This is what I consider my “anchor site” on the Web. Think of it as a portal to (almost) everything I’m doing, online and offline.
My primary gig these days is at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Arizona State University, where I work to bring entrepreneurship and digital media literacy into the curriculum. I’m also a blogger, author, speaker, media investor and co-founder of several online businesses.
This week’s visit to Vermont, where I spoke to classes at the University of Vermont and did a public talk at Champlain College (the latter to benefit the VTDigger journalism project), was great fun. Burlington’s local public access cable channel recorded the Champlain talk, and you can view it here:
I’ve launched a new blog for my next book/web/whatever project, called “Permission Taken” — helping you use the technology you buy the way you want to use it, and to be safe and secure in the process. We’re losing control to centralized entities from companies to governments, and losing our privacy and security in the process.
Aaron’s lawyers filed a letter alleging what looks like obvious prosecutorial misconduct in Aaron Swarz case, but the Department of Justice will surely concluded — after the attorney general said so publicly — that it did nothing wrong. Sad but this is how things work in the halls of power these days.
As we mourn Aaron Swartz, let’s save energy for some anger — and activism.
Aaron, whose work was entirely about making our world a better place, died by his own hand. He was 26, and he had a history of depression. But the demons that carried him over the edge surely got a boost from the United States government, which was prosecuting Aaron in a manner that demonstrated contempt for the facts, fairness, and the justice system itself.
The case against Aaron, an object lesson of what happens when authority is cynically abused by the people in power, threatened more than Aaron’s liberty and his great work. It threatened us all.
So amid my grief for Aaron, I’m angry — and committed to working for honorable enforcement of rational laws, and for values Aaron exemplified in his short life.
Aaron had made his presence known early. Among Philip Greenspun’s recollections in this piece is how a 12-year-old kid from Chicago found it easy to do what some professional computer people found hard.
I didn’t meet Aaron until 2002, at a World Wide Web conference in Hawaii, though I’d heard of him and his work. It was clear that he was in awe of the famous (in the Internet community, anyway) people, but it was equally obvious that they’d also heard about this prodigy and couldn’t wait to meet him. Even then Aaron had a remarkable clarity about his mission in life: to find and do stuff that a) was interesting; b) was fun; and, not least, c) would help everyone have more access to information we needed and could re-use in all kinds of ways.
In a column soon after, I rued the demise of Napster, the music-sharing service, but remained hopeful bordering on confident that the Internet would thwart the growing attacks on openness and sharing. A promising harbinger was the then-emerging Creative Commons, founded by Larry Lessig. I noted that Aaron was working on the project and called him “an object lesson to the dinosaurs who run Hollywood and think they can control the uncontrollable,” adding, “The young people of this world will ultimately decide how this turns out.” Aaron was 15 at the time.
Aaron, in a beyond-productive decade, put a lot of interesting things on his agenda. The list of his activities — always pushing boundaries — is stunning. As Peter Eckersley wrote on the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog, Aaron was always working for an open ecosystem:
His contributions were numerous, and some of them were indispensable. When we asked him in late 2010 for help in stopping COICA, the predecessor to the SOPA and PIPA Internet blacklist bills, he founded an organization called Demand Progress, which mobilized over a million online activists and proved to be an invaluable ally in winning that campaign.
As his projects bubbled along, and as his fame in the tech community grew, I wondered whether it would all go to his head — or worse, that he’d decide that getting fabulously rich was a more important mission in life. Once, comparing notes with a friend, we both fervently hoped that Aaron would never choose to be the next Bill Gates, at least in the predatory sense, because the world needed geniuses on the open-source and community side of the ledger. (Aaron laughed when I later mentioned this.) He stayed on track; when he did make a bundle on the sale of Reddit, which he helped build, he just kept on doing those interesting things.
While Aaron seemed fundamentally shy in person, he did have an ego and a self-promotional sense that often (not always) served him well. He sometimes turned sour on his friends and mentors, sometimes in public ways. But they almost always forgave him. Because at heart, said Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, Aaron was “among the best spirits of the Internet generation.”
The sadness today in my virtual community is nearly unbounded. My friends and their friends, like me, have been simply crushed by the news. You can get a sense of it from Matthew Ingram’s compilation of links and context at GigaOm. My computer screen has blurred frequently through tears as I’ve read the heartbroken posts by, among so many others, Quinn Norton and Cory Doctorow.
An inchoate anger always mixes with sadness when someone dies so young. But today I’m seething at Aaron’s prosecution by a federal government that has rewarded torturers and banksters while in this case twisting the law to turn what amounts to minor trespassing into a “crime” worthy of decades in jail. You can read about it here. Then read what an expert witness was going to say at the trial — testimony that surely would have led even the most gung-ho-for-government jury spend maybe 10 minutes in deliberations before acquitting Aaron.
