When the gods dance...

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Privileged Information: The Fight for an Open Internet


By Alee Karim Wednesday, Apr 3 2013


The accidental martyr: Aaron Swartz

Associated Press The accidental martyr: Aaron Swartz

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive.

Mike Koozmin Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive.

The statues at the Archive commemorate former employees.

Mike Koozmin The statues at the Archive commemorate former employees.

Activist Parker Higgins worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation against SOPA.

Anna Latino Activist Parker Higgins worked with the Electronic Frontier Foundation against SOPA.

Mitch Altman, founder of “hacker-space” Noisebridge.

Anna Latino Mitch Altman, founder of “hacker-space” Noisebridge.


On the top floor of the Internet Archive headquarters at Geary and Funston in theRichmond District, there is an enormous temple of sorts, a room flooded by the amber light streaming through thick golden windows, in which several rows of empty pews face an empty stage. Actually, the pews aren't empty — they're occupied by 4-foot-tall papier-mâché statues, standing at attention like acolytes at a sermon. Each statue is modeled after an employee who has worked there for at least three years. They are founder Brewster Kahle's way to "commemorate the people that have helped build the Archive."

The stage isn't empty, either, housing one bank of the enormous servers that keep the Internet Archive's virtual library available to millions of users. It's a treasure trove of books, films, music, and software made free, often with the consent of its creators. It's also the home of the Wayback Machine, an online resource that archives "dead links" from throughout the Internet's history. To date, more than 281 billion web pages are archived in the Machine, preserved here long after the original pages' hosts have turned off their servers and moved on. That time theChronicle interviewed you about a fire in the Outer Sunset in 1999? Go take a look — it's likely in there. When people talk about things lasting forever on the Internet, they're talking about this place. The Archive's goal, as Kahle puts it, is to be a "modern Library ofAlexandria. When people download too much of our stuff, that's a good thing. It just means we need bigger servers."

Kahle reveres information. (That the Archive is housed in the former Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist is perhaps appropriate.) That respect is what led him to create the Archive, and what motivates hundreds of women and men in the Bay Area to organize on behalf of open-source culture — to keep the Internet free. There's the Internet Archive, dedicated to preserving virtual information. There's theElectronic Frontier Foundation, a coalition of lawyers and activists focusing on legal matters pertaining to the Internet and its free and secure access. Lastly, the organization called Noisebridge recognizes the importance of an ecosystem for technical innovation, for tinkering, regardless of market. In the Bay Area, where so much of tech culture is focused on profit-driven innovation and parceling off virtual space, each of these organizations represents a kind of utopian ideal — the antithesis of the free-market side of the culture that focuses on developing apps to generate ad revenue. As formerFacebook research scientist Jeff Hammerbacher remarked to Bloomberg Businessweek in 2011, "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." His conclusion: "That sucks."

Not everyone, however, feels obligated to stick to this path. Although "following the money" may lead one to a lucrative start-up,Aaron Swartz, a writer, programmer, and hacker, bucked that course and created his own. Originally based in the East Coast, he often found himself in the Bay Area, where collaborators like Kahle and Open Source America's Carl Malamud resided. Swartz was a student at Stanford before dropping out in 2005 to chase projects that ignited his enthusiasm. He helped Kahle with archiving data on the Open Library project. He organized with EFF against the Stop Online Piracy Act. Through it all he banged away on his computer, coding, writing, and reading, at lofts and hacker spaces, including Noisebridge. But this involvement attracted the attention of the government, and Swartz was drawn into a controversial legal case. On Jan. 11, at the age of 26, he ended his life. His suicide rattled the worldwide hacking and tech community.

His legacy, however, lives on in the Bay Area through these organizations, stemming the tide of an increasingly market-dominated tech culture, and reminding its constituents that following the money is always a choice.

This shift in priorities in the tech community follows the evolution of the meaning of the word "hacker." Although it's a loose term, its sinister connotations have become its dominant ones. The popular contemporary understanding of a hacker is as a kind of virtual spy; someone who breaks into secure virtual infrastructures – particularly ones belonging to governments — to exploit that data or just to cause trouble. This is only part of the story. "A hacker is just someone who comes up with a creative solution to a problem," says Damon McCormick, a software engineer at Square and erstwhile hacker. Being a hacker is seen as a necessary counterpoint to an unregulated medium where, for example, a website can charge to access content intended to be free (or created for free, for that matter), or where services like Facebook or Google can monitor your browser activity.

