Last night I attended my first hackathon, one held in honor of the late Aaron Swartz. If you don’t know who Aaron is yet you should; he helped found Reddit and numerous other projects of note, as well as being very politically involved against SOPA and more. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect as I took my Muni bus to the Internet Archive. The Archive was a beautiful old building, Greek columns and stained glass; I was in love.
I got there later than intended, thanks to my formerly mentioned bus running late, and missed the entire Hackathon portion of the event. This was fine for me, someone who doesn’t code anymore and hasn’t for years (C++ in highschool barely counts). I wanted to go for the speakers, specifically Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Cindy was going to be talking about her work with the EFF reforming the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the poorly worded and archaic federal law used to drive Aaron to killing himself. Thanks to the dedicated efforts of the EFF, a couple members of Congress recently introduced “Aaron’s Law” to Congress, the first tangible attempt at reforming the CFAA.
Other speakers included Wired magazine investigations editor Kevin Poulsen, speaking about FOIA requests (specifically Aaron’s and MIT’s involvement in blocking its release). Public Domain advocate Carl Malamud spoke about his fight to make public building regulations actually available to the public. Brewster Kahle , the online activist and head librarian of the Internet Archive, spoke about the work Aaron did with the Archive and what they were continuing to do. The Archive is working to make everything possible publicly available in a digital form, currently distributing some 40 million books a month. Unfortunately a fire burned down a small part of the Archive last week, causing $600,000 in damage and making their job that much harder. While the Archive has received thousands of dollars of donations, they still need more, please donate if you can.
After an hour and a half of empowering and informative, sometimes personal and emotional, speeches the event was over. The hackathon continues all this weekend at Noisebridge in San Francisco and around the world. One does not need to be a hacker to participate, even this writer found a couple projects to get involved with (as expected and hoped for). If you don’t see this blog until months from now don’t despair, Noisebridge will be around and there will be more hackathons. There is always more work to do, rather than fret about missed opportunities use that energy to create new ones.
A brief bit of background on myself. I’ve grown up on the Internet, it has made me who I am. Even before the Internet, I had a home computer (a gift from a neighbor who worked for the school district), one of those huge bulky things from the 80s where the screen and computer were all one colossal box and the screen had only two colors, green and black. My parents got me my first Internet capable computer when I was twelve; that same year I discovered Everquest, the first MMORPG to get big years before WoW ever existed. I also was indoctrinated to the world of peer to peer sharing, back in the glory days of Napster before the lawsuit. I remember the creation of Bit Torrent, the revolutionary new way to transfer files in a fraction of the time that has now become the standard method to share, as Napster once was. I can also look back with fond amusement of my revulsion to Bit Torrent when I first learned of it, and confusion over the need of a torrent client. I was being forced outside my comfort zone and being forced to learn more, a welcomed opportunity now.
Let’s contemplate that last phrase, I was being forced to learn more by being forced outside my comfort zone and that is a good thing; why? When I was twelve I was much more resistant to change and much less knowledgeable about the world. The Internet is the evolutionary pressure that has helped that change to happen through exposure to various media, music and writings. Unfortunately, greedy corporations and the government are acting to subvert the transfer of media to the masses, like the RIAA back in the early 2000’s and JSTOR/the DoJ with Aaron Swartz. Musicians and other artists/professionals have a right to profit off their craft, that goes without saying, but a balance can be struck, a third way can be found (or fourth, fifth, n-th ways).
One example out of the many for a new model to emerge allowing artists and consumers to both win is the example of the mash up duo The Legion of Doom. After putting their first album, Incorporated, on their website for free download these DJs gained both fame and notoriety. Unfortunately, some of the artists who created the original songs that the Legion remixed wanted their songs removed and the album is no longer available on their website. Regardless, the Legion created a following by encouraging fans to share and through their use of P2P which allowed them to sell out a limited release of their CD in a very short time, self distributed without a label to take their profits. Two years later Radiohead took a similar approach with their album In Rainbows.
The Internet is the Democratization of knowledge perfected, and if knowledge is power that makes it an amazing institution to share power as well as knowledge among the masses. Sharing is a public good, with little private gain involved; you don’t make money off sharing a file for free on Napster. Arguably, extant educational fair use law allows individuals to download media for their own research to further a field of study. They do not need to be a profession or have a degree, there are no such requirements merely that the use of that media help you further some field of study. Interpret that however you will.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the Internet and how important it is, that is not meant to detract from how important the real world is. The Internet is the real world, there is no distinction between these two states of existence. It is dangerous even noxious to believe that there is a separation between the two, that kind of thinking leads to faux pas like when everyone saw Anthony Weiner’s wiener. For years I have lived by the rule that everything I posted online would be public knowledge. That is also how I plan to raise my children; before we even have the sex talk we will have the Internet talk where I tell them that nothing online is private ever. For this reason, among others relating to my practice of security culture, I was not terribly concerned by the NSA wiretap, though I was wholly pissed off. While it doesn’t surprise me that the NSA was spying on pretty much every person in the world other than the President (as far as he knows), it does still bother me that they feel they can use my name as an American to defend their unconstitutional actions. Instead of just getting pissed off and doing nothing but fume, I prefer to channel that anger into constructive things like being politically involved.
One great way to be political is to encourage your legislator to vote for Aaron’s Law and similar legislation to scale back the CFAA or to protect our rights online. Let them know you oppose legislation link SOPA, PIPA, ACTA, and CISPA which seek to undermine our freedoms online and our free access to information. Political activism isn’t a singular act; it is a habit. One does not become an activist by going to one protest, one becomes an activist by staying active and engaged in the political process. Another thing you can do is sign this online petition about Aaron’s Law; while online petitions mean next to nothing compared to a professional lobbyist they do still have an impact as Aaron showed us with his petition that helped stop SOPA. Online petitions should be considered as a tool in the activism toolkit used in conjunction with other more major tools like writing letters to the editor or political actions. It should be noted that few major political battles, if any, are won online alone.
I’m going to end with a quote of Aaron’s from his Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, “With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?” Will you? Will you stand up for your freedoms both online and off?
[EDIT]: If you haven’t seen the NSA files decoded you should check it out and thank the stars and stripes for Edward Snowden, a national hero. If you feel inspired to take more action sign on to the EFF’s demand to end mass surveillance.