CNN asked me to write 600-800 words about Aaron Swartz. I demurred at first, suggested some other people who knew Aaron better — I met Aaron when he was young, stayed in touch, had the occasional meal with him, admired him and loved him more than he knew — and agreed when CNN came back to me.
I have trepidation about what I wrote, which CNN has now posted. I don’t like the implication that we can sum up any life so glibly. But I also wanted to do a little to nudge attention from Aaron solely as a champion of open information. I also decided not to assess the blame that is so well deserved, because that’s well discussed already.
A handful of better sources and expressions:
Anything Larry Lessig has written or said, including this.
Cory Doctorow’s immediate post, breaking the news and our hearts
… Swartz must be compared to two other eccentric geniuses, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, who, in the nineteen-seventies, committed crimes similar to, but more economically damaging than, Swartz’s. Those two men hacked A.T. & T.’s telephone system to make free long-distance calls, and actually sold the illegal devices (blue boxes) to make cash. Their mentor, John Draper, did go to jail for a few months (where he wrote one of the world’s first word processors), but Jobs and Wozniak were never prosecuted. Instead, they got bored of phreaking and built a computer. The great ones almost always operate at the edge.
That was then. In our age, armed with laws passed in the nineteen-eighties and meant for serious criminals, the federal prosecutor Carmen Ortiz approved a felony indictment that originally demanded up to thirty-five years in prison. Worse still, her legal authority to take down Swartz was shaky. Just last year, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals threw out a similar prosecution. Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, a prominent conservative, refused to read the law in a way that would make a criminal of “everyone who uses a computer in violation of computer use restrictions—which may well include everyone who uses a computer.” Ortiz and her lawyers relied on that reading to target one of our best and brightest.
It’s one thing to stretch the law to stop a criminal syndicate or terrorist organization. It’s quite another when prosecuting a reckless young man. The prosecutors forgot that, as public officials, their job isn’t to try and win at all costs but to use the awesome power of criminal law to protect the public from actual harm. Ortiz has not commented on the case. But, had she been in charge when Jobs and Wozniak were breaking the laws, we might never have had Apple computers. It was at this moment that our legal system and our society utterly failed.
My friend David Isenberg cautions us not to think of this as Aaron encountering one bad apple in the system. Rather, says David, “The legal system was working just like it always works…The case of US v Swartz was business as usual.”
This isn’t news. I’m just slow. But in July, Mozilla announced it will launch its new mobile operating system in Brazil. The plan, apparently, is to focus first on emerging markets.
The Mozilla mobile OS is going to be completely open, based on HTML 5. This means you won’t have to develop for a framework specific to a platform (iPhone or Android, e.g.). Because it’s Mozilla, it will be open open. (Remember, Mozilla are the folks that bring us Firefox.)
Another reason this is good news: The Mozilla browser is third, behind IE and Chrome, and is dropping. Mozilla is a pillar of open openness and we don’t want to lose it. Mozilla growth opportunities = Goodness.
…an online discussion on Open Access (OA) from the perspective of the developing world.
Funded by DFID, through the Mobilising Knowledge for Development (MK4D) programme in the Institute for Development Studies at Sussex University, and managed through the African Commons project in South Africa and the Centre for Internet and Society in India, the discussion will be hosted on UNESCO’s WSIS Open Access Community Forum. This open access dialogue will provide a valuable space to discuss different perspectives on what open access means for the developing world and what it can offer.
There is compelling evidence which indicates that OA has finally entered mainstream discourse. Yet, in the developing world context there remain specific challenges and untapped opportunities for OA. A series of open access discussions aimed at developing world critical thinkers, activists and academics, seeks to explore insights and articulate opinion on OA in the developing world. Join us for stimulating debate!
I’m enjoying my friend Peter Suber’s small book Open Access. He’s a very clear and concise writer, and of course he knows this topic better than anyone.