"In my MIT days, it was used as a positive term," says Kahle. This was in the early 1980s. "It's used now for a set of behaviors that are not befitting of the word 'hacker.'"

That was clearly the perception of "hacking" in the federal case spearheaded against Swartz by Massachusetts District Attorney Steve Heymann and Attorney General Carmen Ortiz. In January of 2011, Swartz was charged with unlawfully obtaining millions of academic articles from the online resource JSTOR (short for Journal Storage — an online repository for academic journals and articles). He wasn't illegally accessing JSTOR, nor was he stealing articles from behind a paywall. He was, however, downloading articles at an accelerated pace, bucking protocols in JSTOR's software that inhibited access. Swartz created an automated request to JSTOR's servers that allowed him to continually download new articles. It was a "good" hack, a creative solution to the problem of manually (i.e. slowly) downloading the resources he sought to access.

That the bulk download was exceeding what could be acknowledged as personal use was a fair, if misguided, sticking point for the prosecution; the files weren't for personal use, but they contained academic studies, many of which were in the public domain, free to access. Swartz believed they needed to be easier to access, not behind JSTOR's archaic paywall. (In September 2011, JSTOR made its public domain content, roughly half a million articles, free to the public, partially in response to the situation with Swartz.) For the prosecution to pursue such an extreme punishment as three-plus decades in prison, however, was excessive, a fact that both attorneys readily concede. Both Heymann and Ortiz insisted they had no intention of following through with it. But by the account of his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, and those close to him, Swartz had no idea it was a bluff. And it was quickly proving to be a case he didn't have the resources to fight.

Swartz's death turned him into a martyr for organizations like the Internet Archive. As Stinebrickner-Kauffman said at Swartz's San Francisco memorial in January, "Aaron's death should radicalize us." When Kahle mentions that his papier-mâché statues are modeled after the Terracotta soldiers of Xian, suddenly their significance takes on new meaning: They are virtual soldiers fighting a virtual war. "Archivists are armed with ideas of open access," says Kahle. "We can bring down any army!"

Fifty-two-year-old Kahle looks every bit the mad scientist, with his shock of white hair and thick-rimmed glasses. He presides over the Friday free lunch at the Internet Archive, praising his team of nearly 50 engineers and archivists for the hard work they put into "web crawling."

"Web crawling," says Special Projects Assistant Cameron Ottens, "is a process that happens when the crawler tool goes out to the world wide web and discovers any web pages that have been designated to be captured." These are usually publicly available web pages that are going offline, which the Archive wishes to preserve as "cultural artifacts" to retain a record of an era where information has become disposable. The tool archives these pages and then returns them to the Internet Archive servers for storage, freezing a web page in amber for all time, regardless of any subsequent edits or deletions. It's a service they've been hired to provide for more than 250 organizations, including the Library of Congressand the Smithsonian — part of how they keep the lights on at the Archive

The Archive is Kahle's life dream from the time he was a computer science student at MIT. Founded in 1996, Kahle made the collected information available in 2001 with the advent of the Wayback Machine. To date, the Archive boasts more than 10 petabytes of recorded data — roughly equivalent to 10 billion books.

This diligent archival aesthetic intersected neatly with Swartz's own voracious appetite for knowledge. In 2006, he launched the Open Library project at the Archive, which Kahle calls "a Wikipedia of books; one web page for every book ever published. We thought it was a good thing to do." He is somber, yet reverent, when he discusses Swartz, the wounds clearly still fresh. "Aaron was definitely on the side of the angels," he says.

Indeed, there always seems to be some sort of moral component to any work Kahle gets excited about. He frequently refers to massively ambitious projects as "good" or "right" things to do. Like Swartz, Kahle had many opportunities to take the money and run. Swartz helped develop Reddit, which was bought out by Conde Nast in 2006, while Kahle's web information company, Alexa Internet, was purchased by Amazon in 1999. Both opted to dedicate themselves to making knowledge freely available, lending credibility to a movement whose central thesis is that the smartest people in tech aren't necessarily trying to make an app or sell an idea — they seek knowledge for its own sake.

If the Internet Archive is the engine of the open-source movement, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is the oil keeping things running. A primarily donor-funded nonprofit, the organization is composed of career activists and lawyers devoted to untangling the legal wires that stand in the way of a free Internet, bringing archaic legislation up to date and advocating on behalf of content providers impeded by the muck of copyright restrictions. "EFF is fabulous," says Kahle. "In terms of helping those who can't afford legal teams and protecting the Bill of Rights in the digital era... they are a fighter for the open world."

