Interesting reading. Hope I’m not violating any copyrights by copying and pasting it. 🙂
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I’ll be there to help start things off, at 10am tomorrow. (Registration starts at 9am.) My job on the opening panel is to make a 2-3 minute statement of what I’d like to see in the form of legal hackery. Here goes:
- Restore freedom of contract and obsolete contracts of adhesion by creating standardized terms individuals can assert. I have two chapters in The Intention Economy devoted to this. (The Cyberlaw Clinic at the Berkman Center is also working on these — and corresponding terms on the business side — for Customer Commons. What gets hacked this weekend can feed into that work.)
- Create better means for expressing personal policies and preferences (such as Do Not Track) than are currently available — and putting these in the individual’s own tool box, rather than appearing only as choices presented by others, such as browser makers.
- Create graphical elements (e.g. the r-button) for both the above.
On the panel I will advocate for individuals as independent entities with full agency, rather than merely “users” of others’ systems, or victims of privacy abuse awaiting policy relief. This means I will argue for thinking and hacking toward building and filing the individual’s own tool box, rather than just tweaking the broken technical and legal systems we already have. (Though doing that is good too. Others will be there to advocate and hack on that.)
It is essential that we think outside the browser for this. While the browser began as something like your car on the information superhighway, it has since become a shopping cart that gets re-skinned with every commercial site you visit, and infested at each with tracking beacons so you can be a subject of constant surveillance. This is even true of Firefox, which I love (and within which I am writing this), and which (through Mozilla) is providing space for the San Francisco hackathon.
Let me go a little deeper on this. An example of what’s right and wrong in the browser space right now can be found Christian Heilmann‘s post, Why “Just Use Adblock” Should Never Be a Professional Answer. In it he says many good things that I agree with, enthusiastically. But he also gets one big thing wrong:
Whether we like it or not, ads are what makes the current internet work. They are what ensures the “free” we crave and benefit from, and if you dig deep enough you will find that nobody working in web development or design is not in one way or another paid by income stemming from ad sales on the web.
Saying ads are what make the Internet work is like like saying cities are what make geology work. Yes, the Internet supports commercial activity, but it is not reducible to it. For each of us to enjoy full agency on the Web, this distinction needs to be clear from the start.
Browser makers are stuck right now between many rocks (their users) and a hard place (advertising-supported websites). On the one hand they want to do right for users, and on the other they want to do right for what the ad industry now calls “publishers”. Since surveillance-fed “personalization” is big with those publishers, and lots of users don’t like it (AdBlock Plus is the top browser extention, by far), the browser makers are caught in the middle. You can see the trouble they have with this conflict in A User Personalization Proposal for Firefox, which was floated by Justin Fox of Mozilla last July. In it he writes,
We want to see even more personalization across the Web from large and small sites, but in a transparent way that retains user control. The team at Mozilla Labs is focused on exploring ways to move the Web forward, and has thought a lot about how the browser could play a role in making useful content personalization a reality.
The blowback in the comments was harsh and huge. One sample:
The last thing the internet needs is more “personalization” (read: “invasion of my privacy”). All your marketing jargon does nothing to hide the fact that this is just another tool to allow advertisers, website owners, the NSA, and others to track users online habits and, despite any good intentions you might have, it’s rife with the potential for abuse.
I’m not bringing this up to give Mozilla or the other browser makers a hard time, but to suggest that the solutions we need start outside the browser. (And seeing them that way may also be good for the browser folks.)
Simply put, what we need most are tools for ourselves, that help in our dealings with all other parties. Not just protections from bad actors, or ways to make bad practices less bad.
See ya there.
In Big Cable’s Sauron-Like Plan for One Infrastructure to Rule Us All, Susan Crawford (@SCrawford) paints a bleak picture of what awaits us after television (aka cable) finishes eating the Internet. But that’s just in our homes. Out in the mobile sphere, telcos have been eating the Net as well — in collusion with cable. That’s one of the points Marvin Ammori makes in We’re About to Lose Net Neutrality — And the Internet as We Know It. Both pieces are in Wired, which is clearly on our side with this thing — especially since, if Marvin is right, Wired might someday need to pay the carriers for privileged carriage on what used to be the free and open (aka “neutral”) Internet. Specifically,
Net neutrality is a dead man walking. The execution date isn’t set, but it could be days, or months (at best). And since net neutrality is the principle forbidding huge telecommunications companies from treating users, websites, or apps differently — say, by letting some work better than others over their pipes — the dead man walking isn’t some abstract or far-removed principle just for wonks: It affects the internet as we all know it.
