I’m a new contributor to Medium’s Backchannel technology publication. In my first post, I ask journalists to ditch any semblance of “objectivity” — a word I consider in the same category as a unicorn, i.e. mythological — when it comes to freedom of expression and the right to publish. On some issues, even trying to be neutral is a trap, and for journalists this is one of them.
For journalists, there should be no objectivity, no neutrality, about freedom of expression and other key liberties that are at the foundation of self-rule. There should be an open bias toward openness and freedom—and news people who don’t use their reports to push those values are not fit to call themselves journalists.
Powerful governments and corporations are leading the attack against these core values, usually in the guise of protecting us or giving us more convenience. But these powerful entities are also creating a host of choke points. And the result is a locking down of computing and communications: a system of control by others over what we say and do online — a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise.
Journalism watcher and professor Jay Rosen’s “How to be literate in what’s changing journalism” is a solid list of things tomorrow’s journalists will need to understand, and in many cases adopt. As he wisely does in his PressThink posts, Jay asks at the end what he’s missing.
From my perspective, there’s one more major element that every journalist, today and tomorrow, truly needs to grasp and deal with: who’s in control.
The answer, increasingly: Not us.
I’ve written many times in recent years about the dangers we face as a society as centralized entities, primarily governments and corporations, are taking control of the Internet away from those of us who use technology from the edges of the network of networks. The promise of the Net, and of the personal devices that emerged starting with the PC, was a radically decentralized system of computing and communications. Conversations and innovation, in that system, started and thrived at the networks’ edges, not in the center.
Some vital functions are being recentralized, through technological developments and political fiat. Governments that feel threatened by technology increasingly use our devices and systems to spy on us, and much worse.
In many cases, governments act (read: are paid) to protect legacy industries that loathe the liberty that technology can spark. Industries like Hollywood push harder and harder for laws giving them the authority to determine what innovations will emerge, especially if these breakthroughs threaten legacy business models that no longer make sense in a networked arena.
Meanwhile, corporate centralization is burning through the ecosystem. Facebook and Google, in particular, have taken control of wide swaths of the Internet’s key functions. Facebook is becoming what amounts to an alternative Internet — literally so in some countries where mobile dominates — and its growing power over content, along with Google’s search dominance, should worry everyone. (Jay alludes to this in his first point, I should note.)
That centralization may pale next to what telecommunications carriers are attempting: control over how information moves in and across our networks. In the U.S. wired-Internet market, local duopolies of cable and phone companies — the cable companies are effectively monopolies when it comes to actual broadband, not the pathetic imitation that phone-line DSL service provides — are insisting on the right to decide what bits of information get delivered to our devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get delivered at all. Mobile service is completely deregulated on this score. Federal regulators, claiming the opposite, give the carriers more and more power, and the FCC’s pathetic mutterings about restricting carrier dominance tell us network neutrality is on its last legs.
All of the above trends are relevant to journalism. Which is why journalists need to understand at least these key points (among many others in this context):
Carrier dominance is the ultimate in media consolidation. If they get away with their power play, they will determine almost everyone’s future in the media world. They will decide which content, and to some degree which innovation, lives or dies.
Facebook and Google — with Twitter looming on the horizon — are not just incredibly powerful and ubiquitous platforms. They are competitors for advertising, eyeballs and time. Journalists who use Facebook to promote their material — or, with supreme stupidity, as a host for their material — are also feeding a beast that intends to consume them.
Government surveillance and censorship are acts of control that threaten all serious journalism.
The Copyright Cartel’s efforts to restrict deployment of technology that threatens traditional business models is a threat to all innovation of the future.
Again, Jay is entirely right to push journalists to understand the items he mentions. It’s a great list. I hope he’ll add “who’s in control” as another.
In the Atlantic, I look at Twitter’s entirely reasonable decision to remove the James Foley snuff videos — a decision not to allow murderers to use the service for their PR. But, like others who’ve sounded off on this in recent days, I have major misgivings.
My deepest misgivings are less about Twitter’s (and Google’s and Facebook’s, etc.) right to be editing what’s posted. They’re about the power these services are accruing over online content.
Who gave them this power? We did. And if we don’t take back what we’ve given away—and what’s being taken away—we’ll deserve what we get: a concentration of media power that will damage, if not eviscerate, our tradition of free expression.
Let’s wake up, and re-decentralize the Internet, before it’s too late.