But as valiant as their intentions may be, the majority of EFF's work focuses on an unsexy subject: copyright law.

Copyright, of course, exists to protect the rights of a creator's intellectual property. But it's just as often used to restrict unsanctioned access to that same intellectual property, and can be extended indefinitely or interpreted broadly by publishers, film studios, universities, and other large media entities. It was these media entities who petitioned Congress to impose legislation in the name of the former while seeking the privileges of the latter. Eventually, this bill evolved into the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, which came before Congress in the fall of 2011. Large media entities like Disney and Time Warnerwanted to collaborate with law enforcement to block torrent sites and other locations that purportedly offered free access to content they owned. But corporations would also potentially have the right to use the police or the FBI to shut down any site they perceived as a threat. At best, it was an overreaching response to piracy. At worst, corporations like Disney were poised to become the landlords of the Internet.

"We've got the most incredible distribution system ever created [in the Internet]," says EFF member Parker Higgins, summing up hacker idealism and resistance, "and there are people who want to say, 'Instead of using this as an amazing library, let's use it as a surveillance machine, to keep track of what everyone is doing.'"

SOPA was essentially a copyright issue. At the time, it seemed unlikely that anyone was going to care about it; its lack of sexiness as an issue was advantageous to the massive entities that sought to pass it. But once the rhetoric of censorship was introduced, it was a cause that was easy to get passionate about. Swartz helped influence that rhetoric and EFF helped disseminate it. When EFF's Peter Eckersley approached Swartz to begin fighting an early version of SOPA in 2010, Swartz accepted, going so far as to found the activist organization Demand Progress, which, according to Eckersley on EFF's website, "mobilized over a million online activists and proved to be an invaluable ally in winning that campaign."

Higgins joined EFF right after SOPA was introduced in the House of Representatives on Oct. 26, 2011. "I started on November 1st," chuckles Higgins. EFF dived headfirst into the fight, spearheading the grassroots campaign that eventually ended up toppling the bill. Along the way, the bill gained the attention of many notable web outlets, not least of which was Google, which protested SOPA prominently on its homepage. Wikipedia staged a blackout. "That was all Aaron," says Higgins. As of Jan. 20, 2012, plans to draft the bill were officially postponed.

A staunch opponent of SOPA, Swartz admitted he didn't care about the issue of copyright initially and couldn't see how it pertained to his life. "Health care, financial reform — those are the issues I work on. Not something obscure like copyright law," said Swartz in a 2012 keynote address at the Freedom to Connect conference in Washington, D.C. Yet as Eckersley told him, it was not copyright that was the issue, but the freedom to connect. "Now," said Swartz to him, "I was listening."

Swartz understood what happens when someone runs afoul of copyright laws all too well. As he said in that same keynote from 2012, "everything" is potentially copyrighted, including the speech he was giving — an inherently absurd idea that can lead to dangerous abuses of power. Such was the case with the Computer Fraud and Abuses Act (CFAA), a 30-year-old act that was the legislative pivot point around which the case against Swartz was based.

As Higgins explains, "[The government] didn't know what hacking was [in 1984, when the act was passed]. They wanted to future-proof it, so if you 'exceed' your authorization, you are committing a felony." This is essentially equivalent to violating a "terms of service" agreement, only in this case if the computer one uses to access said information is defined as a "protected computer," the crime is considered a criminal offense instead of a civil one. According to Higgins, two courts, the Ninth and Fourth circuit, have already rejected it, acknowledging that a prosecutor needs more than a "terms of service" violation to create a federal case.

Shortly after Swartz's January suicide, EFF, in cooperation with San Jose Rep. Zoe Lofgren, began to codify these changes as an amendment to CFAA called "Aaron's Law," which specifies what is meant by the excessively broad offense of "exceeding authorization." Currently, even the common computing practice of deleting cookies can be considered exceeding authorization. Some do this to evade a pay wall by, say, tricking The New York Times into believing that a new user is accessing the system after hitting the free article limit. Some, however, delete cookies simply to protect their privacy, to not be monitored while browsing the Internet, and to avoid receiving advertisements relating to their most recent Google search. Technically, that's a punishable offense under the CFAA.

Perhaps most importantly, Aaron's Law prevents prosecutors from stacking charges; each one of Swartz's violations was counted separately, such that he faced 13 felony charges. What's more, the charges were purposely trumped-up to avoid a trial and coax Swartz into a plea bargain.

