

January 12, 2012 | 1 comment

SOPA / PIPAI joined both the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union today. I also give regularly to the Open Rights Group in the UK. I urge you to do the same.

SOPA and PIPA – the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act respectively (PDF links) – are legislative acts that undermine the structure, culture and universality of the Internet. As Stanford Law Review points out, they’re unconstitutional and fundamentally in opposition to the principle of free speech:

This not only violates basic principles of due process by depriving persons of property without a fair hearing and a reasonable opportunity to be heard, it also constitutes an unconstitutional abridgement of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment. The Supreme Court has made it abundantly clear that governmental action suppressing speech, if taken prior to an adversary proceeding and subsequent judicial determination that the speech in question is unlawful,is a presumptively unconstitutional “prior restraint.” In other words, it is the “most serious and the least tolerable infringement on First Amendment rights,” permissible only in the narrowest range of circumstances. The Constitution requires a court “to make a final determination” that the material in question is unlawful “after an adversary hearing before the material is completely removed from circulation.”

I highly recommend reading the whole article, which also includes references, surrounding discussions and lots more detail.

This is a fight between old and new media, gatekeepers and consumers, democrats and those who seek to control discourse. One thing it’s not is a fight between people who want to pirate and people who are against it; a lot of people who oppose the bill, myself included, are also against piracy. The people – and they do exist – who choose to download illegally rather than purchase media when they have the choice are part of the problem, and not on the right side of the debate. However, there are better ways to fight piracy, and undermining the processes by which the Internet works is not an appropriate response – unless, of course, it’s the true purpose of the bill. I’ll leave you to make your own mind up, but it’s worth thinking about CBS Viacom’s role in distributing the software used to distribute files, and their own instructions for downloading copyrighted material.

The Internet is my livelihood. Rather than seek to undermine the rights of artists and creators, I’ve built platforms that – in a minor way – allow more people to create, share and be inspired. latakoo, for example, allows filmmakers and journalists to share their footage with editors, legal teams, customers and newsrooms more easily. Elgg allows people to learn, reflect and share with each other within schools, companies and organizations. Neither of these things undermines anyone’s rights. It sucks that a group of companies and lawmakers want to destroy the underlying principles through which I make my money – and which generate many billions of dollars every year – because some people prefer to steal their stuff than to buy it. When any website can disappear overnight without due process, the Internet becomes a very poor investment, and businesses are on shaky ground.

The MPAA has effectively suggested that we impose filters on the Internet similar to those in China and Iran. Yet, we also know that Netflix is reducing movie piracy in the US (implying that media companies need to better serve their potential customers), and more fundamentally that people who seek to pirate will find a way, whether through encryption, darknets or other methods. We also know that this is a great excuse to set up databases, track websites and create provisions to bring speech offline without due process. Let’s not let that happen.

One indication of the shadiness of these bills is that Lamar Smith, the author of SOPA, actually had a copyrighted image as the background of his website. In response to the discovery, his web team set up a block to prevent the Internet Archive from storing prior versions of his site – thereby hiding the evidence.

Once again, I encourage you to join organizations like ACLU, EFF and ORG, and to speak to your representatives. It’s not too late to save an industry, my job and our freedom of speech.

Blowing up markets

July 6, 2010 | 11 comments

The Red VicBanning sublets

Last week, the State of New York passed a bill that bans short-term rentals: specifically, no homeowner or renter may sublet their home for less than a month. The target is sites like AirBNB, an up and coming website that allows travelers to eschew pricey hotels – and their accompanying hotel room occupancy tax – in favor of private homes.

If the governor chooses to pass the legislation (as opposed to veto it), AirBNB will effectively be outlawed, and with it, a grassroots marketplace economy for short-term accommodation. New York State will have cemented hotels and bed & breakfasts as gatekeepers to the city for travelers who can’t stay with friends or relatives.

To me, this is an interesting reaction: it shows, once again, that established gatekeepers are terrified of the Internet. We’re used to that by now in the context of media content – we already know that newspapers, publishers, record companies and movie distributors aren’t as important as they were – but this is a scarcity-driven marketplace. It used to be that finding a safe, clean room in a strange city was a hard problem, so we turned to hotels as a trusted source. Running a hotel is in itself an expensive, tough business, and as a result there were a limited number in any given city, and the price went up according to demand. Although the hotel business is a ruthless game, it’s always been hotels competing with other hotels.

Now, though, we can visit websites like AirBNB and Couchsurfing, where private citizens can offer their homes to travelers, and the site will let us know who we can trust based on other peoples’ experiences. The marketplace has been blown wide open, and it turns out that a lot of us would rather go for a cheaper, friendlier option. I wouldn’t put money on New York blotting out short sublets for long.

Power to the people

We’re going to be seeing a lot more of this, in all kinds of market sectors. We’re already seeing ridesharing sites become popular, for example, blowing up the market previously owned by taxicabs and making it available to anyone who happens to be driving somewhere. Effectively this formalizes hitchhiking, making it both safer and more efficient.

It all comes down to one simple rule: People want to be free.

The Internet is opinionated: as a medium, it inherently works to empower people and eliminate hierarchies in society. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the most popular Internet companies hail from California; their philosophies are direct descendents of the civil rights activism that took place there in the sixties and seventies. In many cases, it’s even the same people. (Or – and here I put up my hand as the son of Berkeley “radicals” – their children.)

Gatekeepers – companies, structures or processes that act as exclusive barriers or filters – are not long for this world. Where gatekeepers exist, they do so because the alternative was inconvenient at the time when the gatekeeper became established – not because they’re inherently better than an empowered population. Those organizations, companies, and even governments, need to look at themselves very carefully and figure out what needs to be changed, before those things are changed for them.