Maybe this legal travesty was the Obama administration’s cynical campaign to put away someone it considered annoying. Maybe it was a case of a rogue prosecutor gone utterly berserk. I’m guessing it’s a combination of ugly motives. But it’s infuriating and deeply scary to anyone who cares about a system of justice where the word “justice” means anything.
Like so many others, Larry Lessig, Aaron’s longtime friend and mentor, is mourning today. He’s also publicly and correctly furious at the prosecutors’ foul behavior, and at the government’s utter lack of common sense or decency. As Larry wrote:
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.
Shame on all of us, and shame on me, at least in this way: When Aaron was indicted, I didn’t do nearly enough to help. Some, like Larry Lessig, tried hard. Most of us, if we did anything, tweeted our outrage, sent emails of moral support, and went on with our lives, assuming that the justice system couldn’t be this insane.
It’s too late for Aaron, but not for the rest of us.
We can honor Aaron’s life in the best way by doing what he did at his amazing best. We can work to expand an open Net and society, and to make “liberty” a word that means something again. Among many other things:
If I lived in Massachusetts, where the U.S. Attorney with overall jurisdiction over Aaron’s case may run for governor, I’d start working tomorrow to ensure that she couldn’t get elected dogcatcher. I’d also raise money to pay the best and bravest lawyer I could find, to ask the Massachusetts Bar Association to investigate how she and the assistant U.S. attorney in direct charge of the case had acted, and whether they deserved to keep their licenses to practice law.
No matter where I lived, I would ask my member of the U.S. House and my U.S. senators how they can allow the computer crime laws they passed to criminalize a violation of a terms of service — an interpretation that could put any one of us in jail under the Justice Department’s misuse of the law. If the people representing me didn’t respond or expressed support for the administration’s you’re-all-potential-prisoners stance, I’d look for better representatives.
If I wrote software code for, say, Facebook or any other big company, or was a young coder considering a startup, I’d ask myself whether my work was worthy of Aaron’s memory — and if not, what I would do about that.
And I’d find and support organizations, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that are carrying on the work Aaron championed, and did, to bring our culture and laws into the 21st Century in ways that value creativity, openness and collaboration.
Get angry. Then get busy.
More than a decade ago Aaron wrote a blog post about what his “virtual executor” should do “If I get hit by a truck…” – instructions that included a wish for the contents of his hard drives to be made public for posterity. He concluded:
First, this is a Facebook issue, since Facebook owns Instagram. The coverage of this has tended to ignore or downplay that fact.
Second, Facebook has a long record of treating users’ rights and privacy in unfortunate ways. It doesn’t surprise me that they’re doing it again. I would expect, in the next few days, to see Facebook/Instagram follow the standard FB playbook: Take one step back, having taken three steps forward, and call it “listening to our users”.
Third, a user of the Instagram app should not have to make a choice of either accepting such sweeping terms or quitting the service altogether. (I use neither Facebook nor Instagram at this point.)
Fourth, this is a clear example of why we should be willing to pay for some software and services. I want to be a customer, not a product, and I’m willing to pay for that — but increasingly I’m not given that opportunity.
Finally, this is a great opportunity for Flickr or other photo services to create a more user-friendly ToS, and lure people away from the sites that don’t.
This is a reprint (with permission) of a column I wrote for the San Jose Mercury News in 2004, during that year’s presidential campaign. I’ve added a few links. In several respects I’ve changed my mind about real-time fact-checking, but I’d still like to see a more “we” approach to debates than the “I” crapola we have now.
In the 2004 presidential campaign’s latest detour into relative trivia, there’s been a small uproar over whether President Bush was wearing some kind of audio receiver during one or more of the debates with John Kerry. The implication was that the president might have been getting unfair coaching.
Bush and his people deny they broke the rules prohibiting such devices or other aids. I don’t see any big reason to doubt them even if the bulge in the back of Bush’s suit was remarkably rectangular.
I would argue that in this case the rules need updating. Voters would have been better off if the candidates had all kinds of technology at their disposal, so they could double-check their own facts and precisely rebut opponents’ misstatements.
In the Information Age, the ability to find relevant information quickly and use it intuitively will be at least as important as the ability to memorize numbers or slogans. This will be as true for everyday people as presidents and their staffs, and powerful tools will soon be at our beck and call.
Technological aids of this sort aren’t new, though their use has sometimes been contested. Remember the debate when children first started taking calculators to school? It was assumed (with some truth) that kids would forgethow to add and multiply the old-fashioned way, using a pencil and paper.
Of course, the abacus and slide rule predated the electronic calculator. Were those shortcuts also a problem?
It wasn’t so long ago, meanwhile, that we had to go to the public library to look up facts in books or periodicals we didn’t own. I love libraries, and they’re still essential institutions for many things, but more and more data and facts can be found online.
