Interview on London Real
Last year during my December visit on London I gave a 1 hour interview to London Real. This is great new free-form 1+ hr completly unscripted interview program that is available on Youtube and as a podcast. Tired of the superficial 3-minute interviews that stop just when things get interesting? London Real is your channel. If you want to keep up to date on the London startup/tech scene then checkout Silicon Real.
I was honored to be in a lineup that includes several of my current heroes including Max Keiser, Jared Diamond, Annie Machon and Rick Falkvinge.
Brian Rose and me spoke about NSA-spying, the nature of privacy, copyright, bitcoin and much more. The interview begins at 7:48. For more check out the London Real site. Compact mp3 for download here.
In memoriam: Aaron Schwarz 1986 – 2013
Not sure what to say about the sudden death of Aaron Schwarz, idealist, freedom-fighter-extraordinaire and friend of open access to information for all of humanity. Aaron spend his life fighting for humanity’s highest ideals, contributing to technologies most of us use every day (even if we don’t know it). It just feels like something is very, very wrong is the so-called ‘free world’ is killing its best and brightest for living up to its highest ideals. We’ve got big problems and cannot afford to lose people like Aaron.
Cory Doctorow has written a eulogy here, Prof Lawrence Lessig had an overview of the case the US Department of Justice (ha!) saw fit to launch against Aaron. Glen Greenwald wrote about his heroic work in helping to defeat SOPA over the last years. A digital memorial to Aaron will be here for as long as there is an Internet. The files that started the case can be found here. Spread them around as wisely as possible.
But mostly just watch Aaron’s speeches and interviews, as many times as needed before you understand his ideas and ideals fully.
Update 28-06-2014: A documentary on the case Aaron Swartz – The Internet’s Own Boy is now available online. Also on Archive.org.
The Declaration of Independence of Internet
(Orginal from 1776 here. Orginal from 1581 that is the inspiration for the original from 1776 here)
hen in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for people to dissolve the commercial, legal and moral bands which have connected them with an industry and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which their most fundamental principles entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all lives are enriched by the sharing of culture, that citizens are endowed by their democracies with certain unalienable rights, that among these are knowledge, true ownership of their property and the sharing of culture. That to secure these rights, laws are instituted among the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any of these laws become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish them, and to institute new laws, laying their foundations on such principles and organizing their powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that laws long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such laws, and to provide new guards for their future cultural wealth. Such has been the patient sufferance of the people of the Internet; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of cultural distribution. The history of the present copyright industry is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over the culture of the people of Earth. These are just some of the effects of the lobbying of the copyright-industry:
The destruction of our cultural heritage by forced obliteration and decay, by forbidding or hindering the reduplication and sometimes even the restoration of cultural artifacts. – The destruction of our future, by frustrating education and the sharing of knowledge, thereby condemning many to lower life standards than they could otherwise achieve, especially in developing countries. – The destruction of the creative process, by legally forcing artists and authors to steer clear of any sources of inspiration, and punishing them for accidental similarities and citations. – The destruction of free access to key, contentious pieces of political information by preventing maximum distribution of this information. – The destruction of human and natural resources, by forcing the re-creation of works that would be perfectly usable with some minor rework, but not allowing such re-use. – The destruction of social and economic order, by allowing the control of much of our heritage to end up in just a few hands. Leading to a society where a few have a lot, and a lot have little. – The destruction of innocent lives by transporting citizens of other nations beyond Seas to be tried for offences that are not even offences in their home nations …
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. Corporations, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define tyrants, are unfit to be conduit of culture for a free people. Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our corporate cultural overlords. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their lobbying to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the limits of our patience and the growing existence of alternatives to their wares. The most recent efforts of the copyright industry to circumvent our most fundamental democratic institutions leaves us no choice but to defend our culture by taking it out of the hands of these corporations.
We, therefore, the Pirates of the World, do, in the name, and by authority of the good people of the Internet, solemnly publish and declare, that we are free and united, and no longer recognize the legal or moral validity of the copyright claims of aforementioned corporations, that we are absolved from all legal and moral allegiance to these corporations, and that all connections between the people of the Internet and the copyright industry is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and Independent people, we have full power to download, distribute, remix, broadcast, perform and to do all other acts and things which Independent people may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on strong cryptological protection, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred bandwidth
printable version for those ink-based-real-life signing parties here
ACTA; war over. We win. Again
<originally a Dutch Webwereld.nl column>
According to Dutch Economics Minister Maxime Verhagen, ‘ordinary’ people have nothing to fear from ACTA. This treaty is merely designed to shut down child pornography sites. Go to the link and have another listen (in Dutch), because he really does say this!
That’s good because, although I quite like a good download, I tend to limit myself to movies and books that fall a little more within the acceptable media spectrum. However, this statement gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of our Minister-of-All. Apparently in the case of distribution of photographic evidence of actual child abuse he is first and foremost concerned with possible copyright infringement. Is this a professional contortion or is he simply exceptionally goal orientated? This is what journalists should be pouncing on. For the lulz.