Once upon a time, companies like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and others declared a war on the internet’s foundational principle: that its networks should be “neutral” and users don’t need anyone’s permission to invent, create, communicate, broadcast, or share online. The neutral and level playing field provided by permissionless innovation has empowered all of us with the freedom to express ourselves and innovate online without having to seek the permission of a remote telecom executive.
But today, that freedom won’t survive much longer if a federal court — the second most powerful court in the nation behind the Supreme Court, the DC Circuit — is set to strike down the nation’s net neutrality law, a rule adopted by the Federal Communications Commission in 2010. Some will claim the new solution “splits the baby” in a way that somehow doesn’t kill net neutrality and so we should be grateful. But make no mistake: Despite eight years of public and political activism by multitudes fighting for freedom on the internet, a court decision may soon take it away.
How did we get here?
The CEO of AT&T told an interviewer back in 2005 that he wanted to introduce a new business model to the internet: charging companies like Google and Yahoo! to reliably reach internet users on the AT&T network. Keep in mind that users already pay to access the internet and that Google and Yahoo! already pay other telecom companies — often called backbone providers — to connect to these internet users.
That was eight years ago. In response to the same AT&T salvo, I wrote Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes in Linux Journal. It was submitted in November 2005 and ran in the February 2006 issue. In it I outlined three scenarios:
- The Carriers Win
- The Public Workaround
- Fight with Words and Not Just Deeds
Neither #2 nor #3 have come to pass, except in very limited ways. So, since #1 seems to be on the verge of happening, here’s what I wrote about it. There is a fair amount of link rot, but the points are still sharp — and depressing to contemplate:
Scenario I: The Carriers Win
Be afraid. Be very afraid. —Kevin Werbach.
Are you ready to see the Net privatized from the bottom to the top? Are you ready to see the Net’s free and open marketplace sucked into a pit of pipes built and fitted by the phone and cable companies and run according to rules lobbied by the carrier and content industries?
Do you believe a free and open market should be “Your choice of walled garden” or “Your choice of silo”? That’s what the big carrier and content companies believe. That’s why they’re getting ready to fence off the frontiers.
And we’re not stopping it.
With the purchase and re-animation of AT&T‘s remains, the collection of former Baby Bells called SBC will become the largest communications company in the US–the new Ma Bell. Verizon, comprised of the old GTE plus MCI and the Baby Bells SBC didn’t grab, is the new Pa Bell. That’s one side of the battlefield, called The Regulatory Environment. Across the battlefield from Ma and Pa Bell are the cable and entertainment giants: Comcast, Cox, TimeWarner and so on. Covering the battle are the business and tech media, which love a good fight.
The problem is that all of these battling companies–plus the regulators–hate the Net.
Maybe hate is too strong of a word. The thing is, they’re hostile to it, because they don’t get it. Worse, they only get it in one very literal way. See, to the carriers and their regulators, the Net isn’t a world, a frontier, a marketplace or a commons. To them, the Net is a collection of pipes. Their goal is to beat the other pipe-owners. To do that, they want to sell access and charge for traffic.
There’s nothing wrong with being in the bandwidth business, of course. But some of these big boys want to go farther with it. They don’t see themselves as a public utility selling a pure base-level service, such as water or electricity (which is what they are, by the way, in respect to the Net). They see themselves as a source of many additional value-adds, inside the pipes. They see opportunities to sell solutions to industries that rely on the Net–especially their natural partner, the content industry.
They see a problem with freeloaders. On the tall end of the power curve, those ‘loaders are AOL, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and other large sources of the container cargo we call “content”. Out on the long tail, the freeloaders are you and me. The big ‘loaders have been getting a free ride for too long and are going to need to pay. The Information Highway isn’t the freaking interstate. It’s a system of private roads that needs to start charging tolls. As for the small ‘loaders, it hardly matters that they’re a boundless source of invention, innovation, vitality and new business. To the carriers, we’re all still just “consumers”. And we always will be.