It’s not too late to send a comment to the FCC regarding its moves toward creating a “fast lane” on the Internet — thereby handing control over innovation and speech to a tiny group of corporations that have amply demonstrated their intention to abuse it. I discussed much of this in my new Guardian column this week.
And here’s what I sent to the FCC separately:
Please reclassify ISPs as common carriers under Title II, with an exemption for small wireless providers.
It is unconscionable for the FCC to permit the monopoly/oligopoly ISPs — specifically the cable and phone companies (the latter via newer fiber deployment) — to decide what bits of information reach end users’ devices in what order and at what speed, or even whether the information reaches them at all. The ISPs insist they will not abuse this power, but there is no record of monopoly/oligopoly businesses NOT abusing power.
It is even more unconscionable that the telecom companies take this position even though they were built initially on the backs of helpless customers who had no alternative to the carriers’ government-granted monopolies.
In addition to Title II reclassification, the FCC should pre-empt all state and local laws forbidding ISP or other telecommunications competition from the public sector. The carriers’ successful lobbying to prevent this kind of service is testament to their anti-competitive motives.
The future of American innovation and free speech could well depend on your decision. Please make the right one.
Suppose you could write in your personal blog and have a summary of your post show up on popular social-media sites like Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook – and then have responses on those sites show up as comments in your blog? You can, and if some talented programmers have their way you’ll soon be able to do so easily. In fact, it’s what I’m doing right now with this post, which is also running at Slate Magazine.
Why would you or I want to do this? Simple: We’re in danger of losing what’s made the Internet the most important medium in history – a decentralized platform where the people at the edges of the networks – that would be you and me – don’t need permission to communicate, create and innovate.
This isn’t a knock on social networks’ legitimacy, or their considerable utility. But when we use centralized services like social media sites, however helpful and convenient they may be, we are handing over ultimate control to third parties that profit from our work, material that exists on their sites only as long as they allow.
Even if most people don’t recognize what’s at stake – yet – I’m happy to say that a small but growing group of technologists does. And they’ve created what they call the “Indie Web” movement to do something about it, in an extended online conversation and at periodic in-person meetings. The latter are IndieWebCamps, where they gather to hack together tools aimed at liberating us, to the extent possible, from centralized control – what the Web’s key inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, has called “re-decentralization” of the Net. In their early work they’re taking advantage of the good things the social network “silos,” as they call them, can offer, while ensuring that the data we create, and as much of the conversation it engenders, lives in our own home-base sites.
They’re creating what the call an alternative to the “corporate-owned” Internet. And do we ever need it. The principles, as they say on their website:
Your content is yours. When you post something on the web, it should belong to you, not a corporation. Too many companies have gone out of business and lost all of their users’ data. By joining the IndieWeb, your content stays yours and in your control.
You are better connected. Your articles and status messages can go to all services, not just one, allowing you to engage with everyone. Even replies and likes on other services can come back to your site so they’re all in one place.
You are in control. You can post anything you want, in any format you want, with no one monitoring you. In addition, you share simple readable links such as mywebsite.com/ideas. These links are permanent and will always work.
Amber Case, one of the Indie Web creators, was drawn to it because the Web had become “a claustrophobic space where all I could do was consume, with barriers to building and owning.” She saw a new generation of Internet users who’d never registered a domain name, and weren’t even aware of what was possible.
That happened, in part, because “Twitter and Facebook showed an easier path to creating online,” says Aaron Pareki, another Indie Web organizer. “The original vision was everyone has their own space and made things . Then the silos formed and attracted people because it was easier.”
I spent two days with them and others in the movement at their recent San Francisco camp (there’s another camp being held this weekend in New York City), and came away dazzled by the vision of what they intend. I learned more about a variety of technologies they’re creating to make it happen, including things called “webmention” and “microformats,” among the underpinnings of the move toward re-decentralization.
I also came away with the open-source tools, which are still rudimentary, that have enabled me to move in a more independent direction. In my case, because I use WordPress for my personal blogging, I’ve installed several software modules that extend the WordPress software’s basic functionality. One is “Jetpack,” which lets me create posts that show up on on social network sites; another is “IndieWeb” to get the replies back to my own site.
The outbound piece depends on Tantek Çelik‘s “POSSE,” which stands for “Publish (on your) Own Site, Syndicate Elsewhere. Getting the comments, likes, favorites and other responses back depends on Ryan Barrett‘s Bridgy. I won’t go into the technical details, but this stuff is close to magical even in its currently early-days form – and far advanced from when I first heard about it, in a post last fall at Wired News.