Currently, EFF is advocating on behalf of the podcasting community — anyone who hosts or patronizes a podcast — against a so-called "patent troll" claiming to own the patent on podcasting technology. Patent trolls, according to the EFF website, are "companies that assert patents as a business model instead of creating products." These include a Texas-based patent-holding company called Lodsys which targeted numerous app developers, issuing cease-and-desist letters for using a payment feature that it owned. Many of these developers were spooked into compliance, and gave up on their work. This suggests a downside to the free-market structure of the Internet: If compensation inhibits innovation, doesn't everyone lose?

Hacking in its ancestral form, as creative solutions, as open-source innovation, is brought into "the desert of the real" at Noisebridge. A block away from EFF's headquarters resides this Mission District hacker haven and work space. Noisebridge is the creative heart of the open-source movement and the hardest to define of the three organizations. "It's what a library should be," says member Mek Karpeles, a software engineer and entrepreneur. "It offers culture and an outlet for people to get involved, not just consume knowledge."

The space has members but no hierarchy; it charges fees to maintain facilities but offers access to anything that isn't tied down or explicitly claimed as private property. Noisebridge is a self-proclaimed "do-ocracy" where permission is never necessary and self-initiated creative projects are the lifeblood of the facility. Its only caveat: "Be excellent to each other," the proposition of the titular characters of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure. Kahle sees Noisebridge as a breeding ground for the next generation of innovators. "Talk to those guys. That's where the real stuff is happening," he says.

At their Monday evening "hackathon," sort of arts-and-crafts night for computer geeks, several young women and men are busy at the long wooden desk that dominates the center of the space, hammering away at laptops that have no clear source of manufacture, either through modification or some more extensive personalization. Behind them are several rows of shelves filled with baskets of freely available electronics, a half-dozen 3-D printers in various states of disrepair, and a more traditional library of books and other resources available for use. There's a kitchen and several workshops. In a back room, a young Russian man is teaching the popular programming language Ruby to 20 eager students, for free.

Despite the busyness of the space tonight, the hackathon event seems to be a non-starter, though there are several soldering irons set up for those who are willing. One of the implicit themes of the space is encouraging a kind of audacity. As a group of presumably unhandy onlookers eye the hot irons reluctantly, an older gentleman hunched over one of the irons makes a proposition.

"I'd be happy to teach any of you soldering if you'd like," says Mitch Altman, the enthusiastic and ever-smiling engineer-inventor who co-founded Noisebridge. Like Brewster Kahle, he decided long ago to focus his technical smarts on open-source culture.

Altman begins demonstrating a handful of his inventions to a small crowd of curious visitors, partly as a brief primer on hacking electronic devices and partly as a sales pitch. He subsists on his inventions, but isn't pushy about offering them for sale, lacing his spiel with autobiographic highlights that possess a surprisingly confessional tone, touching on his struggle with depression. "I used to be a miserable person who thought I had to do things I hated to survive," he says. "Now I'm a happy person who does things I love to survive."

Aaron Swartz struggled with depression. Many friends of his, including BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow, speculated that his depression played a part in his suicide, perhaps more so than the accusations laid against him. Karpeles says the theme of depression among ambitious programmers — particularly those who align themselves with huge endeavors like providing universal access — is not an uncommon one. "You have the attitude of 'I should give, not take. I should live really simplistically. I should carry the world's burden. I shouldn't take a break.'" He says mental illness is both widespread and poorly acknowledged in the hacker community.

So to have a bubble where technical innovation can occur unhindered, a salient community of hackers and a space for them to share ideas, is something of a saving grace. Karpeles found solace in the environment Noisebridge presented and got very, very busy. He's launched no fewer than five start-ups and web-based projects, including OpenJournal, a community for discussing and sharing academic papers online. "I used Aaron's framework,web.py [a programming language], to build them all." He's also in talks with the archive about taking over Swartz's work on the Open Library. He attributes his work ethic to the creative environment he's found at Noisebridge. "There [are] a great deal of distractions, but [they're] often healthy distractions — people who are interested in trying your creations, offering feedback, or simply resources when you're stumped. It's the perfect ecosystem."

Hacker havens like Noisebridge, then, build the builders that build the Internet Archives, that organize the Electronic Frontier Foundations, working to open up the Internet even as many others are trying to lock it down. Whatever was secret about this work has been illuminated by what happened to Swartz, all of which will eventually be trapped in the Archive's amber, too, for permanent consideration.

"We have to redouble our efforts," says the Archive's Kahle. "Are we doing the maximum social good we can? That's [the question] that comes to me from the death of Aaron Swartz."


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