Book Review – Hacking Politics

On January 18th 2012 a multitude of websites blacked out their services to alert users of a new government backed copyright bill that threatened the very nature of the internet.

Prominent sites like Wikipedia went completely dark for the day, while others such as Google changed their homepage to one that was censored.

Google - SopaThis online co-ordinated activism was the largest of its type that has ever taken place, bringing together people from all around the world to unite against the SOPA and PIPA bills. In response to the outrage Senators changed sides and the bills were subsequently defeated, much to the annoyance of the music and film companies that had lobbied for them. It was a moment when the power of the internet community was seen to make a tangible difference in the world of politics, while also taking on the multi-national corporations who wanted to tighten their grip on the entertainment industry.

It is indeed a story worth telling.

DSC_0003

So, it’s no surprise then that someone wrote the book. Well, to be more accurate, several people wrote the book.

Hacking Politics covers the whole SOPA/PIPA uprising in clinical detail by bringing together a number of first-hand accounts, building a literary mosaic of the days leading up to the now infamous blackout.  Writers such as the sadly late Aaron Swartz, David Moon, Patrick Ruffini, David Segal, and Cory Doctorow all share their experiences and areas of expertise in the often confusing world of copyright law and high level politics. It’s packed to the gills with insight and facts…but that might be the book’s biggest problem.

At the beginning there is a prelude that actually takes you though the entire story over forty pages by editing together people’s testimonies. It starts a little disjointed, but soon the reader settles into the pattern of alternating voices and the story unfolds.

With this completed there then follows two hundred and sixty pages that tell you the story again, in greater detail. The problem is that pretty much all of the content included in the opening section is repeated in the larger one. Which gets tiresome very quickly. It also robs the book of any real narrative drama. You know what’s happening, why, and how it will turn out. So what’s the point in reading it?

This is a huge shame as the tale is actually very interesting, and highlights the real threats to the current incarnation of the internet that exist. If you have an interest in the inner workings of the American political system and where it intersects with technology then maybe the depth of Hacking Politics will give you much to think over. But the book left me with the definite feeling that inside the meandering prose and repetitious events was a truly excellent story that remains buried beneath the rubble of lazy editing.

If you do want to try it out for yourself then you can visit the publisher’s website here, where you’ll find some excellent titles, including Cypherpunks by Julian Assange that I reviewed recently.

 

 

Advertisements

Aaron Swartz – The cost of fighting the good fight

On January 11th 2013 programmer and internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz was found dead in his New York apartment having taken his own life. He was 26 years old. The tragic news shocked the technology community and resulted in emotional outpourings of sorrow and anger from many of his friends and colleagues. Perhaps the most profound appeared on Twitter from Sir Tim Berners-Lee who wrote ‘Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.’

SWARTZ-articleLarge

Aaron was known to suffer from depression and his suicide appears to be a terrible consequence of this illness, but there are many – including his family – who feel that the blame for his sad demise lies with another entity, that of the US Attorney’s office. At the time of his death Aaron was facing charges for multiple felonies related to his downloading of academic papers from JSTOR, a digital repository of journals and articles, via a laptop hidden in a cupboard on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) campus. Swartz’s supporters feel that the case against him was unnecessarily harsh, and was possibly linked to his public position of campaigner for copyright reforms and internet freedom. Whatever the motivations behind the case the result was that a twenty six year old man with no previous convictions and an outstanding reputation in the academic community was facing many years in prison and fines of up to a million dollars. Something that seemed so overwhelming that it might have actually led to him hanging himself as a way of escape.

In an official statement released in the aftermath of Swartz’s loss the family stated ‘Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.’

Swartz had been a passionate innovator in the field of sharing information online. He was a central part of the team that wrote the RSS code that now enables news feeds, blogs, and podcasts to be delivered automatically. He was a pivotal figure in the writing of the Creative Commons license which allows creators to distribute and have others  redistribute their works freely while still maintaining an agreed level of ownership, he also worked on the Internet Archive whose goal it is to offer ‘universal access to knowledge’ for everyone, and was a co-founder of user generated news site Reddit.

creative_commons

He came to public prominence as an outspoken opponent to potentially restrictive legislation, such as the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), which sought to impose strict copyright controls on the internet. Swartz said of the act ‘This bill would be a huge, potentially permanent, loss. If we lost the ability to communicate with each other over the internet it would be a change to the bill of rights, the freedoms guaranteed in our constitution. The freedoms our country had been built on would be suddenly deleted.’ Along with other activists Swartz formed the advocacy group Demand Progress which petitioned congress and raised public awareness of the potential dangers they saw with SOPA. Eventually, with the help of significant companies such as Google and Wikipedia, the act was defeated but Swartz and his collaborators had made some powerful enemies.

The JSTOR incident wasn’t the first time that Swartz had come into contact with the US Government’s justice department. In 2008 the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database, which held all the United States Federal Court documents and charged eight cents per page to access them, was trialled as a free service in a small number of libraries across the US. Carl Malamud, head of the non profit group Public.resource.org urged activists to download as many of the records as possible in an attempt to circumvent the fee-based system and instead make the records (which were not under copyright) publically available for free. Swartz responded to the appeal and wrote a small Perl script which he loaded onto a computer in one of the libraries. This managed to obtain nearly twenty percent of the total records available (approx twenty million pages) before the government shut the trial down. Aaron subsequently found himself under investigation by the FBI, but after a couple of months the case against him was dropped mainly due to the fact that he hadn’t actually broken any laws.

AaronSwartzSOPA

JSTOR though, was more complicated. Swartz was a research fellow at Harvard, which gave him a JSTOR account, and as an academic he was also allowed onto the MIT campus as a visitor, with entitled access to the JSTOR servers. His decision to write a similar program to the one he used on PACER, and to hide a laptop on campus which downloaded a considerable amount of data, was obviously a misjudged one, but the response that followed was extraordinary. Swartz was arrested and eventually charged with numerous felonies, which if convicted would have had drastic implications on his future. The basis for the seriousness of the charges stems from current US laws which are, as is often the case around the world at the moment, struggling to pace with changes in technology. Under current legislation you can be charged with a felony if you are deemed to have broken the terms and services agreement of any website or online service that you use. Obviously this leaves open a certain amount of interpretation, otherwise anyone who ever used a false name on their Facebook account would be spending a few years in jail, but this is precisely why Swartz’s friends and supporters feel there was a great injustice acted out by the prosecutors.

JSTOR decided not to press charges against Swartz, although they did comment that his behaviour had been a ‘significant misuse’ of their service. It’s notable that a couple of days before Swartz’s suicide JSTOR actually made their records available to anyone if they signed up for a free account. The US Attorney’s Office did pursue Swartz, with lead prosecutor Carmen Ortiz famously stating that ‘Stealing is stealing’, but in a statement released after Swartz’s death Ortiz maintained that ‘At no time did this office ever seek – or ever tell Mr. Swartz’s attorneys that it intended to seek – maximum penalties under the law.’ Instead she asserted that the penalty should have been ‘a sentence that we would recommend to the judge of six months in a low security setting’.

Aaron Swartz’s death, and the circumstances surrounding it, have now triggered investigations at MIT, online petitions to have Ortiz removed from office, and moves by two members of Congress for the current legislation to be changed – under the working title of ‘Aaron’s Law’. For a young man who spent the majority of his life fighting for freedom of expression and information online it seems that even in his passing he could leave a significant impact for future generations. Swartz’s long time colleague Lawrence Lessig, himself a professor at Harvard Law school, said of Aaron;

‘This was one of those few technologists who looked up from his computer screen long enough to recognise how what he was doing could affect issues that he thought was important.’

The tragic nature of his death is a timely reminder that freedom in its many forms can be a costly and hard fought battleground, the outcome of which is always uncertain. Swartz seemed to see this long before the events of JSTOR, and warned us of how we must fight apathy and acceptance in the days ahead. 

‘It will happen again.’ Swartz confided in a speech after the SOPA campaign was over. ‘Sure, it will have yet another name, and maybe another excuse, and it will do its damage in a different way. But make no mistake: the enemies of the freedom to connect have not disappeared. The fire in those politicians’ eyes hasn’t been put out. There are a lot of people, a lot of powerful people, who want to clamp down on the internet. And to be honest, there aren’t a whole lot who have a vested interest in protecting it from all of that. Even some of the biggest companies, some of the biggest internet companies, to put it frankly, would benefit from a world in which their little competitors could get censored.

…We won this fight because everyone made themselves the hero of their own story. Everyone took it as their job to save this crucial freedom… If we forget that, if we let Hollywood rewrite the story so that it was just big company Google who stopped the bill, if we let them persuade us that we didn’t actually make a difference, and we start seeing it as someone else’s responsibility to do this work, and it’s our job to just go home and pop some popcorn and curl up on the couch to watch Transformers — well then, next time, they might just win. Let’s not let that happen.’

This article originally appeared in a shorter form on the PC Advisor website and in the print magazine as part of a monthly section I write entitled News Viewpoint. To see that version please click here, or purchase a copy of the fine magazine from your local newsagent. 

The Fight to Keep the Internet Open

The recent London Olympic games had many poignant moments, but one in particular stood out for those with a keen interest in technology. During the opening ceremony Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web, tweeted a message from the mainstage which was then displayed in huge letters all around the stadium. It simply read ‘This is for Everyone’, and was a reminder of how important the modern internet has become to all of us. It’s a concern then that in the past few years a political storm has been brewing about the future of the web, or more precisely how we gain access to it.

berners-lee-olympic-2
The argument centres around the principle of ‘Net Neutrality’, and looks set to become one of the most important debates in technology for the foreseeable future. Tim Wu – Professor at Columbia Law School, author of the book ‘The Master Switch’, and the man who coined the phrase Net Neutrality – recently stated in an interview that ‘The internet was built on the principle that the carriers take your data where you want it to go, and that people are allowed to communicate over the internet without interference from the people in the middle. It’s a pretty profound principle’.

This is the essence of Net Neutrality. The fact that the companies that supply you with your gateway to the internet remain neutral to the content and sites that you visit, treating all as equal. It’s obvious, sensible, and exactly how the internet has essentially functioned up until now. But as we increase the amount of data we consume, due to services like Youtube and BBC iPlayer, some ISPs are beginning to talk about charging more to carry this content, or at least to ensure that the quality of its delivery remains high.

It can be easy to forget that the way we access the web is still controlled by only a few companies – those with the physical infrastructure that allows signals to pass between two points. This gives those companies a tremendous amount of power as our reliance on the internet increases. How would you feel if your provider decided that to access some of the more popular online sites you would be required to pay them more? You want Facebook as part of your package, then that’ll be an extra £5 a month. Youtube? £10. It might sound far fetched but there is growing concern that this behaviour could be on the horizon unless governments decide that Net Neutrality becomes enshrined in law.

Youtube

It isn’t just a simple case of the amount of data we consume, that would seem reasonable, instead it’s more a case of where or from whom we receive it. Recently customers who bought an iPhone 5 on the AT&T network in the US were told that they wouldn’t be allowed to use the built in Facetime feature over their 3G service, even though it should come under the customers’ data plan. AT&T were basically telling their customers that they could only use the data which they were paying for in a manner that the company would decide. We’ve seen something similar here in the UK were several of the mobile carriers have disabled the Skype service on their networks, and also deny customers the option of tethering their laptops or tablets to their mobile phones to create internet hotspots. This selective attitude towards allowable services could theoretically be used to promote rival services with whom the carriers have favourable agreements.

Media reform advocacy groups such Free Press (freepress.net), who started the Save The Internet campaign (savetheinternet.com), voice a chilling version of the future when they argue that the ISPs, and media companies that back them, ‘want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data. And they want to discriminate in favor of their own apps, services and content — while slowing down or blocking competitors’ services.’ This might sound like classic scaremongering, but it should be noted that back in 2005 AT&T caused outrage when it proposed charging certain web companies increased rates so they could receive preferential treatment for their web traffic. This would have effectively given the paying sites faster download speeds than their non-paying rivals, and made AT&T a tidy profit from this two-tiered approach. Then in 2007 Comcast, the largest cable TV and internet provider in the US, was found to be tampering with traffic across their network to certain file sharing sites in an attempt to make them unusable.

In fact a recent joint study between the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC) and the European Commission found that at least 20% of mobile Internet users in Europe ‘have contracts that allow their Internet service provider (ISP) to restrict services like VOIP (e.g. Skype) or peer-to-peer file sharing.’ while the same was true for home broadband connections, especially in regards to peer-to-peer sites at peak times.

The main concern that advocates argue is one where the internet as we know it becomes more of a series of walled gardens where access is strictly controlled and regulated by a few large corporations each of whom offer their own services and media – almost a return to the days of AOL and Compuserve, with customers locked-in to their specific version of the web. ‘Big media companies want to be in charge again,’ states Tim Wu, ‘Most of the media for the last 150 years have been closed, that is if you look at NBC, or you look at the cable networks – they decide what goes on the network. So the threat comes from the fact that the broadcasters, phone companies, cable [companies], are used to that business model and want to go back’.

sopa

In 2012 the SOPA, PIPA, and ACTA bills were proposed in the US and Europe as a way of curtailing content on the web under the auspice of copyright protection. If passed they would have forced ISPs to regulate the content that went through their networks, which could have resulted in sites being delisted from search results, thus virtually disappearing from the internet, if the ISPs thought there was a possibility that they contained copyright material. The bills were defeated in their respective countries after widespread discontent from the online community, but the entertainment industry is thought to be preparing new ones, and their lobbying power means that they will certainly be heard.

The political level of involvement in the issue saw Holland become the first European country to make it law that no ISP can charge more for access to specific sites, while Chile has also created relevant legislation. The concern about Net Neutrality became so great that even President Obama spoke about it in a 2010 interview, during which he said ‘We’ve got to keep the internet open, we don’t want to create a bunch of gateways that prevent someone who doesn’t have a lot of money but has a good idea from being able to start their next Youtube, or their next Google on the internet’.

The battlelines are being drawn, and it looks like this is an issue that’s set to be hard fought over the next few years, and which could decide our online experience for decades to come.

A version of this post originally appeared as part of a new series of features called News Viewpoint that I write for the PC Advisor website and also appears in the February 2013 issue of the print magazine – yes, I know that’s in the future, but the way magazines work is a mysterious form of sorcery. To see the original click HERE or pop out to your local newsagent and purchase the rather splendid magazine itself.