Here are some facts Peter mentions:
In 2008, Harvard subscribed to 98,900 serials. Yale subscribed to 73,900. “The best-funded research library in India…subscribed to 10,600.” And, Peter points out, some Sub-Saharan universities cannot afford to subscribe to any. (pp. 30-32) Way to make yourself smart, humanity!
“In 2010, Elsevier’s journal division had a profit margin of 35.7 percent while ExxonMobil had only 28.1 percent.” (p. 32)
The cost of journals has caused a dramatic decrease in the percentage of their budgets research libraries spend on books, from 44% in 1986 to 28% now. “Because academic libraries now buy fewer books, academic book publishers now accept fewer mauscripts…” (p. 33)
Peter’s book will help you understand better why you already favor Open Access.
I learned yesterday from Robin Wendler (who worked mightily on the project) that Harvard’s library catalog dataset of 12.3M records has been bulk downloaded a thousand times, excluding the Web spiderings. That seems like an awful lot to me, and makes me happy.
The library catalog dataset comprises bibliographic records of almost all of Harvard Library’s gigantic collection. It’s available under a CC 0 public domain license for bulk download, and can be accessed through an API via the DPLA’s prototype platform. More info here.
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
Drupal is an open source content manager, Dries says. In the past twelve years, Drupal has “grown significantly”: 71 of the top 100 universities use it, 120 nations use it, the White House uses it, 2 of of the 3 top music companies use it, the King of Belgium uses it. [Dries is Belgian :) ] The NY Stock Exchange is converting from a proprietary Java solution to Drupal. Five of the 6 top media companies use it. One out of 50 wesbites run on Drupal. Drupal has 10,000+ modules, 300,000 downloads a month, 1.5M unique visitors a month at drupal. org. And it’s free as in beer.
Today he’s going to talk about: history, open source, community, the evolution of software, and how to grow and sustain it.
Dries began writing Drupal in his dorm room, more or less by accident. He wrote a message board for the Linux project, in part to learn PHP and MySQL. About a year later he released Drupal 1.0 as open source, as “a full-featured content management/discussion engine…suitable to setup a news-driven comunity or portal site similar to kuro5hin.org and slashdot.org” (as it said in the original annoucement). “It took me about 30 seconds to come up with the name Drupal, a terrible name.”
Three years later (v.4.1) he says it still looked “pretty crappy.” Two years laer,in 2005, 30 develoeprs showed up for the first DrupalCon, in Antwerp. There are now several year. By 2011, it was looking quite good, and 3,200+ developers showed up at DrupalCon. There are now weekly meetings around the world.
There were growing pains, he says. He tells us about The Big Server Meltdown. In 2004, the servers failed. Dries put up a blank page with a PayPal button to raise $3,000 for a server. Within 24 hours, they’d raised $10,000. One of the CTOs of Sun shipped him a $8,000 machine. Then Open Source Labs in Portland OR offered to house the servers. “That’s just one anecdote. In the history of Drupal, it feels like we’ve had hundreds of these.” (There are currently 8 staff members. They organize conferences and keep the servers up. )
But, Dries says, this shows a weakness in open source: you suddenly have to raise $3,000 and may not be able to do so. That’s a reason he started Acquia, which provides support for Drupal.
Drupal is open source: It’s gratis, anyone can look at the source code, they can modify the code, and they can share it. The fact that it’s free sometimes let’s them win bids, but open source “is not just a software license. It’s a collaboration model.” “Open source leads to community.” And “ultimately, that leads to innovation.”
Dries shows photos of the community’s embrace of Drupal (and its logo). “Drupal is successful today because of the community.”
Q: How do we know there will be enthusiastic support a few years down the road? How do we know it won’t have a Y2K problem?
A: There isn’t an easy answer. Things can go wrong. We try to keep it relevant. We have a good track record of innovation and keeping the right trends. And a lot of it comes down to keeping the community engaged. We have a large ecosystem. They volunteer their time, but the are all making money; they have an economic interest in keeping Drupal relevant.