“Piracy” is a bigger issue to the cargo sources than to the carriers. To the carriers, “fighting piracy” is a service offering as well as a lever on regulators to give carriers more control of the pipes. “You want us to help you fight piracy?”, the transport companies say to the content companies. “Okay, let’s deal.” And everybody else’s freedoms–to invent, to innovate, to do business, to take advantage of free markets and to make free culture–get dealt away.
The carriers have been lobbying Congress for control of the Net since Bush the Elder was in office. Once they get what they want, they’ll put up the toll booths, the truck scales, the customs checkpoints–all in a fresh new regulatory environment that formalizes the container cargo business we call packet transport. This new environment will be built to benefit the carriers and nobody else. The “consumers”? Oh ya, sure: they’ll benefit too, by having “access” to all the good things that carriers ship them from content providers. Is there anything else? No.
Crocodile grins began to grow on the faces of carriers as soon as it became clear that everything we call “media” eventually would flow through their pipes. All that stuff we used to call TV, radio, newspapers and magazines will just be “content” moving through the transport layer of the pipe system they own and control. Think it’s a cool thing that TV channels are going away? So do the carriers. The future à lá carte business of media will depend on one medium alone: the Net. And the Net is going to be theirs.
The Net’s genie, which granted all those e-commerce wishes over the past ten years, won’t just get shoved back in the bottle. No, that genie will be piped and priced by the packet. The owners of those pipes have a duty to their stockholders to make the most of the privileged position they’ve been waiting to claim ever since they got blind-sided, back in the 80s and 90s. (For an excellent history of how the European PTTs got snookered by the Net and the Web, see Paul F. Kunz’ Bringing the World Wide Web to America.) They have assets to leverage, dammit, and now they can.
Does it matter that countless markets flourish in the wide spaces opened by agreements and protocols that thrive at the grace of carriage? Or that those markets are threatened by new limits, protections and costs imposed at the pipe level?
Thus, the Era of Net Facilitation will end. The choke points are in the pipes, the permission is coming from the lawmakers and regulators, and the choking will be done. No more free rides, folks. Time to pay. It’s called creating scarcity and charging for it. The Information Age may be here, but the Industrial Age is hardly over. In fact, there is no sign it will ever end.
The carriers are going to lobby for the laws and regulations they need, and they’re going to do the deals they need to do. The new system will be theirs, not ours. The NEA principle–Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it, Anybody can improve it–so familiar to the Free Software and Open Source communities will prove to be a temporary ideal, a geek conceit. Code is not Law. Culture is not Free. From the Big Boys’ perspective, code and culture are stuff nobody cares about.
That’s us: Nobody.
The new carrier-based Net will work in the same asymmetrical few-to-many, top-down pyramidal way made familiar by TV, radio, newspapers, books, magazines and other Industrial Age media now being sucked into Information Age pipes. Movement still will go from producers to consumers, just like it always did. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Literally.
The deals that matter will be done between tops of pyramids. Hey, it’s easier to do business with the concentrated few than the dispersed many. The Long Tail can whip itself into a frenzy, but all the tech magazines and blogs in the world are no match for the tails and teeth of these old sharks. (Hey, Long Tailer, when’s the last time you treated your erected representatives to private movie screenings, drafted their legislation, ghosted their committee reports, made a blockbuster movie or rolled fiber across oceans?)
Google and Yahoo and Amazon and eBay and e-commerce and free software and open source and blogging and podcasting and all the rest of that idealistic junk have had their decade in the sun. Hell, throw in Apple and Microsoft, too. Who cares? Them? Doesn’t matter how big they are. They don’t matter. They’re late to the game.
We all know the content business got clobbered by this peer-to-peer crap. But the carriers took a bath by building out the Net’s piped infrastructure. They sank $billions by the dozen into fiber and copper and routers and trunks, waiting for the day when they’d be in a position to control the new beast fleshed on the skeleton that they built.
That Day Has Come.
It came earlier this month, when the November 7, 2005, issue of BusinessWeek hit the Web’s streets. In that issue are “Rewired and Ready for Combat” and “At SBC, It’s All About ‘Scale and Scope'”, which features an interview with Edward Whiteacre, CEO of SBC. Here’s the gist of it:
How concerned are you about Internet upstarts like Google (GOOG), MSN, Vonage, and others?