School officials have gone into panic mode because students are telling each other answers to specific questions via mobile phone text messages. Maybe the answer is to make most testing an ”open book” process, where the student ultimately shows a command, or not, of the subject in other ways than rote memorization.
As information technology becomes embedded into more of what we touch, and as wired and wireless networks become more ubiquitous, we can expect to be able to look things up pretty much everywhere. This will be no more unusual for people tomorrow than it was to pull out a calculator a decade ago.
How far might this go? Advances in display technology suggest that eyeglasses will soon become excellent data displays, and eventually digital technology will augment our eyes directly. Audio will have a similar trajectory.
I’ve often said I’d like to have a music implant in the brain, letting me ”know” the scales without thinking about them. This wouldn’t make me more musical, but it would free some time for more valuable kinds of practice and creativity.
As facts, figures and other data become instantly retrievable, many kinds of endeavors will change. One is journalism.
Imagine, for example, that a journalist in the future is interviewing a corporate chief executive or politician, and that the reporter can double-check what he or she has been told on the spot. Imagine further that the journalist is broadcasting the interview in real time to a cadre of experts who can suggest follow-up questions or point out misstatements on the fly. Interviews would never be the same.
The ”fact squads” major news organizations assembled during the debates to check candidates’ statements were operating in something close to real time, but not close enough for me. I would prefer to see TV networks flash corrections on the screen as soon as they caught the candidate in a lie. Distracting? Perhaps, but maybe the candidates would lie less often or at least less brazenly.
Even more valuable would be giving the candidates more tools to correct each other. I would build a personal computer into each podium, connected to whatever online resources the candidate and his staff found useful.
I would hate to see candidates and officials rely entirely on technological props, because preparing for debates and press conferences is a vital way for politicians to synthesize details into coherent policies. I would hope for some balance, and that we could find out when someone was just reciting someone else’s lines on the fly.
But when I vote for a candidate, I’m not looking for a wonk whose chief skill seems to be rattling off facts and figures. I’m looking for people with strategic vision and the ability to lead. Leave the memorization — the details — to other people, and to Google.
The New York Times has given anonymous sources a platform to slime other people in this story about the Romney camp’s reaction to Clint Eastwood’s beyond-bizarre appearance at the Republican National Convention.
One person from inside the campaign is quoted, and he’s one of the people who was attacked. On Twitter I called this (and it wasn’t a compliment) “[s]tandard NY Times political journalism,” a reference to the Paper of Record’s unfortunate propensity to use anonymous sources, often in violation of internal policies it routinely ignores.
A Times editor challenge my take. “[W]ould you really expect on-the-record reax from Romney aides?” he asked. “And if not, don’t write the story?”
Of course I expect cowardly attacks from political operatives. That’s the nature of the political system.
But I don’t expect journalists to be complicit in the sleaze, even though that’s become a feature of modern journalism. It doesn’t have to be, and the Times should lead the way in saying no.
(Note: There’s an expanded version of this post at the Guardian.)
Twitter has suspended the account of a British journalist who tweeted the corporate email address of an NBC executive. The reporter, Guy Adams of the Independent, has been acerbic in his criticisms of NBC’s (awful) performance during the Olympics in London.
Adams has posted his correspondence with Twitter, which claims he posted a private email address. It was nothing of the kind, as many including Deadspin have pointed out. (Here’s the policy, which Adams plainly did not violate, since the NBC executive’s email address was already easily discernible on the Web — NBC has a firstname.lastname@ system for its email, and it’s a corporate address, not a personal one — and was publicly published over a year ago.)
What makes this a serious issue is that Twitter has partnered with NBC during the Olympics. And it was NBC’s complaint about Adams that led to the suspension.
Twitter has been exemplary in its handling of many issues over the past several years, including its (for a social network) brave stance in protecting user privacy. So I’m giving the service the benefit of the doubt for the moment, and hoping that this is just a foolish — if well-meaning — mistake by a single quick-triggered Twitter employee. If so, Twitter should apologize and reinstate Adams’ account immediately. If it does so, there’s little harm done — and the company will have learned a lesson.
If not, this is a defining moment for Twitter. It will have demonstrated that it can be bullied by its business partners into acts that damage its credibility and ultimately the reason so many of us use it as a platform. And if that’s the case, there will be much less incentive to use it.
What does it take to be a Pioneer? There are no specific categories, but nominees must have contributed substantially to the health, growth, accessibility, or freedom of computer-based communications. Their contributions may be technical, social, legal, academic, economic or cultural. This year’s pioneers will join an esteemed group of past award winners that includes World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, security expert Bruce Schneier, open source advocate Mozilla Foundation, and privacy rights activist Beth Givens.
The EFF honored me with one of these awards in 2002.