This is also classic Internet innovation: created and deployed at the edge, not the center; rough, and constantly being improved. And if we’re lucky, and help these folks by testing it out on our own devices, it’s a vital part of the future.
As you’ll see when you read the entries, folks are coming up with some terrific answers. I hope you’ll take a look at mine — I call it “The Open Internet MOOC” — and offer support if you like it. (Hint: There’s a little “Applause” button on the side that you can click.)
More important, I hope you’ll recognize the threat we all face, and get involved in saving/restoring the open Internet we all need.
In his column today, David Brooks frets about legalizing marijuana, because it’s bad for society.
As an exercise, I changed every reference of marijuana to beer, and smoking to drinking (and Colorado to the United States). Here’s the Brooks column with those edits:
For a little while in my teenage years, my friends and I drank beer. It was fun. I have some fond memories of us all being silly together. I think those moments of uninhibited frolic deepened our friendships.
But then we all sort of moved away from it. I don’t remember any big group decision that we should give up beer. It just sort of petered out, and, before long, we were scarcely using it.
We didn’t give it up for the obvious health reasons: that it is addictive in about one in six teenagers; that drinking and driving is a good way to get yourself killed; that young people who drink go on to suffer I.Q. loss and perform worse on other cognitive tests.
I think we gave it up, first, because we each had had a few embarrassing incidents. Drunk people do stupid things (that’s basically the point). I drank one day during lunch and then had to give a presentation in English class. I stumbled through it, incapable of putting together simple phrases, feeling like a total loser. It is still one of those embarrassing memories that pop up unbidden at 4 in the morning.
We gave it up, second, I think, because one member of our clique became a full-on drunk. He may have been the smartest of us, but something sad happened to him as he sunk deeper into alcoholic life.
Third, most of us developed higher pleasures. Drinking was fun, for a bit, but it was kind of repetitive. Most of us figured out early on that drinking beer doesn’t really make you funnier or more creative (academic studies more or less confirm this). We graduated to more satisfying pleasures. The deeper sources of happiness usually involve a state of going somewhere, becoming better at something, learning more about something, overcoming difficulty and experiencing a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
One close friend devoted himself to track. Others fell deeply in love and got thrills from the enlargements of the heart. A few developed passions for science or literature.
Finally, I think we had a vague sense that drinking beer was not exactly something you were proud of yourself for. It’s not something people admire. We were in the stage, which I guess all of us are still in, of trying to become more integrated, coherent and responsible people. This process usually involves using the powers of reason, temperance and self-control — not qualities one associates with being high.
I think we had a sense, which all people have, or should have, that the actions you take change you inside, making you a little more or a little less coherent. Not drinking, or only drinking sporadically, gave you a better shot at becoming a little more integrated and interesting. Drinking all the time seemed likely to cumulatively fragment a person’s deep center, or at least not do much to enhance it.
So, like the vast majority of people who try beer, we aged out. We left beer behind. I don’t have any problem with somebody who gets high from time to time, but I guess, on the whole, I think being drunk is not a particularly uplifting form of pleasure and should be discouraged more than encouraged.
We now have a nation that has gone into the business of effectively encouraging beer use. By making beer legal, we are creating a situation in which the price will drop substantially. One RAND study suggests that prices could plummet by up to 90 percent, before taxes and such. As prices drop and legal fears go away, usage is bound to increase. This is simple economics, and it is confirmed by much research. The end of prohibition, in other words, is producing more users.
The people who debate these policy changes usually cite the health risks users would face or the tax revenues the state might realize. Many people these days shy away from talk about the moral status of beer use because that would imply that one sort of life you might choose is better than another sort of life.
But, of course, these are the core questions: Laws profoundly mold culture, so what sort of community do we want our laws to nurture? What sort of individuals and behaviors do our governments want to encourage? I’d say that in healthy societies government wants to subtly tip the scale to favor temperate, prudent, self-governing citizenship. In those societies, government subtly encourages the highest pleasures, like enjoying the arts or being in nature, and discourages lesser pleasures, like being drunk.
In legalizing beer, citizens of America are, indeed, enhancing individual freedom. But they are also nurturing a moral ecology in which it is a bit harder to be the sort of person most of us want to be.
So here are a couple of questions for David Brooks. Do you use alcohol? Was Prohibition a good idea?
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: