“It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future,” says a proverb often attributed to Yogi Berra. Imagine the world of freedom, or lack of it. Who could foresee the technologies that make our lives so rewarding and convenient? The same technologies have us all under the government’s giant microscope. Thankfully, the brave have turned the microscope around.
In the months since Edward Snowden revealed the nature and extent of the spying that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been perpetrating upon Americans and foreigners, some of the NSA's most troublesome behavior has not been a part of the public debate.
The problem for NSA apologist is that when guys like Snowden disclose that the government conducts comprehensive surveillance in ways that would have made 1984’s O’Brien drool, it puts the entire progressive agenda in jeopardy.
The east coast and parts of the southern U.S. were to varying degrees paralyzed by blizzards a few weeks ago. The snow as expected rendered the roads treacherous, and in anticipation of slick streets, shoppers flocked to the grocery stores in advance.The rush into grocery stores, and its aftermath, offers worthwhile lessons in economics.First up, […]
The financial world is plodding along like a drunken sailor avoiding debt collectors by keeping no cash in his wallet. It’s not the kind of calm that’s going to last or end well. But the storm will have to wait until after the Olympics.What a game! We’ve never watched ice hockey closely before. But watching […]
In times of war and national emergency, it’s sometimes necessary to sacrifice civil liberties to secure vital gains in public safety. In those cases, we may have to accept a loss of privacy or freedom rather than invite mass slaughter of Americans.The National Security Agency’s domestic phone records collection is not one of those.Never have […]
Last year was quite the year for Bitcoin. We’ve seen exponential growth in Bitcoin’s exchange rate and extensive coverage in the media. Another phenomenon we have witnessed is the proliferation of alternative cryptocurrencies, five of which we’ve provided below.What all of these cryptocurrencies have in common is that they rely on a decentralized network to […]
Image: ShutterstockBitInstant CEO Charlie Shrem, along with alleged co-conspirator Robert Faiella, was arrested by federal authorities last week for allegedly laundering more than $1 million worth of Bitcoins. This is a tiny amount compared to the largest drug-and-terrorism money laundering case ever. Yet when British bank HSBC was found guilty in 2012 of laundering billions, […]
The exercise had an awesome name, inspired by the movies: “Quantum Dawn 2.”On July 18, scads of U.S. banks, stock exchanges and government agencies took part in a digital fire drill — a practice run in the event all of Wall Street came under massive cyberattack.This isn’t the first time banks have come under an […]
The faces of the Detroit bankruptcy are the thousands of pensioners whose promised benefits are suddenly part of the restructure negotiation. When Motown filed for Chapter 9 last July, the city had $11.5 billion in unsecured liabilities. The vast majority of this was pension and health care benefits owed to retired city employees.The images of […]
The New York Times published an interminable article on health care recently. Plenty of facts — how scrupulous are these journalists! — but the article displayed absolutely no comprehension of the basics of cause and effect. I was left wondering about the whole point.The article details how the health care system rewards specialists to an […]
We’ve pointed out in the past that President Obama’s views on the surveillance state shifted completely from when he was Senator to when he was President. As Senator, he supported a bunch of reforms that are very much like the ones his panel have suggested — and which he’s about to ignore. The NY Times […]
Bitcoins are largely considered digital currency (or “crypto currency”) so you’d expect it to be treated like currency on a retail web site. But the Internal Revenue Service might not think so.
The great inventors/businessmen of the First Industrial Revolution, such as James Watt and Matthew Boulton of steam-engine fame, were not just smart but privileged. Most were either born into the ruling class or lucky enough to be apprenticed to one of the elite. For most of history since then, entrepreneurship has meant either setting up […]
Both research and production look poised for a revolution as 3-D printing applies its high-tech charms to the business of creating chemical compounds and turns the production of medicine into a DIY project.