But beauty emerges even from the surrealist farce that is modern western copyright policy. No, I’m not talking about more music, movies or books, for there is no evidence that more culture is created by fanatically prosecuting 14-year olds for downloading. However, the recent weeks have clearly shown the usefulness of a common enemy. Thanks to ACTA, more Europeans than ever are involved in a critical discussion of modern copyright law and the balance with civil liberties. That is a wonderful development. Furthermore, it now seems that ACTA is dying following the remarks of European Commissioner Viviane Reding (she senses the political climate). One European country after another is delaying signing the treaty. In the three years since the “crisis” citizens have developed a fairly sharp bullshit filter to detect the kind of neo-liberal nonsense that ACTA is full of, and they will take no more. Like Software Patents it always takes awhile for the protests to get going but once they go representatives tend to choose the side of the people who can get them in a seat by voting in a few years.
Closer to home, the Brein lawsuit against internet providers Ziggo and XS4all to block The Piratebay generated a lot of media attention, it was a marketing campaign money can’t buy. Millions of Dutch people who had never heard of the site saw it discussed for several nights on the evening news. The forbidden always tastes sweet and an increase of users will be the logical consequence. Really, has anyone realistically suffered from the blockade that BREIN fought so hard for? Anyone? Bueler? The hugely successful operation against MegaUpload made worldwide headlines and caused a dip in filesharing….. which lasted all of 48 hours. And it produced advertising for such services and concepts on a scale that even Kim Dotcom could not have financed. So thanks for that.
The only result of all that copyright industry lobbying and lawsuits over the last 15 years has been an exceptionally rapid technological innovation towards an extremely decentralized media distribution. After the most recent attack, The PirateBay compressed its entire database to 90MB. If your phone has Bluetooth 2.0, you can share that with your neighbor during a subway ride. Because sharing is caring, right? As the great politicl philosopher Princess Leia once remarked to the Empire "the more you tighten your grip, the more systems will slip through your fingers".
There is still some muttering about ‘illegal downloading’ in the media and among astro-turfers. Except that it is not actually illegal in the Netherlands, not that facts have ever been a strong point of the copyright lobbyists. So let’s permanently eliminate any misunderstanding. There are two ways to look at copyright issues: legal and moral.
The Dutch law is simple. Legally you can make a copy for personal use, regardless of both the nature of the source and of the author’s wishes or intentions. "Illegal downloading” does not exist because … (wait for it) … it is legal. It is not "theft" because we would not need copyright is it was theft. We could just apply normal property rights. The very existence of the concept copyright indicates these are not the same. Anyone who still continues to peddle such nonsense is at best uninformed or a lawyer at DLA Piper. But I repeat myself.
A moral perspective on copyright is much more complex because we also have to consider the morality of the law itself (the fact that something is the law does not make it morally right – slavery and torture were once also permitted by law). In addition, it is important to consider how these laws are set up. What ACTA has very sharply highlighted is that modern copyright law is a snake pit of international lobbies, businesses and lying politicians, and deceived MPs and citizens who are deliberately kept in the dark.
Discussing copyright from a moral perspective without including this aspect seems absurd to me. What ACTA has demonstrated is that we shall no longer be bound by a moral law that has been democratically established or debated by our representatives. We have to determine what is moral and what is not in this area because the law clearly provides no such support.
And since the copyright industry is not about to enter into a real debate the outcome is inevitable: in ten or twenty years we will have an exchange between representatives of the remnants of the entertainment industry and the descendants of The PirateBay. It will resemble the famous statement of US Colonel Summers to his Vietnamese counterpart: "You know, you never beat us on the battlefield …". Whereupon Colonel Tu said, "That may be so, but it is also irrelevant."
Just as in any guerrilla war, the "insurgents" have won, and for the same reasons: they are smarter, more flexible, have broad popular support and all the time in the world. A sensible entertainment executive would do well to read some history books and learn some lessons about the conduct of guerrilla conflicts and the consequences of losing. Hint: the US struggled for a quarter of a century with its Vietnam syndrome, and the Soviet Union did not survive defeat in Afghanistan.
War over. We win. Music anyone?
SOPA; not our problem
<originally a Dutch Webwereld.nl column>
Yesterday was the big SOPA protest day. Wikipedia (in English), Boing Boing, Reddit and many other sites were blacked out. Other sites, and even google.com had one-line banners beneath the bar exhorting me to contact the US Congress. The link said: "millions of Americans Oppose PIPA and SOPA because these bills would censor the Internet and slow economic growth in the US". Even a classic song urges me "to call my congressman". But google.nl, did not show this – clearly indicating that it perceived the matter to be an internal American political problem.
In recent weeks there have been many calls for action outside the US against SOPA. These calls have been synchronized with outrage and protests as
Bush Obama signed the NDAA anti-terrorism law. Under this law, anyone in the US "suspected" of involvement in "terrorism" (both nebulously defined) can be indefinitely imprisoned or even killed without trial or any other form of judicial review (think Stalin ’30). The anger itself is justified, but more than ten years too late. Indeed the only new provision in the NDAA is that the US can now treat its own citizens in ways that have been enforced against the world’s other 6.5 billion people since 2001.
