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Privileged Information: The Fight for an Open Internet. 

Wednesday, Apr 3 2013

On the top floor of the Internet Archive headquarters at Geary and Funston in the Richmond District, there is an enormous temple of sorts, a room flooded by the amber light streaming through thick golden windows, in which several rows of empty pews face an empty stage. Actually, the pews aren't empty — they're occupied by 4-foot-tall papier-mâché statues, standing at attention like acolytes at a sermon. Each statue is modeled after an employee who has worked there for at least three years. They are founder Brewster Kahle's way to "commemorate the people that have helped build the Archive."

The stage isn't empty, either, housing one bank of the enormous servers that keep the Internet Archive's virtual library available to millions of users. It's a treasure trove of books, films, music, and software made free, often with the consent of its creators. It's also the home of the Wayback Machine, an online resource that archives "dead links" from throughout the Internet's history. To date, more than 281 billion web pages are archived in the Machine, preserved here long after the original pages' hosts have turned off their servers and moved on. That time the Chronicle interviewed you about a fire in the Outer Sunset in 1999? Go take a look — it's likely in there. When people talk about things lasting forever on the Internet, they're talking about this place. The Archive's goal, as Kahle puts it, is to be a "modern Library of Alexandria. When people download too much of our stuff, that's a good thing. It just means we need bigger servers."

Kahle reveres information. (That the Archive is housed in the former Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist is perhaps appropriate.) That respect is what led him to create the Archive, and what motivates hundreds of women and men in the Bay Area to organize on behalf of open-source culture — to keep the Internet free. There's the Internet Archive, dedicated to preserving virtual information. There's the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a coalition of lawyers and activists focusing on legal matters pertaining to the Internet and its free and secure access. Lastly, the organization called Noisebridge recognizes the importance of an ecosystem for technical innovation, for tinkering, regardless of market. In the Bay Area, where so much of tech culture is focused on profit-driven innovation and parceling off virtual space, each of these organizations represents a kind of utopian ideal — the antithesis of the free-market side of the culture that focuses on developing apps to generate ad revenue. As former Facebook research scientist Jeff Hammerbacher remarked to Bloomberg Businessweek in 2011, "The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads." His conclusion: "That sucks."

Not everyone, however, feels obligated to stick to this path. Although "following the money" may lead one to a lucrative start-up, Aaron Swartz, a writer, programmer, and hacker, bucked that course and created his own. Originally based in the East Coast, he often found himself in the Bay Area, where collaborators like Kahle and Open Source America's Carl Malamud resided. Swartz was a student at Stanford before dropping out in 2005 to chase projects that ignited his enthusiasm. He helped Kahle with archiving data on the Open Library project. He organized with EFF against the Stop Online Piracy Act. Through it all he banged away on his computer, coding, writing, and reading, at lofts and hacker spaces, including Noisebridge. But this involvement attracted the attention of the government, and Swartz was drawn into a controversial legal case. On Jan. 11, at the age of 26, he ended his life. His suicide rattled the worldwide hacking and tech community.

His legacy, however, lives on in the Bay Area through these organizations, stemming the tide of an increasingly market-dominated tech culture, and reminding its constituents that following the money is always a choice.

This shift in priorities in the tech community follows the evolution of the meaning of the word "hacker." Although it's a loose term, its sinister connotations have become its dominant ones. The popular contemporary understanding of a hacker is as a kind of virtual spy; someone who breaks into secure virtual infrastructures – particularly ones belonging to governments — to exploit that data or just to cause trouble. This is only part of the story. "A hacker is just someone who comes up with a creative solution to a problem," says Damon McCormick, a software engineer at Square and erstwhile hacker. Being a hacker is seen as a necessary counterpoint to an unregulated medium where, for example, a website can charge to access content intended to be free (or created for free, for that matter), or where services like Facebook or Google can monitor your browser activity.

"In my MIT days, it was used as a positive term," says Kahle. This was in the early 1980s. "It's used now for a set of behaviors that are not befitting of the word 'hacker.'"

That was clearly the perception of "hacking" in the federal case spearheaded against Swartz by Massachusetts District Attorney Steve Heymann and Attorney General Carmen Ortiz. In January of 2011, Swartz was charged with unlawfully obtaining millions of academic articles from the online resource JSTOR (short for Journal Storage — an online repository for academic journals and articles). He wasn't illegally accessing JSTOR, nor was he stealing articles from behind a paywall. He was, however, downloading articles at an accelerated pace, bucking protocols in JSTOR's software that inhibited access. Swartz created an automated request to JSTOR's servers that allowed him to continually download new articles. It was a "good" hack, a creative solution to the problem of manually (i.e. slowly) downloading the resources he sought to access.

That the bulk download was exceeding what could be acknowledged as personal use was a fair, if misguided, sticking point for the prosecution; the files weren't for personal use, but they contained academic studies, many of which were in the public domain, free to access. Swartz believed they needed to be easier to access, not behind JSTOR's archaic paywall. (In September 2011, JSTOR made its public domain content, roughly half a million articles, free to the public, partially in response to the situation with Swartz.) For the prosecution to pursue such an extreme punishment as three-plus decades in prison, however, was excessive, a fact that both attorneys readily concede. Both Heymann and Ortiz insisted they had no intention of following through with it. But by the account of his partner, Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, and those close to him, Swartz had no idea it was a bluff. And it was quickly proving to be a case he didn't have the resources to fight.

About The Author

Alee Karim


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