“Tea. Earl Grey. Hot.”When Capt. Jean-Luc Picard wants a steaming beverage in his ready room aboard the starship Enterprise, he just utters those words. The ship’s “replicator” then assembles the necessary atoms — including those for the cup — and produces it, ready for the drinking. Picard thinks nothing of it — it’s hardly more […]
The market has selected different things as money throughout history. Some of these items have served as money in isolated places for specific periods of time — for instance, cigarettes in prisoner-of-war camps. Cigarettes continue to be a currency in prisons if allowed, but if not, according to Wikipedia, “postage stamps have become a more […]
[Ed. Note: This article originally published on Jan. 24, 2013]Stocks up. Gold down. Bitcoin… waaay up.The S&P 500 busted through the 1,500 mark this morning. Stocks haven’t been this expensive since 2007… right before they got a whole lot cheaper… for a whole lot longer. Gold, meanwhile, dipped a tad. This, despite central bankers of […]
Before the housing market collapsed and the government pumped billions into the economy to save it, there was a programmer named Satoshi Nakamoto. And without much fanfare, he created an idea that’s in the process of changing the world. His idea was Bitcoin.Some background information is in order before I go any further.Think back to […]
Americans are still trying to get a handle on the full extent of the government’s domestic spying activities, including the recent revelation that the National Security Agency (NSA) has been collecting and storing the email address books of ordinary Americans using online messaging services. Many users of such services are looking to tech executives for […]
The online Internet exchanges created by the Affordable Care Act are up and running.OK, they’re up. Uhh, OK, some of them are sort of up.It has been almost a week since last Tuesday’s initial launch, and there have been more than a few problems.Website crashes, excessive response times and other problems have plagued the exchanges. […]
A growing consensus of IT experts, outside and inside the government, have figured out a principal reason why the website for Obamacare’s federally sponsored insurance exchange is crashing. Healthcare.gov forces you to create an account and enter detailed personal information before you can start shopping.This, in turn, creates a massive traffic bottleneck, as the government […]
As much as I love technology, part of me hates being so dependent on a live wall plug wherever I go. You find yourself trapped in some setting without accessible wall plugs and your phone is dying. You charge from you laptop, but that is dying too. You take recourse to your tablet, but that […]
U.S. and British intelligence agencies have successfully cracked much of the online encryption relied upon by hundreds of millions of people to protect the privacy of their personal data, online transactions and emails, according to top-secret documents revealed by former contractor Edward Snowden.The files show that the National Security Agency and its UK counterpart GCHQ […]
Today, like most days, I fired up my computer.I read freely available information on the latest developments in technology that would, in the not too distant past, have required a drive to a library to flip through journals too numerous for me to afford. I read the latest national and global news without having to […]
On a Sunday afternoon swim, a 6-year-old boy was bugging me in a sweet sort of way. He rode up and down the handrail on the stairs in the shallow end of the pool where I was trying to sit in peace. He was laughing and talking, but I couldn’t understand a word through the […]
I’ve just completed a heavy schedule of talks at the Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver. All my talks centered on information economics, Web startups, and the productivity of the Internet and its meaning. As usual, I learned as much from the attendees as (I hope) they learned from my talks. The research I did […]
My apologies for the sad tone of this piece, but a hero has fallen and we need to pay him tribute — and make sure his death is not in vain.
Every turning point in the history of civilization has its champions and its opponents. The opponents of the digital age are those who use the power of the state to keep the population in a state of ignorance, even though the technology is at hand to universalize knowledge through digital networks. The main weapon they use is known as “intellectual property,” even though the monopoly censorship they advocate has nothing to do with actual property.
The champions of the digital age are doing the opposite, breaking down the limits and working to spread enlightenment through peaceful means. They understand the astonishing power of computer networks to produce, reproduce, scale, and distribute unto infinity everything that can be rendered into digital form. Their work has set off the greatest migration in human history from the limits of the physical world to the unlimited possibilities embedded in global computer networks.
One such champion — now a martyr for the cause of freedom — was Aaron Swartz (1986-2013). He was the one of the brightest stars of his generation. That star took his own life in apparent frustration, depression, and fear over the ghastly hounding he was receiving from the U.S. Department of Justice. You might say that this David should have battled this Goliath to the death. But Aaron was only 26, a brilliant, kind, and sensitive young man whose passion was not war, but enlightenment. It was too much for him.
Born in Chicago, he showed astonishing promise at an early age. He came of age as the Internet opened to the world. He was winning prizes and meeting the greats at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology at the age of 13. At 14, he co-authored “Really Simple Syndication,” an innovative means of assembling and distributing Web content that makes Web browsing easy. It powers the “app economy,” makes reader programs work, and enables the content to be mixed and remixed all over the digital universe.
Aaron founded in Infogami, which later turned into Reddit, one of the Web’s most popular sites for information sharing and content generation. As with most of his projects, Reddit pushes aside the gatekeepers and puts the tools of creation in the hands of users. He then founded openlibrary.org on the same principle: By devolving power to you and me and away from the big shots, we can create tools that serve humanity in unprecedented ways.
To Aaron, the digital economy was not really about running the world through code and technology. It was about empowering people themselves with the ability to contribute to the building of ever greater technologies in the service of humanity. As much as he loved code, his true affections were for the human mind and the way technology enables it to take flight as never before. He could never understand why government was in resistance. He was like a person in the Renaissance raised with the printing press, astonished at people who wanted to smash it.
He was so convinced that digits were powered by human minds that he even put it to the test in seeking the real power behind Wikipedia. He refuted the supposition of even co-founder Jimmy Wales that it was a relatively small number of editors who were the main content providers. He demonstrated that the main providers were millions of users themselves, thereby upending even what the owners and experts had supposed. (He was only 19 years old when he showed this.)
Aaron was facing a trial this coming April, with him on one side and the full power of the world’s most heavily armed government on the other. The prosecution wanted him fined more than a million dollars and jailed for possibly 30-plus years. And what had he done? He hid a laptop in a closet at MIT and downloaded academic papers that are already available to millions around the world, with the apparent attempt to make them available even more broadly. That’s all he did. For this, he was charged with wire fraud and computer fraud.