“Drupal doesn’t win just because it’s cheaper. It wins because it’s better.” It is technically superior because it has thousands of developers.
Evolution of software
Dries points to a common pattern: From innovation to bespoke systems to products to commoditization. In each step, the reach becomes wider. Proprietary software tends to stop at the products stage; it’s hard to become a commodity because proprietary software is too expensive. This is an important opportunity for open source.
Growing large projects
Is Drupal’s growth sustainable? That’s a reason Dries founded the Drupal Association, a non-profit, in 2006. It helps maintain drupal.org, organizes events, etc. But Drupal also needs companies like Acquia to get it into new areas. It needs support. It needs people who can talk to CIOs in large companies.
Open source Joomla recently hired some developers to work on their core software, which has led some of the contributors to back off. Why should they contribute their time if Joomla is paying some folks? [Joomla's experience illustrates the truth of the Wealth of Networks: Putting money into collab can harm the collab.] Drupal is not going to do that. (Acquia develops some non-open source Drupal tools.)
IBM and RedHat are the top contributors to Linux. What companies might make that sort of strategic investment in Drupal? Instead of one or two, how about hundreds? So Dries created “Large Scale Drupal,” a membership org to jointly fund developments. It’s new. They contribute money and get a say in where it’s spent. The members are users of Drupal. E.g., Warner Music. Module developers can get funded from LSD. Two people run it, paid by Acquia. There has not been any pushback from the dev community because there’s no special backdoor by which these projects get added to the Drupal core. In fact, the money is then spent to fund developers. Dries sets the technical roadmap by listening to the community; neither the Drupal Association or LSD influences that.
Of these collaborative projects often start as small, volunteer-driven projects. But then they become institutionalized when they grow. Trade routes are like that: they were originally worn into the ground, but then become driven by commercial organizations, and finally are governed by the government. Many others exhibit the same pattern. Can open source avoid it?
If you’re thinking of starting an open source commercial company, you could do dual licensing, but Drupal has not made that choice.
Q: How much does Drupal contribute to the PHP community?
A: A little. There are tribes: some are active in the PHP tribe, others in the Drupal tribe. It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more interaction. Dries says he’d love to grow Acquia enough so that it can put a couple of people on PHP, because if PHP isn’t successful, neither is Drupal.
A: We don’t have a lot of decision-making structure. I’ve always been opposed to formal voting. We work through discussion. We debate what should be in the core. Whoever wants to participates in the debate. Ultimately we’re structured like Linux: there are two people who are committing changes to a core version of Drupal. For every major version I pick someone to work alongside me. When we release the version, he or she becomes the maintainer of it. I move on to the next version and select someone to be my co-maintainer. The 15,000 modules are maintained by the community.
Q: Do your biggest contributors agree to programming standards?
A: We are strict about our coding and documentation standards. I make the final decisions about whether to accept a patch. Patches go through a workflow before they reaches me.
Q: What advice would you give to someone trying to attract people to a project?
A: If people can make money through your project, it will grow faster. We built a community on trust and respect; we make decisions on technical merit, not dollars. We have a darwinian model for ideas; bad ideas just die. See what rises to the top. Include it in the next version. Then put it into the core, if it’s worth it. The down side is that it’s very wasteful. I could tell people “If you do x, it will get in,” but I try to get out of the way. People have taken Drupal in sorts of directions, e.g., political campaigns, elearning platforms, etc.
Q: [me] How important are you to Drupal these days?
A: I think I’m more important as the face of Drupal than I used to be. In the governance sense I’m less important. I was the lead developer, the admin for the servers, etc., at the beginning. The “hit by a bus factor” was very risky. Nowadays, I don’t write code; I just review code. I still have a lot of work, but it’s much more focused on reviewing other people’s work and enabling them to make progress. If I were to die, most things would continue to operate. The biggest pain would be in the marketing . There are a lot of leaders in Drupal. One or two people would emerge or be elected to replace what I do.
