Quiet hero

January 17, 2013 | 1 comment

Visiting Ft CollinsThe geniuses, the nonconformists, the hackers, writers, lovers, activists and revolutionaries. Those should be our heroes. Aaron Swartz was someone to look up to.

I didn’t know Aaron, but know plenty of people who did. The memories of him, his life and work all paint a humanist picture of someone who understood what was right, and was brave enough to let that sense of justice and humanity run all the way to the core of what he did. Had he been alive in the 1960s, he would have been working for justice in the framework of the time. Instead, he was alive in the Internet era, and he hacked. And then he was hounded, both by the government and his own demons, to the point where he felt he had to take his own life.

The promise of the Internet age is to remove gatekeepers, provide information equality and empower anyone to be informed. Academic journals have long been an injustice: expensive paid-for periodicals that are baked into the academic system, so that your work must be published there in order for it to be generally accepted as valid. Those results are then locked up behind those paywalls, even when the work itself has been paid for with public money. Aaron downloaded over four million of these documents from JSTOR, an academic journal archive. I believe this act of civil disobedience was morally outstanding. Whatever his plans for the documents (he never released them), simply the act of accessing them without permission was strong movement in the right direction. That information should be free. That information should be all of ours.

Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the US government was going to send Aaron to prison for 50 years.

Of course, JSTOR, and the ridiculous prosecution that followed, didn’t happen in a vacuum. Aaron already had some major victories under his belt. Two years previously, he had downloaded documents from PACER, the court records system that stored court proceedings (which, like all US government documents, are free of copyright) in a non-free, hard-to-use database. Aaron grabbed 20% of the entire database using a free trial pilot at 17 public libraries. He was also at the forefront of the fight against SOPA, the draconian copyright act that threatened the Internet itself – a story that is best told by Aaron himself in his own eloquent words. In short, it is no wonder the government wanted this troublemaker locked away.

And so, he is no longer with us.

One obvious concern is that of his suicide itself. Every suicide is a waste, and the loss that the community feels is nothing compared to that of his family and friends. Men are 5x more likely to take their own lives; those with high IQs are also more likely. Those are the demographics of the hacker community. Blue Hackers is one site that deals with this; for more, you should read this post by Evan Prodromou. If you are having suicidal thoughts, please talk to someone.

Returning to the law, another immediate reaction is that the legislation that he was prosecuted under, the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), should be revamped. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has pursued this, suggesting that:

It’s time for Congress to amend the CFAA to clarify what counts as access “without authorization” and what doesn’t. This will help ensure prosecutors can’t use the law to bring arbitary cases against people they simply don’t like.

Some progress is being made: Rep Zoe Lofgren, the Representative for the Congressional district that includes San Jose, has introduced “Aaron’s Law” to change the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which (among other things) would no longer make it a felony to break the terms and conditions of a website. If you are a US voter, you should contact your representatives in support of this bill. Update: Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) has sent a letter to the Attorney General raising concerns about the conduct of the Justice Department in Aaron’s case.

I think, too, that there’s a larger battle to do with the Internet and information freedom. There’s a line to be drawn. Aaron was a hero, who made a measurable impact on modern freedom of speech through peaceful means. Dave Winer suggested “retiring his number”, in reference to the practice of retiring famous baseball players’ numbers in memorial. I’d like to think, though, that we should be following his example. Aaron was among the most visible of a new kind of activist, who saw the Internet as something much bigger than just a new way to make money. He saw it as freedom, and expression. He saw it as people. He was working for us.

It’s the least we can do to carry on his fight.

Aaron Swartz’s memorial is on Saturday, January 19, 2013, in New York City.

Photo: Visiting Ft Collins by Quinn Norton, released under a Creative Commons license.

How Europe can save the Internet

January 30, 2012 | Leave a comment

I wrote a piece about ACTA for Imperica:

When the French MEP Kader Arif stepped down last week from scrutinizing the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, declaring that he “would not participate in this charade”, it was the culmination of eight years of political lobbying, back-room deals and undemocratic conniving that now threatens to undermine the entire global Internet economy.

[...] Despite declaring an intention to prevent piracy, the agreements once again represent a significant infringement of civil liberties and undermine the principles by which the Internet works. The agreements’ intentions appear good at first glance – who doesn’t want to protect the rights of artists? – but actually represent an irreversible erosion of personal freedoms.

Click here to read the whole article.

Grassroutes: how three students helped save the Internet

January 18, 2012 | 1 comment

Like many of you, I blacked out my site for the protests against SOPA and PIPA. These are bad laws that describe themselves as being anti-piracy but will hinder business, destroy jobs, undermine the working of the Internet, and – to add insult to injury – won’t stop piracy. Khan Academy has a great overview; my previous post about it is over here.

In this post, though, I’m going to rave, because I’m majorly impressed.

The major feature of my SOPA blackout page was a simple widget that detected your location, listed the representatives you needed to call to tell them about your opposition to the bills, and then let you call them straight on the page. This is like magic to me, even though I know it’s a Twilio integration. Brilliantly executed.

The three developers, Drew Inglis, Nick Meyer and Tess Rinearson, built Grassroutes as part of PennApps, a weekend hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania held a couple of days before the protest. It’s not just for SOPA and PIPA: you can relabel it for any political issue that you want to drive action for. Like nothing else before it, it turns slacktivism into direct action that spreads virally among site owners. And, again, it’s slick, simple, beautiful and well-built.

Grassroutes made it to the front page of Hacker News, where hackers continued the work by (for example) turning it into a Facebook app, and I certainly used it to call my representatives. My hope is this is part of a new wave of apps that will overcome the traditional criticisms of politics online and lower the barrier to direct participation in the democratic process.

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.