The database he had tapped into is known as JSTOR. It is a global archive of academic papers published over the last 100 years in all fields and disciplines. It allows students to search, assemble, cite, and study in ways that would have been unimaginable a generation ago. Bibliographies that once took months to assemble now take seconds. Research once available to a tiny number is now available to students and faculty the world over.
JSTOR is a mighty service, even a marvel, and there are good reasons to celebrate the company and its achievements. At the same time, there is something squirrely about the service. It is available only at superhigh subscription prices and allocated based on geographic IP address. If you are on campus, you can get the goods. If you are not and have no logins, you are out of luck. Outside the IP range, it’s darkness.
Remember, we are talking about scientific research that is mostly tax-funded and from which the authors themselves receive no royalty or payment of any kind. Moreover, the subscription system is made profitable not because of the forces of free enterprise, but because the payments are made largely by public universities also living off taxpayers. The whole thing smacks of a kind of information feudalism. The scientists are the serfs. Those without access are cast into the outer darkness.
To its credit, JSTOR never lifted a finger against Aaron. They knew of his downloads, but never pressed charges. In fact, JSTOR has responded to his activism by gradually moving toward a more open policy. MIT can’t say the same, but the real villain here was the federal government. “Stealing is stealing,” barked U.S. District Attorney Carmen Ortiz, “whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data, or dollars.”
Except for one thing: That is completely false. Crowbars hurt people. Stealing dollars takes from one person to give to another. But Aaron didn’t take anything away from anyone. Ortiz might not understand this, but when you download something, it doesn’t actually remove it from the original server. It makes an exact copy. It can do this with no limit. That’s the whole power of digital media.
The driving motivation in Aaron’s mind was information liberation. We have the capacity — right now in our times — to create global libraries of all known things. What’s stopping it is this antique institution known as copyright, an outright government privilege for monopolistic producers who use the violence of the state to stop peaceful sharing of knowledge. Aaron was offended by such limits in times when they are wholly unnecessary and cause unneeded human suffering.
Aaron didn’t choose the path of piracy and underground hacking to disable the feudalism. He wasn’t even particularly exercised about copyright itself. What he favored was freedom, free speech in particular. He sought constructive alternatives, which is why he was a great champion of Creative Commons, a system that uses existing copyright law, but allows writers and researchers to share their discoveries and creations with humanity, instead of having them smothered.
All that said, it wasn’t his attempt to liberate JSTOR that caused the government to go after him. No, it was something far more specular. Aaron also founded Common Dreams as a vehicle for digital activism. Much to the astonishment of nearly everyone, he marshaled the power of global networks last year to beat back one of the most deadly pieces of legislation to ever be proposed by Congress: the Stop Online Piracy Act, or SOPA.
SOPA was at war with the whole idea of information sharing, which is to say the whole basis of modern economic life and cultural progress. It would have given the power to any private party to aggress against any distributor of information and to do so without warnings, hearings, or burdens of proof. Taken to its extreme, the legislation would have rolled back history to a pre-1995 state of being.
Because no one told him that he could not, Aaron used every innovation to stop it. Within a matter of weeks, Congress backed off in absolute fear of the global outrage that had been engendered by the educational materials that Aaron had distributed. What no one expected had happened. Even politicians in the pay of media moguls backed down.
It was beautiful. In doing this, Aaron not only stopped the leviathan state; he pointed to the possibility of something completely marvelous, a reinvention of the way that citizens take part in the political process. In other words, he was showing how computer networks themselves could be used to upend the power of the state as we know it. He was innovating a new form of restraining power and giving it back to people, doing for the business of civic affairs what he had already done with technology.
The establishment was insanely bitter about the defeat. Within days, the government took action against the popular file-sharing site Megaupload in a military-style hit against its founder’s private estate, using SOPA-like powers that Congress had just denied the beast. It was as if the establishment was saying, “We don’t care about Aaron and what he did. We want this power. We are going to use the power. The people have nothing to do with it.”
Aaron’s work pointed to a brighter future. The government never forgave him for this. This is why they hounded him. This is why they wanted to bankrupt him. This is why they wanted him behind bars. They wanted him brought low. They wanted him in an orange jumpsuit, eating old bread and groveling before the judges and wardens. And they would accept no compromise, despite his lawyers attempts to negotiate: Aaron must be captured and jailed.
He would not relent. He would not give up his dreams and let them be shattered by their lies, pomps, black robes, and prisons. Our hearts break — deeply and profoundly — at Aaron’s decision to take his life. Maybe he saw it as a last cry for freedom. His having done so makes it impossible for them to make him a slave.
The state has taken from us an epic genius and humanitarian. What can come of this? Sometimes, the suffering and death of one great individual can shock society into dramatic change in a legal practice. Such people become martyrs, and their memories touch the conscience of everyone. We are overwhelmed by the sense of loss, and we vow to never see its like again.
“The tyrant dies and his rule is over, the martyr dies and his rule begins.” — Soren Kierkegaard