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Privileged Information: The Fight for an Open Internet. 

Wednesday, Apr 3 2013

Page 2 of 4

Swartz's death turned him into a martyr for organizations like the Internet Archive. As Stinebrickner-Kauffman said at Swartz's San Francisco memorial in January, "Aaron's death should radicalize us." When Kahle mentions that his papier-mâché statues are modeled after the Terracotta soldiers of Xian, suddenly their significance takes on new meaning: They are virtual soldiers fighting a virtual war. "Archivists are armed with ideas of open access," says Kahle. "We can bring down any army!"

Fifty-two-year-old Kahle looks every bit the mad scientist, with his shock of white hair and thick-rimmed glasses. He presides over the Friday free lunch at the Internet Archive, praising his team of nearly 50 engineers and archivists for the hard work they put into "web crawling."

"Web crawling," says Special Projects Assistant Cameron Ottens, "is a process that happens when the crawler tool goes out to the world wide web and discovers any web pages that have been designated to be captured." These are usually publicly available web pages that are going offline, which the Archive wishes to preserve as "cultural artifacts" to retain a record of an era where information has become disposable. The tool archives these pages and then returns them to the Internet Archive servers for storage, freezing a web page in amber for all time, regardless of any subsequent edits or deletions. It's a service they've been hired to provide for more than 250 organizations, including the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian — part of how they keep the lights on at the Archive

The Archive is Kahle's life dream from the time he was a computer science student at MIT. Founded in 1996, Kahle made the collected information available in 2001 with the advent of the Wayback Machine. To date, the Archive boasts more than 10 petabytes of recorded data — roughly equivalent to 10 billion books.

This diligent archival aesthetic intersected neatly with Swartz's own voracious appetite for knowledge. In 2006, he launched the Open Library project at the Archive, which Kahle calls "a Wikipedia of books; one web page for every book ever published. We thought it was a good thing to do." He is somber, yet reverent, when he discusses Swartz, the wounds clearly still fresh. "Aaron was definitely on the side of the angels," he says.

Indeed, there always seems to be some sort of moral component to any work Kahle gets excited about. He frequently refers to massively ambitious projects as "good" or "right" things to do. Like Swartz, Kahle had many opportunities to take the money and run. Swartz helped develop Reddit, which was bought out by Conde Nast in 2006, while Kahle's web information company, Alexa Internet, was purchased by Amazon in 1999. Both opted to dedicate themselves to making knowledge freely available, lending credibility to a movement whose central thesis is that the smartest people in tech aren't necessarily trying to make an app or sell an idea — they seek knowledge for its own sake.

If the Internet Archive is the engine of the open-source movement, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is the oil keeping things running. A primarily donor-funded nonprofit, the organization is composed of career activists and lawyers devoted to untangling the legal wires that stand in the way of a free Internet, bringing archaic legislation up to date and advocating on behalf of content providers impeded by the muck of copyright restrictions. "EFF is fabulous," says Kahle. "In terms of helping those who can't afford legal teams and protecting the Bill of Rights in the digital era... they are a fighter for the open world."

But as valiant as their intentions may be, the majority of EFF's work focuses on an unsexy subject: copyright law.

Copyright, of course, exists to protect the rights of a creator's intellectual property. But it's just as often used to restrict unsanctioned access to that same intellectual property, and can be extended indefinitely or interpreted broadly by publishers, film studios, universities, and other large media entities. It was these media entities who petitioned Congress to impose legislation in the name of the former while seeking the privileges of the latter. Eventually, this bill evolved into the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA, which came before Congress in the fall of 2011. Large media entities like Disney and Time Warner wanted to collaborate with law enforcement to block torrent sites and other locations that purportedly offered free access to content they owned. But corporations would also potentially have the right to use the police or the FBI to shut down any site they perceived as a threat. At best, it was an overreaching response to piracy. At worst, corporations like Disney were poised to become the landlords of the Internet.

"We've got the most incredible distribution system ever created [in the Internet]," says EFF member Parker Higgins, summing up hacker idealism and resistance, "and there are people who want to say, 'Instead of using this as an amazing library, let's use it as a surveillance machine, to keep track of what everyone is doing.'"

SOPA was essentially a copyright issue. At the time, it seemed unlikely that anyone was going to care about it; its lack of sexiness as an issue was advantageous to the massive entities that sought to pass it. But once the rhetoric of censorship was introduced, it was a cause that was easy to get passionate about. Swartz helped influence that rhetoric and EFF helped disseminate it. When EFF's Peter Eckersley approached Swartz to begin fighting an early version of SOPA in 2010, Swartz accepted, going so far as to found the activist organization Demand Progress, which, according to Eckersley on EFF's website, "mobilized over a million online activists and proved to be an invaluable ally in winning that campaign."

About The Author

Alee Karim


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