Q: What’s hard for Drupal?
A: One of our biggest risks is to keep nimble and lean. It takes longer to make decisions. We need to continue to evolve the governance model to encourage us to accelerate decision making. Also, we have some real technical issues we need to address, and they’re huge projects. Volunteers can only accomplish so much. LSD is perfectly positioned to tackle the hardest problems. If we did it at the pace of the volunteers, it would take years.
NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.
Q: What drew you to this? What in your experience of the Internet drew you to this?
A: What drew me to it was my work overseas as a journalist. I was in China for CNN when the Net showed up in China. And we saw how it challenged China’s government. They recognized this from the beginning. They knew that if you want to be globally powerful, you can’t just turn off the Internet, as North Korea did. Over time, when I left CNN and co-founded Global Voices, I was working with bloggers around the world who were facing threats of censorship. Yet there are a lot of voices pushing back.
There were a number of different books I could have written but I kept encountering people who thought the Net is the way it is. But the Net is a variable, not a constant. It’s affected by legislatures, engineers, bureaucrats, a whole range of different actors. Depending on what people do, it can evolve in different directions, some more compatible with democracy and civil liberties than others. Just as if you want Toronto to be governed in a way that protects your rights, those who are most active in shaping it, so you need to be involved in the politics. We need to act more as citizens of the Internet rather than as passive users.
Q: In the early days, the Web was a primitive place. What did you see the gov’t of China doing then, and how was it affecting you as a journalist?
From the getgo it put together the Great Wall of China, a system of filters to block sites it doesn’t want citizens to see.
Q: Did you think it would work?
Journalists learned how to use proxies, got VPNs, etc. The govt was also imposing restrictions on businesses in China, requiring them to police content and comply with surveillance requirements. They held companies liable for what their users do. Now the govt has outsourced a lot of the surveillance to companies. The Great Firewall blocks what’s on servers outside of China by people the Chinese govt can’t arrest. Within the country, the govt can put people in jail. The social media companies within are responsible for monitoring.
[I was called away for ten minutes]
A whistleblower let it be known that AT&T was siphoning off all the traffic and sending it to the NSA. The tech was created by Norris [sp?], now owned by Boeing, licensed via Egypt to Libya and other places. Arrangements and norms liberal democracies have slid into without public debate to deal with crime etc. have been accepted around the world. Take the same technology and practice and stick them in repressive countries and you get human rights abuses.
Q: In the same way military contractors have built private armies, the surveillance world has been outsourced without any transparency. The telecoms in the US negotiated immunity for themselves after the fact.
Yes. FISA. So you can’t sue them for violating the law. Groups have pushed against this. But there’s so much pressure not to be “soft on crime.” Before the Net, we had models for holding power accountable. In the digital world, with cross-border networks, we don’t have a good way of holding power accountable. We need communication companies to be thinking about Shared Value. It won’t be easy or quick.
Q: Democracy has never advanced by people asking politely, as someone said.
With SOPA we’ve seen people being less polite. And the European protests against ACTA. The movement is growing fast.
Q: What do we need to think about when Google, Facebook, Apple, Twitter, occupy such an enormous part of our online attention?
Lots. How do the rules of terms and service shape our identity on line, and what is known about us. And the decisions about what you can see online. E.g., Apple’s rules for the App Store have come under scrutiny, as when Mark Fiori’s political cartoon was banned for being offensive. What political cartoon isn’t offensive? Or a woman did a documentary on prostitution in Rhode Island, the kind of subject that you hope independent filmmakers will cover. Her app was rejected. No explanation. Meanwhile the App Store allows the HBO app that shows programs about prostitution. There’s a real concern that the Apple Store is skewed against independent artists, and favors the big brands when they have relationships with.