How do you think they’re going to get to customers? Through a broadband pipe. Cable companies have them. We have them. Now what they would like to do is use my pipes free, but I ain’t going to let them do that because we have spent this capital and we have to have a return on it. So there’s going to have to be some mechanism for these people who use these pipes to pay for the portion they’re using. Why should they be allowed to use my pipes?
The Internet can’t be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment and for a Google or Yahoo! (YHOO) or Vonage or anybody to expect to use these pipes [for] free is nuts!
What’s your approach to regulation? Explain, for example, the difference between you and Verizon in how you are approaching regulatory approval for Telco TV [digital-TV service offered by telecoms].
The cable companies have an agreement with the cities: They pay a percentage of their revenue for a franchise right to broadcast TV. We have a franchise in every city we operate in based on providing telephone service.
Now, all of a sudden, without any additional payment, the cable companies are putting telephone communication down their pipes and we’re putting TV signals. If you want us to get a franchise agreement for TV, then let’s make the cable companies get a franchise for telephony.
If cable can put telephone down their existing franchise I should be able to put TV down my franchise. It’s kind of a “what’s fair is fair” deal. I think it’s just common sense.
What if the regulators don’t agree?
Then there won’t be any competition–there will be a cable-TV monopoly.
I know you’re a competitive person. Who are your biggest competitors?
Our big competition in the future is with the cable companies. Verizon’s going to be a player, and certainly I want to compete. And I want our shareowners to do better than anyone else.
If I were BusinessWeek, I’d ask:
What about the free and open marketplace that has grown on the Net itself? Do you have any interest in continuing to support that? Or in lobbying forms of deregulation that foster it? Or are you just in a holy war with the cable companies inside the same old regulatory environment you’ve known since forever?
If you were to buy, say, Level 3, would you start to filter and restrict content at the transport level, to extract the profits you want, without regard for other market consequences? Would Cisco, builder of the great Firewall of China, help out?
Which do you prefer: The regulatory environment where your business has adapted itself for more than a century, or a completely free and open marketplace like the rest of us enjoy sitting on top of your pipes?
Whiteacre’s answers, of course, would be less relevant than the obvious vector of his company’s intentions. For a summary of that, let’s return to Lauren Weinstein of People for Internet Responsibility:
Of course, the truth of the matter is that the telcos have been moving rapidly through massive consolidation–and a range of other tactics–to create an environment where “competition” will only be a pale reflection of what we were originally promised, with only a few gigantic players in control of all telecom resources and policies. Like the robot cop in Terminator 2 that reformed from blown-apart mercurial blobs of metal, the “golden age” of telecom competition is already giving way to empire.
Don’t blame BusinessWeek for not asking the important questions or for missing the Carriers vs. Net story. Biz pubs love to cover vendor sports. And there’s certainly a big story here.
Great distraction, vendor sports. While we’re busy watching phone and cable giants fight over a closed battlefield that ought to be open, we miss Net-hostile moves by other parties that result in other lost freedoms.
Take ICANN, for instance, where a new .com Registry Agreement allows Verisign to raise the rates for .com names by 7% annually, and to operate .com in perpetuity, and to “mak[e] commercial use of, or collect, traffic data regarding domain names or non-existent domain names”, and to reap other rewards for what few other than Verisign would agree is a good job. Bret Faucett summarizes the darkest shadow across the noir scenario we’ve already described:
The theme running through all of these is that ICANN and Verisign are treating the .COM registry as a private resource. It’s not. The root servers and TLD servers are public resources. We should treat them like that.
For Bret, Susan and the rest of the restless natives of this new world, what matters most is Saving the Net–keeping it a free and open marketplace for everybody–while also making sure that carriers of all kinds can compete and succeed while providing much of the infrastructure on which that marketplace resides. That means we need to understand the Net as more than a bunch of pipes and business on the Net as more than transporting and selling “content”.
This isn’t a trivial issue. It’s a matter of life and death for the Net itself. How are we going to fight?
Meanwhile the Net continues to cry out for a definition all can agree on. Toward that goal, I wrote this in The Intention Economy:
To simplify things a bit, look at the Net’s future as a battleground where any and only fight it out. On the side of any are the Net’s protocols. On the side of only are governments and businesses with interests in restricting and controlling access to the Net, and thwarting many purposes to which the Net might be put. This battle also happens inside our own heads, because we tend to view the Net both ways. Ironies abound.
