The Boy Who Could Change the World (3 page)

BOOK: The Boy Who Could Change the World

It's a very cool idea, but like the original web, it has this chicken-and-egg problem. When Tim Berners-Lee first came up with the web, he could only show people the handful of pages he'd written, so it didn't seem all that interesting, and it was difficult to convince people to provide information in this crazy form for free if no one was going to read it. In the same way, there's not much information out there in RDF now, and, because of that, there aren't a lot of people working on reading it.

The web, of course, eventually took off somehow. This is not to say that the Semantic Web
take off, but I think that it could, and if it does, it'll be really cool. Unfortunately, arguing over minor technical details is a lot easier than getting the thing to take off, so right now we're doing a lot more of the former. But I guess we're not in much of a hurry.

You have been very open in sharing at least some personal “real life” data. How do you feel about people that don't want to reveal too much of their identity? (If you've slipped some already by accident, Google remembers forever.) How would they go about protecting their own identities?

I'm of two minds about that. On the one hand, I want to be very open about everything. On the other, I heavily defend people's right
to privacy. Of course, as you point out, keeping your privacy is hard because if you slip once, it's out there forever.

I'm not sure what to say to people who want to protect their privacy except be careful when you give out private information and think about where it could end up.

When did you find your way toward the web?

I've been using the web since the days of Mosaic, since I was a little kid. I still wish I had been there since Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web, but I guess I was only 4 then, so it's not all that unreasonable that I wasn't. So that was probably '94/'95. I think I wrote my first web page a couple years after that ('97/'98) and probably started programming database-backed websites around 1999. Actually, it must have been a little earlier, since my first db-backed website won an award in 1999. That was an interesting era.

Tell us some things you've seen that made you think “This will be huge one day or another” on the web. Which turned out that way? Which ones are on their way? Which ones failed completely?

Well, weblogs, wikis, wireless were widely well received. Database-backed websites have done well too, although I'm a little surprised there hasn't been as much standardization as I thought.

I guess I thought things like anonymous remailers and other crypto stuff would be more popular than it has, but there's still time for that. File sharing sure came out strong, though. The Semantic Web is probably one to watch. And I think we'll see a lot of interesting stuff with Voice over IP in the next year.

In general, we'll see everything move onto the Internet and, as it does, we'll see it open up room for the little guy to compete. So newspapers moved onto the Internet, but that also gave everyone the chance to start their own newspaper. Directories moved onto the Internet, but with Google even the little guys can be in the directory. Same with encyclopedias (Wikipedia) and ads (AdSense). And, of course, at the same time, you open yourself up to easy copying of your work.

So the same pattern has happened in a more forcible way to music, movies, television. TV companies may not like having their shows on the net, but they're there, and stuff like Red vs. Blue is there to compete right alongside them. So, uh, if you're a company that's in the business of moving information around, I'd watch out. It's one thing to say that copying music is wrong because it hurts the artists, but what will the telephone companies say when Voice over IP drives them out of business, completely legally? How will the
Encyclopedia Britannica
stop Wikipedia? You're next! :-)

One thing I've noticed while using open-source software or other free software is that it usually tends to have a very poor user interface. Since these guys are all out to beat Microsoft and other “bigco”s in their own game, why is no or little attention paid to the most important part of the software, the UI? UI designing standards are standards just as the other standards they embrace, right? Or is it all just laziness; to make the product work is enough?

Well, for most of these programmers UI is hard, because they don't understand it. They see things textually, not visually. The free software culture comes very much from the Unix culture, and Unix is very much expert-oriented. Experts don't need “good UI”—they know exactly what to do already and they just want to be able to do it as fast as they can.

This is related to the other problem, which is that free software programmers code mostly for themselves. And since they completely and intuitively understand the software, it doesn't seem like the UI is bad to them—to them, it makes perfect sense. There are certainly attempts to fix this—GNOME has been great about running UI contests and doing usability tests and writing guidelines—but it's an uphill battle because of these cultural things.

What is the worst feature of the web?

Another tough one—I like so much about the web!

I guess I'd prefer if it protected privacy better. Between cookies and IP addresses, it's too easy to track what someone is reading or saying.

Also, I think it's rather disgraceful how browser makers have hobbled the web by making it essentially read-only. Tim Berners-Lee's original plan was to let the web be a collaborative space for people to work together to do great things, and web pages would be the trails left behind by their activities. Web browsers would have an edit button that you could click and modify or annotate any page; it would then upload your changes to the server if you had access, or add them to your personal annotation server if you didn't. Creating a web page would be as easy as using a word processor, and it would all be built in to every web browser.