Facebook has this “real name” requirement. You can’t use a pseudonym. In a lot of countries, there are people being arrested for what they post on FB. FB’s refusal to allow pseudonyms and their problematic privacy standards have raised a lot of issues for people who are vulnerable. A lot of US politicians are dependent on FB. You don’t have to ba Syrian dissident. You can be the victim of spousal abuse or someone who doesn’t want your boss to know that you’re interested in gay marriage, FB is not a good place to be.
[Audience now asks questions]
Q: How should a company like NetSweeper think about its business. Should it be asking countries what it’s going to use it for before selling it to them?
You’re right that these are really hard questions. NetSweeper was intended for families to protect their kids. But then they get used at a national level by govts to block content. NetSense has a similar product and just joined the GNI and have committed not to sell their tech to govts that are known human rights abusers. Companies need to do due diligence and draw some lines.
Q: ThePirateBay physically moved servers into the air with balloons, literally in the cloud. Might some companies move the Net away from their country, or even into space, to remove the control?
Someone has a project to create an island in the middle of the ocean and put servers there. Lots of experimentation going on to take servers out of any national jurisdiction. We’ll see how it goes, but I imagine ways will be way to assert jurisdiction over these things. I’m all for trying. But ultimately we have to try to get companies to be more responsible, and impose consequences when they do not respect rights. Political activism is important. We have to re-occupy these other spaces (commercial, govt).
Q: How has Canada done? And do you see the political shift in Canada affecting Internet freedom here?
Let’s leave that for Michael Geist (next speaker).
Al Jazeera played a key role in the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, but toned down its coverage of Bahrain because of its owners.
That’s why you don’t want to trust any one news source.
Q: Will Iran succeed in disconnecting the country from the Internet?
I don’t know if they’re going to disconnect entirely or try to get citizens using domestic sources primarily. China succeeded because they started at the beginning, and thus there are robust Chinese alternatives to Western social media, thanks to Western venture capitalism. For a lot of users, if you cut them off from the outside Net they wouldn’t notice it for a while. It’s different in Iran where there’s much greater dependence on outside Net services.
Q: NY state wants to impose a law that no site registered in the state can accept anonymous comments?
That’d be pretty unfortunate. I can see some services imposing real name requirements and people can choose to use or not use those services. But pseudonomity is important for people who don’t feel participating in public discourse under their real names. That’d be bad for our democracy.
(Here’s a version of the text of a submission I just made to BoingBong through their “Submitterator”)
Harvard University has today put into the public domain (CC0) full bibliographic information about virtually all the 12M works in its 73 libraries. This is (I believe) the largest and most comprehensive such contribution. The metadata, in the standard MARC21 format, is available for bulk download from Harvard. The University also provided the data to the Digital Public Library of America’s prototype platform for programmatic access via an API. The aim is to make rich data about this cultural heritage openly available to the Web ecosystem so that developers can innovate, and so that other sites can draw upon it.
This is part of Harvard’s new Open Metadata policy which is VERY COOL.
Speaking for myself (see disclosure), I think this is a big deal. Library metadata has been jammed up by licenses and fear. Not only does this make accessible a very high percentage of the most consulted library items, I hope it will help break the floodgates.
(Disclosures: 1. I work in the Harvard Library and have been a very minor player in this process. The credit goes to the Harvard Library’s leaders and the Office of Scholarly Communication, who made this happen. Also: Robin Wendler. (next day:) Also, John Palfrey who initiated this entire thing. 2. I am the interim head of the DPLA prototype platform development team. So, yeah, I’m conflicted out the wazoo on this. But my wazoo and all the rest of me is very very happy today.)
Finally, note that Harvard asks that you respect community norms, including attributing the source of the metadata as appropriate. This holds as well for the data that comes from the OCLC, which is a valuable part of this collection.
Neelie Kroes is becoming one of the open Internet’s most influential supporters.