For example, the Internet is often called a “network of networks,” yet the Net was designed to transcend the connections it employs, and is therefore not reducible to them. It is not comprised of wiring, and is not a “service,” even though it’s called one by ISPs.
So let’s look at the sides here. On the any side, “net-heads” (yes, they call themselves that) frame their understanding of the Net in terms of its protocols, and those protocols’ virtues. On the only side, “bell-heads” (yes, they call themselves that, too) frame their understanding of the Net in terms of wiring infrastructure and billing systems.
To net-heads, the Internet is a vast new virtual space with qualities such as neutrality and generativity. To maximize economic opportunity and vitality, those virtues need to be maximized—even if phone and cable TV businesses don’t wish to acknowledge or support those virtues.
To bell-heads, the Internet’s “network of networks” is a collection of mostly private properties, with which owners should be free to do what they please. So, if what pleases them is throttling certain kinds of data traffic to maximize QoS (Quality of Service), too bad. They are The Market, which will grow best if they act in their own economic self-interest. Hey, look at all the good they’ve done already. (Want dial-up again, anyone?) And look at the robust competition between cable and phone companies. Isn’t that producing enough economic benefits for everybody?
Since net-heads tend to make social arguments while bell-heads tend to make economic ones, net-heads get positioned on the left and bell-heads on the right. Between the two are boundless technical arguments that aren’t worth getting into here.
I’m a net-head, but one who wants both sides to recognize that the Net’s original design is encompassing and beneficial for economies and societies everywhere. That is, I believe the argument for the Net is the same as the one for gravity, sunlight, the periodic table and pine trees: that it is part of nature itself. What makes the Net different from all those other products of Nature is that humans made the Net for theselves.
The Net’s nature—its essential purpose—is to support everything that uses it, just as the essential purpose of a clock is to tell time. So, while the Net today relies on phone and cable connections, its support-everything purpose should not be subordinated to legacy phone and cable TV businesses. The Internet, in the neutral and generative form defined by its protocols, is a far larger and more interesting market environment than the one defined by the parochial and limited interests of phone and cable companies, both of which are desperately trying to hold on to their legacy businesses, and would be better served by embracing all the opportunities the Internet opens up, for everybody.
We’re going to evolve past those old businesses anyway. Phone and cable company engineers know that, and so do many of the business leaders in those companies, even as they fight to protect their legacy businesses at all costs.
As a pro-business guy, I sympathize with phone and cable companies, which are cursed by the need to maintain margins in existing business while building out infrastructures that obsolete those businesses (at least as we know them). These companies get little credit (especially from net-heads) for their genuine innovations, and for their ability to innovate more. We do need them, whether we like them or not…
The Net’s capacity to support limitless economic activity and growth will win in the long run because it will prove out in the very marketplaces it support. But there will be a great deal of resistance along the way, as the narrow interests of both Big Government and Big Business try to contain the Net’s potential within the scope of their own ambitions. Still the evolutionary direction of the Net is toward ambient connectivity. Whatever that looks and feels like, it won’t resemble either the phone system or cable TV. Rather it will look like everything, together.
That’s the long-term optimistic view. Meanwhile, there is much cause for pessimism in the short term.
On February 25, 2008, the FCC held a hearing on network management practices in the Ames Courtroom at Harvard Law School, hosted by the Berkman Center. In that hearing David P. Reed, one of the Internet’s founding scientists, used a plain envelope to explain how the Internet worked, and why it is wrong for anybody other than intended recipients to look inside the contents of the virtual envelopes in which communications are sent over the Internet. It was a pivotal moment in the debate, because the metaphor illustrated clearly how the Internet was designed to respect privacy.
Respect, that is. Not protect.
In the early days of postal communications, the flaps of envelopes were sealed with blobs of wax, usually imprinted by the sender with a symbol. These expressed the intent of the sender — that the contents of the letter were for the eyes of the recipient only. Yes, a letter could be opened without breaking the seal, but not without violating the wishes of the sender.
The other day I wrote, “clothing, for example, is a privacy technology. So are walls, doors, windows and shades.” In the physical world we respect the intentions behind those technologies as well, even though it might be easy to pull open the shirts of strangers, or to open closed doors without knocking on them.