While wikis have achieved some of this, there's still a lot to be done. Tim calls them the “poor man's” equivalent. For example, wikis aren't WYSIWYG and make it too difficult to use links and other advanced features. And you can't just see a typo and correct it in situ; you have to find the edit link, then find the typo again, then correct it, then find the save button. You can't use images or spreadsheets or any of the things that have been common in word processors forever.

And, as a result, the web is still limited in terms of who can publish their works and who can make a decent-looking and useful site. It doesn't need to be that way.

What would you like to say to all the people out there?

Think deeply about things. Don't just go along because that's the way things are or that's what your friends say. Consider the effects, consider the alternatives, but most importantly, just think.

Jefferson: Nature Wants Information to Be Free

January 12, 2004

Age 17

Since many have said that my view of copyright and patent law is childish and held merely because I grew up with Napster and do not write for a living, I thought I'd investigate some more respectable views on the subject. And who better than those of our thoughtful third president, Thomas Jefferson?

Judging from his
letter to Isaac McPherson
, Jefferson's thoughts are thus:

No one seriously disputes that property is a good idea, but it's bizarre to suggest that
should be property. Nature clearly wants ideas to be free! While you can keep an idea to yourself, as soon as you share it anyone can have it. And once they do, it's difficult for them to get rid of it, even if they wanted to. Like air, ideas are incapable of being locked up and hoarded.

And no matter how many people share it, the idea is not diminished. When I hear your idea, I gain knowledge without diminishing anything of yours. In the same way, if you use your candle to light mine, I get light without darkening you. Like fire, ideas can encompass the globe without lessening their density.

Thus, inventions cannot be property. Sure, we can give inventors an exclusive right to profit, perhaps to encourage them to invent new useful things, but this is our choice. If we decide not to, nobody can object.

Accordingly, England was the only country with such a law until the United States copied her. In other countries, monopolies may be granted occasionally by special act, but there is no general system. And this doesn't seem to have hurt them any—those countries seem just as inventive as ours.

(I am not directly quoting Jefferson here, I am translating what he said to modern English and omitting a bit, but I have not put any words in his mouth—Jefferson said all these things.)

The first thing to note is that Jefferson may have been the first to say, in essence, “Information wants to be free!” (Jefferson attributed this will to nature, not information, but the sentiment was the same.) Thus, all those people who dismiss this claim as absurd have some explaining to do.

The second is that while Jefferson repeatedly says “idea,” his logic applies equally to, say, a catchy tune or phrase and thus pretty much everything we commonly call “intellectual property law” (mostly copyright, trademarks, and patents).

The third is that, surprisingly (especially to me!), Jefferson is just as crazy as I am:

By their very nature, ideas
be property.

The government has no duty to make laws about them.

The laws we do make aren't all that successful.

If Jefferson wasn't happy with the comparatively modest laws of 1813, can anyone seriously suggest that he wouldn't be furious with the expansionist laws of today? Forget the Free Software Foundation and the Creative Commons; Jefferson would be out there advocating armed resistance and
impeaching the justices that voted against
! (OK, maybe not, but he'd certainly do more than write copyright licenses.)

It's true that in Jefferson's day there were no movies or networks, but there were certainly books and inventions. People made their livelihoods as writers or inventors. It's difficult to argue that Jefferson would change his mind now on economic grounds—if anything,
I suspect that upon seeing the ease of sharing ideas over the Internet, he would argue for less restrictive laws, not more.

Jefferson thought these laws were contrary to human nature when they only affected people with large workshops or commercial printing presses—imagine how angry he would be when he saw that these laws restricted practically everyone, even doing perfectly unobjectionable things (like
teaching your AIBO to dance or making a documentary

Now perhaps folks will find Jefferson as easy an argument for ad hominem attack as they found me. And just because Jefferson said it doesn't make it true—obviously his views were even the subject of some discussion at the time. But when the suggestions of our third president are called “a ball of self-justification,” “bullshit,” “the far left,” “selfishness,” “shallow,” those of a “moron,” “disgusting,” a “misunderstanding” of the law (!), and “immoral”, you sort of have to stop and wonder: what in the world is going on?

Guerilla Open Access Manifesto

July 2008, Eremo, Italy

Age 21

The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto was written at a 2008 meeting of librarians in Italy. Aaron published it on his blog but later removed it. The manifesto played an important role in Aaron's prosecution: the government intended to use it at trial to establish Aaron's motive for downloading JSTOR articles, arguing that he had intended to release the articles to the public. Although it was widely attributed to him, Aaron's role in the manifesto's creation—and whether it reflected his later views—was a contentious issue in the course of the legal proceedings. —Benjamin Mako Hill and Seth Schoen

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable.

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly legal—there's nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that's already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources—students, librarians, scientists—you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not—indeed, morally, you cannot—keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral—it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it—their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

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?

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