Jan 152013
NOAH BERGER/REUTERS -  Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008

NOAH BERGER/REUTERS – Aaron Swartz poses in a Borderland Books in San Francisco on February 4, 2008

Even if you didn’t who Aaron Swartz was before his suicide the other day, you probably do now. A tech prodigy (co-developer of RSS code and the website Reddit) and thoughtful young activist who fought to fulfill the real potential of our communications revolution – who Lawrence Lessig called an “incredible soul” – Swartz was facing up to 35 years in jail and millions in fines for taking documents via MIT’s network from the non-profit JSTOR repository. JSTOR was willing to settle; it seems that MIT was not. Clearly the Department of Justice was determined to prosecute this case to the bitter end.

I didn’t know Aaron but have followed his work for years. Some of the tributes by those who knew him can be found at the Guardian site.

Whether or not Aaron’s suicide is directly attributable to the legal case against him is hard to say – I tend to think that it is is but we never truly know the source of the inner demons in someone else’s mind. The family feels strongly that the court case is to blame.

What is truly frightening in all of this is the disproportionality of our intellectual property and copyright law. Mind you, Aaron was facing far more time in jail than if he had gone out and shot someone, robbed a bank, trafficked slaves, or threatened the President. Think Progress has a summary of the time you face for these crimes – if we learn anything from Aaron’s tragic death, it should be that the fear (largely from the corporate world) of the incredible ability to share ideas and resources in the digital age has spurred to a profound overreaction to protect intellectual property. Whatever Aaron did – even if one does draw the conclusion that it was outright theft – it does not measure up to the following.

Here is some of the list from Think Progress:

To put these charges in perspective, here are ten examples of federal crimes that carry lesser prison sentences than Swartz’ alleged crime of downloading academic articles in an effort to make knowledge widely available to the public:

  • Manslaughter: Federal law provides that someone who kills another human being “[u]pon a sudden quarrel or heat of passion” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison if subject to federal jurisdiction. The lesser crime of involuntary manslaughter carries a maximum sentence of only six years.
  • Bank Robbery: A person who “by force and violence, or by intimidation” robs a bank faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years. If the criminal “assaults any person, or puts in jeopardy the life of any person by the use of a dangerous weapon or device,” this sentence is upped to a maximum of 25 years.
  • Selling Child Pornography: The maximum prison sentence for a first-time offender who “knowingly sells or possesses with intent to sell” child pornography in interstate commerce is 20 years. Significantly, the only way to produce child porn is to sexually molest a child, which means that such a criminal is literally profiting off of child rape or sexual abuse.
  • Knowingly Spreading AIDS: A person who “after testing positive for the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and receiving actual notice of that fact, knowingly donates or sells, or knowingly attempts to donate or sell, blood, semen, tissues, organs, or other bodily fluids for use by another, except as determined necessary for medical research or testing” faces a maximum of 10 years in prison.
  • Selling Slaves: Under federal law, a person who willfully sells another person “into any condition of involuntary servitude” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years, although the penalty can be much higher if the slaver’s actions involve kidnapping, sexual abuse or an attempt to kill.
  • Genocidal Eugenics: A person who “imposes measures intended to prevent births” within a particular racial, ethnic or religious group or who “subjects the group to conditions of life that are intended to cause the physical destruction of the group in whole or in part” faces a maximum prison term of 20 years, provided their actions did not result in a death.
  • Helping al-Qaeda Develop A Nuclear Weapon: A person who “willfully participates in or knowingly provides material support or resources . . . to a nuclear weapons program or other weapons of mass destruction program of a foreign terrorist power, or attempts or conspires to do so, shall be imprisoned for not more than 20 years.”
  • Violence At International Airports: Someone who uses a weapon to “perform[] an act of violence against a person at an airport serving international civil aviation that causes or is likely to cause serious bodily injury” faces a maximum prison sentence of 20 years if their actions do not result in a death. . . .

May his passing help us rethink our priorities and ensure that the Internet is a place of freedom.

Jan 182012


A number of the most popular Websites went dark for the day to protest the SOPA and PIPA legislation working its way through Congress. While SOPA has been temporarily stopped, the Senate version of the bill is still scheduled for a vote. It appears that the protest has been somewhat effective as a number of Senators have withdrawn their support over the course of the day.

In some ways, this may mark a new era for the Web in terms of social activism for the future of the online environment. And it may signify a new era in that topics such as DNS and domain blocking will become part of our cultural vocabulary, terms that will now be understood (to some degree or another) by people outside the technology field. Surely everyone does not need to fully understand these concepts any more than people who drive will ever fully understand the composition and lifespan of concrete. But those who drive do understand potholes and washouts and these bills do exactly that with the Internet. They would turn it from its current role as a producer/consumer environment into a consumption only arena (and one that would be controlled by large corporations).

In short, they would kill the Web as a creative space.