Kroes is Vice President of the European Commission and is responsible for its “digital agenda.” At the Forum d’Avignon I was at (see here and here) she was just about the only person in a positon of power — economic or regulatory — to suggest that the Internet is actually a good thing for culture, and that we need new ways to think about copyright and distribution. Yesterday she gave a speech at the World Wide Web Conference in Lyon in which she called for new thinking to support an open Internet. Most importantly, she explicitly recognized that openness is indeed the property from which the rest of the Net’s value springs.
That a leader of the EC responsible for the “digital agenda” understands this shouldn’t be news. But it is. She even cites Yochai Benkler. Go Neelie!
Her talk begins by nailing its main point:
The best thing about the Internet is that it is open. Indeed it’s built on the idea that every device can talk to every other, using a common, open language. That’s what explains its seemingly endless growth.
Exactly right! Thank you, I’ll be here all week, drive safe, and God bless.
She goes on to explain the many benefits openness brings: “…choice and competition; innovation and opportunity; freedom and democratic accountability.” “Look at what we could do if we opened up our public sectors and put their data online.” She touts open standards. She points to political benefits: “And just look at what openness can do for freedom of speech. The Internet gives a voice to the powerless, and holds the powerful to account.”
Then she turns to the factors that impede openness:
Sometimes the problem is ancient, pre-digital rules that we need to cut back or make more flexible. Other times, openness actually flows from strengthening regulation.
She goes on to say that sometimes it’s about changing a “mindset,” not changing the rules. She says that we need an environment were different models are available and can compete. For example, some people want open discussions and some want moderated forums. We should have all types so people can choose. Likewise, we should have many different business models. People who want to be compensated monetarily for their deserve to be, although many are happy to give away what they’ve created. She says:
Look at the complicating licensing systems for copyrighted material here in Europe. These guarantee that Europeans miss out on great content, they discourage business innovation, and they fail to serve the creative people in whose name they were established.
After nodding to the need for security and privacy, she gets down to the infrastructure level:
…open competition, brought by the EU, has delivered for Europe. It offers consumers better deals and new, tailored services; market players new opportunities; and potential investors legal certainty.
She states her firm commitment to net neutrality. She is fine with having many market choices, including for cheaper plans that provide limited bandwidth, or access designed for specialized preferences. But, she says, there must always be truly open, neutral access, and she points to the BEREC study due in May that should tell us whether in Europe truly open access is being offered to everyone as an option.
Great speech, especially from a person in her position.
So, let me tell you my one concern. Kroes’ idea of openness means that the Net ecosystem should support the option for closed systems for those who want them: It needs to support copyright and it needs to support offerings from access providers that limit access. In theory there’s nothing wrong with that. The problem comes when you try to engineer an open system to support closed options. So, even the most crazed copyright supporter (let’s just call him, oh I don’t know, “Sarkozy”) is happy to let people give away their own content if they should be nutty enough to want to do so. But to support the “equal and opposite” option of being able to sell content, Sarkozy wants to rejigger the entire system to prevent “piracy.” If you want to offer the closed option with sufficient rigor to prevent all violations, the system would need to become closed. Kroes is certainly not advocating that closure, but the piece I feel is missing from her talk is the recognition that the value of openness surpasses the value that would come from a system engineered to so scrupulously protect IP. We have to accept some degree of risk for IP in order to have the openness that brings us the values Kroes is so eloquent about.
Likewise, I have no problem with access providers offering plans with data caps or that throttle bandwidth (assuming they’re transparent about it); that does not violate my idea of net neutrality. But there are conceivable plans for “specialist user needs” (as Kroes calls them) that would be discriminatory: A plan that gives priority to the delivery of movies (for example) would give those movie bits priority over the non-movie bits that other users of the Net care about. Personally, I think the best protection for the open Internet is structural separation: access providers sell you access — including tiered services — but are not allowed to sell either content or services that discriminate among bits. I don’t know where Kroes stands on this, but again I would have preferred a clear statement about it.
But now I’m just being greedy. Neelie Kroes is an Internet champion at time when we desperately need one.