Education, Etcetera, Liberty, Media, Policy

I want to create “The Open Internet MOOC” — and you can help

The Knight, Ford and Mozilla Foundations are collaborating on the latest edition of the long-running Knight News Challenge. This one asks, “How can we strengthen the Internet for free expression and innovation?” — or risk losing the Net to the ever-more-powerful players that want to re-centralize (i.e. control) speech and, ultimately, innovation.

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.

Standard
Liberty, Media, Policy

David Brooks on the end of prohibition

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?

Standard
Liberty, People

Remember Aaron Swartz by working for open society and against government abuses

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.

Other projects Aaron worked on included the RSS specificationsweb.pytor2web, the Open Library, and the Chrome port of HTTPS Everywhere. Aaron helped launch the Creative Commons. He was a former co-founder at Reddit, and a member of the team that made the site successful. His blog was often a delight.

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:

Oh, and BTW, I’ll miss you all.

Standard
Liberty, Policy

The Casey Anthony Verdict, and Demoralizing Public Values

An ugly mood in America today…

At a bed & breakfast table this morning, the conversation among the B&B customers turned to yesterday’s verdict in the C**** A****** trial. People were incredulous, bordering on angry, at the acquittal. They _knew_ this was wrongly decided, and never mind the damn jury.

One woman announced that her friend watched the trial on TV and was certain that the defendant was guilty of murder. Another said, “She went partying after hearing her child was missing.”

I asked, as mildly as I could, if being a bad person is grounds for a murder conviction, and who were we to tell the jurors, who were actually there in the courtroom for the trial and ultimately didn’t believe this case was proved beyond a reasonable doubt, to say their doubts were unreasonable.

I got a couple of hard looks from others at the table. Happily, the conversation turned to other topics.

Then, on Twitter, I saw reports that the ever-odious Nancy Grace had essentially told a national TV audience that the verdict was BS. I know, this is her stock in trade: inciting the public to hate defendants she dislikes. But it’s dangerous stuff.

Maybe C.A. did it. Instead of bemoaning a verdict of not guilty, though, we should be cheering a system where, at least on occasion, the presumption of innocence — and a requirement of proof beyond a reasonable doubt — still means something.

Standard