If you need more information, look at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) summary FAQ on reddit.com or a more detailed analysis here. Even if you are not from the United States (almost 50% of the readers of this blog are overseas), this affects you. Please educate yourself. Piracy is not defensible, but the solution is not to cut the telephone lines for everyone just because a few lines were used to plot illegal activity. This is a beginning – please do your part.


Dec 012011

Meant to post this the other day when it came out. The most recent figures by comScore on users and online video revealed that 184 million people in the U.S. watched an average of 21.1 hours of video during the month of October. A record total of 42.6 billion videos were viewed over the course of the month.

But while the numbers sound (and are) impressive, the only thing holding them down is the lack of good, inexpensive bandwidth. It would be much higher if cell-phone carriers were not capping data plans and wireless networks did not (as they often do) throttle back video downloads. Someday, these numbers – like 386x processors and 30MB ram – will seem laughable.

Obviously, Google is far ahead of the rest of the providers, mostly due to YouTube.

comScore measures each segment of long-form video as a distinct video stream and does not distinguish between progressive downloads and live streams.

Aug 232011
Libya's New Flag

Libya's New Flag

In the midst of Qaddafi’s last days, Libya is coming back online as rebels and activists struggle to restore network connectivity to a war-torn country. There’s a good description on the blog at Renesys (which monitors Internet traffic and connections):

And early Sunday morning, the Twitterstream suddenly began reporting something that seemed, on the face of it, totally improbable: the Internet had been turned back on. 

Why would the government turn the Internet back on in the middle of an armed uprising? To get people to stay at home and catch up on five months of email? It seemed preposterous. But clearly, as more and more people realized, it had happened. Bandwidth was scarce, but DSL service was back. People started Skypeing with friends and relatives, some reporting hearing live gunfire in the background as their VoIP calls began to connect.

And then, as suddenly as it had come, Tripoli’s Internet access stopped working again. For a total of perhaps an hour and a half of uptime, spread out in bursts between the hours of 2:00am and 4:30am, local time, the Internet had been functional again. Who was responsible? Would it come back?

BBCNews: Aug 22 Traffic Spike

BBCNews: Aug 22 Traffic Spike

As it goes in the streets, with conflicting reports and the chaotic ebb and flow of urban warfare, so it goes with the Internet that has been on again, off again. According to the analysis at Renesys, the country’s Internet access is routed via 16 blocks of IP addresses through Libyan Telecom and Technology (LTT). Over the the past six months of conflict, access was cut off not at the border but at the last mile – DSL or other connections to LTT were shut down. As rebels poured into Tripoli, there was an effort to restore connections only to have LTT or someone shut everything down at the border. Possibly there is a struggle within the telecom, possibly intentional sabotage, or perhaps the fighting on the streets is blocking access.

There’s not enough information at the moment but one suspects connectivity will be restored shortly depending on how events play out in the capital.  Network access that we all so take for granted can be – and surely is on some of the streets in Tripoli – a matter of life or death.


Note to Readers: My own Internet access has been a little sketchy for the past few days (though nothing like the above). Back on track now, but this coming weekend and Labor Day will probably be slow in terms of posts, depending on the news flow and my travels.

Jul 152011

Door to the Great Wall

News from China is that 1.3 million Websites were shut down in 2010, 41% of the total. According to a BBC report, which is sourcing its information from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, this is largely from a crackdown on pornography sites, though as we know, that’s only a small part of Chinese censors keep their eyes on. Indeed, in 2010 Google shut down its search service on the mainland and moved to Hong Kong after four years of controversial self-censorship, becoming the target of cyber-attacks, and finally opening its doors to the free flow of information for a few brief months.

On the other hand, the rapid growth in Internet use in China continues as the number of users expanded from 384 million in 2009 to 457 million in 2010. With a 34% penetration rate in the world’s most populous country, Chinese is now the second most common language on the Web with some 440 million users. So Websites are shut down – at the rate of 3,500 a day – while the number of users increases at a rate of 200,000 a day (yes, per day). You can only keep a lid on this for so long. That’s not to say everything works out fine in the end; the Chinese government limits freedom on many fronts (witness the Cisco project to blanket the city of Chongqing with high-end surveillance cameras, one of the largest projects of its kind in the world) but there is a underlying dynamic here working against control.

As you know, there are many battlegrounds around the globe over the Web and the degree to which it is open/closed. Some are more dramatic (Middle Eastern countries trying a temporary kill switch to undermine protest movements), others so thoroughly under the boot of tyranny (North Korea) that they can only be seen as future battlegrounds, but China stands out as the preeminent battleground of this decade. Yes, the censorship is tight, but users still work around it utilizing proxies, VPN and – what was my favorite – the Haystack software project (undertaken initially to assist the Iranian opposition party after the 2009 “elections” ) that buried prohibited text within streams of non-offensive data. Unfortunately the latter was shut down after not living up to its promises. If you know of other solutions in use, let me know.