The virtual world is far less civilized. Proof of that is in the pudding of privacy rights violations by agencies of the U.S. government, which is clearly acting at variance with the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, which says,
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
I see three ways to approach these violations.
One is to rely on geeks and whistleblowers to pull the pants down on violators. In Welcome to the end of secrecy, Jeff Jarvis says the very openness that invites privacy violations is our best protection against the secrecy concealing those violations.
Another is through the exercise of law. In The Only Way to Restore Trust in the NSA, security guru Bruce Schneier writes, “The public has no faith left in the intelligence community or what the president says about it. A strong, independent special prosecutor needs to clean up the mess.” And that’s on top of moves already being made by legislators, for example in South Africa. Given the scale of the offenses now coming to light, we’ll see a lot more of that, even if no special prosecutors get appointed. The law of the jungle will give way to a jungle of new laws. Count on it.
The third is through business — specifically, business modeled on postal services. For many generations, postal services have respected the closed envelope as a matter of course. Yes, we knew there were times and places when mail could be inspected for legitimate reasons. And there were also many things it was not legal to do, or to send, through postal systems. But, on the whole, we could trust them to keep our private communications private. And we paid for the service.
The Googles of the world — companies making their money on advertising — aren’t likely to take the lead here, because they have too much invested in surveillance (of the legal sort) already. But others will step forward. The market for privacy is clear and obvious, and will only become more so as the revelations of abuse continue to pour out.
Perhaps the businesses best positioned to offer secure communications are the postal services themselves. They’ve already been disrupted plenty. Maybe now is the time for them to do some positive disruption themselves.
I’m in Boston right now, and bummed that I can’t attend Start-up City: An Entrepreneurial Economy for Middle Class New York, which is happening today at New York Law School today.
I learned about it via Dana Spiegel of NYC Wireless, who will be on a panel titled “Breakout Session III: Infrastructure for the 21st Century—How Fast, Reliable Internet Access Can Boost Business Throughout the Five Boroughs.” In an email Dana wrote, The question for the panel participants is how fast, reliable internet access can boost business throughout NYC.” The mail was to a list. I responded, and since then I’ve been asked if that response might be shared outside the list as well. So I decided to blog it. Here goes:
Fast and reliable infrastructure of any kind is good for business. That it’s debatable for the Internet shows we still don’t understand what the Internet is — or how, compared to what it costs to build and maintain other forms of infrastructure, it’s damned cheap, with economic and social leverage in the extreme.
Here’s a thought exercise for the audience: Imagine no Internet: no data on phones, no ethernet or wi-fi connections at home — or anywhere. No email, no Google, no Facebook, no Skype.
That’s what we would have if designing the Internet had been left up to phone and cable companies, and not to geeks whose names most people don’t know, and who made something no business or government would ever contemplate: a thing nobody owns, everybody can use and anybody can improve — and for all three reasons supports positive economic externalities beyond calculation.
The only reason we have the carriers in the Net’s picture is that we needed their wires. They got into the Internet service business only because demand for Internet access was huge, and they couldn’t avoid it.
Yet, because we still rely on their wires, and we get billed for their services every month, we think and talk inside their conceptual boxes.
Try this: cities are networks, and networks are cities. Every business, every person, every government agency and employee, every institution, is a node in a network whose value increases as a high multiple of all the opportunities there are for nodes to connect — and to do anything. This is why the city should care about pure connectivity, and not just about “service” as a grace of phone and cable companies.
Building a network infrastructure as neutral to purpose as water, electricity, roads and sewage treatment should be a top priority for the city. It can’t do that if it’s wearing blinders supplied by Verizon, Time Warner and AT&T.
Re-base the questions on the founding protocols of the Net itself, and its city-like possibilities. Not on what we think the carriers can do for us, or what we can do that’s carrier-like.
I came to the realization that networks are cities, and vice versa, via Geoffrey West — first in Jonah Lehrer’s “A Physicist Solves The City,” in the New York Times, and then in West’s TED talk, “The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations.” West is the physicist in Lehrer’s piece. Both are highly recommended.
Aaron Swartz died yesterday, a suicide at 26. I always felt a kinship with Aaron, in part because we were living demographic bookends. At many of the events we both attended, at least early on, he was the youngest person there, and I was the oldest. When I first met him, he was fourteen years old, and already a figure in the industry, in spite of his youth and diminutive stature at the time. Here he is with Dave Winer, I believe at an O’Reilly conference in San Jose:
It’s dated May 2002, when Aaron was fifteen. That was the same year I booked him for a panel at Comdex in Las Vegas. His mom dropped him off, and his computer was an old Mac laptop with a broken screen that was so dim that I couldn’t read it, but he could. He rationalized it as a security precaution. Here’s a photo, courtesy of Mary Wehmeier. Here’s another I love, from the same Berkman Center set that also contains the one above:
All those are permissively licensed for re-use via Creative Commons, which Aaron helped create before he could shave.
Aaron’s many other passions and accomplishments are well-described elsewhere, but the role he chose to play might be best described by Cory Doctorow in BoingBoing: “a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber.” Cory also writes, “Aaron had an unbeatable combination of political insight, technical skill, and intelligence about people and issues. I think he could have revolutionized American (and worldwide) politics. His legacy may still yet do so.”
I hope that’s true. But it would have had a much better chance if he were still here doing what he did best. We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.
[Later…] Larry Lessig makes the case that Aaron was driven to end his life by the prospect of an expensive trial, due to start soon, and the prospect of prison and worse if he lost the case and its appeals. Writes Larry ,
[Aaron] is gone today, driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying. I get wrong. But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.
For remember, we live in a world where the architects of the financial crisis regularly dine at the White House — and where even those brought to “justice” never even have to admit any wrongdoing, let alone be labeled “felons.”
In that world, the question this government needs to answer is why it was so necessary that Aaron Swartz be labeled a “felon.” For in the 18 months of negotiations, that was what he was not willing to accept, and so that was the reason he was facing a million dollar trial in April — his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge. And so as wrong and misguided and fucking sad as this is, I get how the prospect of this fight, defenseless, made it make sense to this brilliant but troubled boy to end it.
Fifty years in jail, charges our government. Somehow, we need to get beyond the “I’m right so I’m right to nuke you” ethics that dominates our time. That begins with one word: Shame.
One word, and endless tears.
[Later again, 13 January, Sunday morning…] Official Statement from the family and partner of Aaron Swartz is up at http://RememberAaronSw.tumblr.com. Here it is, entire:
Our beloved brother, son, friend, and partner Aaron Swartz hanged himself on Friday in his Brooklyn apartment. We are in shock, and have not yet come to terms with his passing.
Aaron’s insatiable curiosity, creativity, and brilliance; his reflexive empathy and capacity for selfless, boundless love; his refusal to accept injustice as inevitable—these gifts made the world, and our lives, far brighter. We’re grateful for our time with him, to those who loved him and stood with him, and to all of those who continue his work for a better world.
Aaron’s commitment to social justice was profound, and defined his life. He was instrumental to the defeat of an Internet censorship bill; he fought for a more democratic, open, and accountable political system; and he helped to create, build, and preserve a dizzying range of scholarly projects that extended the scope and accessibility of human knowledge. He used his prodigious skills as a programmer and technologist not to enrich himself but to make the Internet and the world a fairer, better place. His deeply humane writing touched minds and hearts across generations and continents. He earned the friendship of thousands and the respect and support of millions more.
Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.
Today, we grieve for the extraordinary and irreplaceable man that we have lost.
Funeral and other details follow at the bottom of that post, which concludes, Remembrances of Aaron, as well as donations in his memory, can be submitted at http://rememberaaronsw.com.
Some links, which I’ll keep adding as I can:
- Remember Aaron (by the family, a place to post remembrances)
- Aaron Swartz was not a hacker. He was a builder. (David Weinberger)
- At a young age, Aaron Swartz did a lifetime of work (NPR)
- Freedom to Connect: Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) on Victory to Save Open Internet, Fight Online Censors (Freedom to Connect talk, 2012)
- How the legal system failed Aaron Swartz—and us (Tim Wu in The New Yorker)
- Aaron Swartz: An open letter to his prosecutor (Jesse Kornbluth in The Head Butler)
- On humanity, a big failure in the Aaron Swartz case (Kevin Cullen in the Boston Globe)
- My Aaron Swartz, whom I loved (by Quinn Norton… heart-wrenching, and required reading … she also posts this)
- At MIT, soul-searching follows in Swartz case (Matthew Lynley in The Wall Street Journal)
- The web responds to the death of hacker-activist Aaron Swartz (excellent compilation of tributes by Matthew Ingram in Gigaom)
- “If someone is in need of knowledge and you can provide it, but you don’t, you are guilty of a crime against the human spirit…” (Jay Rosen in Quote & Comment)
- Plea bargaining and torture in light of the Aaron Swartz case (Phillip Greenspun)
- Remembering Aaron Swartz (John Schwartz in the New York Times)
- Goodbye, Aaron (Ethan Zuckerman)
- Processing the loss of Aaron Swartz (danah boyd)
- Online Grieving (Dave Winer) I have a comment that follows.
- The Inspiring Heroism of Aaron Swartz (Glenn Greenwald in The Guardian)
- Aaron Swartz (1986-2013), Web Technologist & Internet Activist (Scott Beale, with many good links missed below)
- Aaron Swartz was ‘killed by the government’ father tells mourners (LA Times)
- Aaron Swartz funeral: Internet prodigy mourned in Highland Park (Chicago Tribune)
- Free culture advocate may pay high price (Noam Cohen in the NYTimes)
- Suicide reporting on the Internet (Tupperwolf)
- A Tribute to Aaron Swartz (Tangerine Bolen in Common Dreams)
- The democratic promise of Aaron Swartz (Micah Sifry)
- The Truth about Aaron Swartz’s “Crime” (Alex Stamos)
- Remember Aaron Swartz by working for open society and against government abuses (Dan Gillmor)
- I Have Something to Say about Aaron Swartz’s Suicide and the Special Way the US Justice Dept Hounds People to Death (Susie Bright)
- Was Aaron Swartz stealing? (Maria Bustillos in The Awl)
- Aaron Swartz’s Politics (Matt Stoller in Naked Capitalism)
- Internet Activist Aaron Swartz Commits Suicide mashable.com)
- Farewell to Aaron Swartz, an extraordinary hacker and activist (Peter Eckersly at EFF)
- Aaron Swartz (Patrick Nielsen-Hayden in Making Light)
- Remember Aaron Swartz (new Tumblr page)
- Remembering Aaron Swartz (Rick Perlstein in The Nation)
- Hacker and Reddit co-founder Aaron Swartz dies theverge.com)
- Aaron Swartz, rest in peace kottke.org)
- Aaron Swartz Commits Suicide news.slashdot.org)
- Why we should remember Aaron Swartz (BusinessWeek)
- RIP Aaron Swartz – a sad news semanticreatures.com)
- Former Reddit Co-Owner and Internet Activist Aaron Swartz Commits Suicide gizmodo.com)
- 26-Year-Old Reddit Co-Founder Aaron Swartz Has Died businessinsider.com)
- Legal Case Strained Troubled Web Activist (Wall Street Journal — details Aaron’s failed efforts to reach a deal with prosecutors)
- Hacktivist’s suicide intensifies criticism of U.S. attorney, MIT (Matt Pearce in the LA Times)
- From the archives: Highland Park teen is finalist in web competition (A June 23, 2000 piece in the Chicago Tribune, re-run today. Aaron was thirteen when it ran.)
- Aaron Swartz’s Death Is A Tragedy — And There Are Some Questions That Need To Be Answered (Henry Blodget in Business Insider)
- Will Aaron Swartz’s Suicide Make the Open-Access Movement Mainstream? (Andrea Peterson in Slate)
- Reddit Cofounder, Digital Activist Aaron Swartz Dead from Suicide at 26 gawker.com)
- Friends, Colleagues Mourn Web Pioneer Aaron Swartz, Key Architect of Creative Commons commondreams.org)
- A Data Crusader, a Defendant and Now, a Cause (Noam Cohen in the NYTimes)
- The feds who wouldn’t budge (Daily Beast)
- The death of Aaron Swartz (Clive Crook in the Atlantic)
- Berners-Lee calls Aaron Swartz’ prosecution a “travesty of justice” (Bloomberg)
- RIP Aaron Swartz ergodicity.net)
- The Archives (Aaron’s blog)
Tags: Aaron Swartz