The Big Brother legislation that has been introduced across the pond in the last ten years is now so extreme that even Oracle no longer wants to be a US-based company and European companies are beginning to avoid US providers over the Patriot Act. The whole country is obviously going through an Orwellian phase and so it is wise to keep a safe distance until it’s all over.
Even Michael Geist, otherwise a great source for information about ACTA, is not convincing. SOPA may perhaps be a broader North American problem but it still has little to do with the rest of us. Bits of Freedom in the Netherlands has a good overview of reasons to worry about a similar European SOPA-style legislation. Below are four points that explain why we shall not be badly affected:
"The Internet access to a site can be blocked." Annoying for Americans, but it won’t affect us. And Americans abroad can also easily bypass such a blockade through a VPN service, which is good for European VPN providers.
"Your domain name can be seized or sabotaged." Just avoid .com / .org / .net for your site/service, and steer clear of American DNS services and anything dependent on them – and that was an excellent idea long before SOPA. Your domain cannot be seized by customs and you will not be extradited and prosecuted for alleged violations of US copyright law.
“Payments to a website can be blocked." It’s really frustrating that there is an American credit card duopoly. However, Visa and Mastercard have already demonstrated with the Wikileaks case that no specific allegation of crime is required in order to be blacklisted. Fortunately, Europe has more and more local electronic banking systems that redress the balance.
"Websites will disappear from search results." It would be a shame if the American government really wanted to destroy Google, currently the best search engine, but it would also open the market for non-American alternatives beyond the reach of SOPA. Google could also clone itself, like Ikea – a Dutch foundation based in Zurich and Eemshaven datacenter and service its European customers.
This list confirms to me that we have become overly dependent of on US service providers (just like the software market!). This dependency is our real problem, not the current political shitstorm-of-the-month in the US. And finding alternatives and/or developing overseas partnerships is something we Europeans can proactively do for ourselves. That is where our focus should be.
America is broken, fundamentally broken. When an American politician cautiously suggests that the US might want to apply to itself rules it already imposes on others (the golden rule thing), he will be booed. This is the level of the debate leading up to the next "election" (I use the term advisedly – it’s more like bad reality-TV). The idea that it is still possible to influence US policy with a reasonable debate based on facts seems hopelessly naive. As George Carlin explained back in 2005, the US political system is too corrupt to deal even with the real interests of American citizens, let alone the interests of non-US citizens. US-based systems are now unsuitable for Europeans.
Smart Europeans can only wave goodbye and vote with their feet/wallets and DNS registrations. Surely Americans will understand that, it’s how they got started after all.
ACTA and SOPA are great!
<originally a Dutch Webwereld.nl column>
Socially aware people are, often justifiably, very good at moral indignation, but they just as often display a touching naivety. I recently watched with some surprise the American Occupy activists who were shocked (shocked I tell you!) as policemen (or university rent-a-cops) launched unprovoked attacks using batons and pepper spray.
It is indeed despicable that these officials use so much violence. But if people are still shocked by this in 2011, one has to wonder where they’ve been hiding for the last 10 years – have they not watched the news? Did they think that they could let stolen elections, illegal wars of aggression, shooting children with anti-tank weapons and the torture of innocent civilians happen without the ultimate consequence of their govenment using the same force against them?
But even the naive indignation of some Occupy activists about their government and its boot boys, is nothing compared to the childish surprise of the IT press about ACTA and SOPA. The copyright industry has for decades lobbied for the length of copyright to stretch to the end-of-time-plus-a-day extra.
Sony has no problems with infecting computers of their customers with what amounts to a virus. A torrent of writs has poured forth from the offices of copyright enforcement. Babies and the elderly without a PC, deceased persons, and even a HP laser printer have been falsely accused of copyright infringement (labeled as “theft” by the lawyers of the industry). Surely we all know the kinds of organisations we are facing now?
That’s why I’m happy that the Kafkaesque combo of ACTA / SOPA has become clear. Now ACTA and SOPA have almost been rammed through, at least we all know where we stand. The wolves have thrown off their sheep’s clothing and shown themselves for what they are: predators with no interest in our welfare. We therefore need not be quasi-shocked about the fact that some large companies behave like predators.
Now we have determined that we are dealing with predators, we can take action. Acting all shocked and angry once a wolf reveals himself in a kindergarten playroom is not an effective measure – he is a predator. If you want to prevent a bloodbath, you need to build a fence around the playroom – or perhaps even around the wolf.
If we want IT to work for us, we must ensure that the technology is designed around our interests rather than the interests of software vendors or copyright serfs. We need computers and network devices that do what we want them to do, even if that is not in the commercial interests of a handful of large companies or the political will of illegal government lobbyists.
For over 25 years the Free Software Foundation has been the only organization calling for this. During the last 15 years the debate about the principles of free software has been almost completely overshadowed by the much more business-orientated and pragmatic approach of the Opensource Initiative. The reason to found the Opensource Initiative was literally the ‘too principled’ attitude of the Free Software Foundation.
Meanwhile, all the things that the FSF has warned us about for so long have become the new and ugly reality. The complete lack of principle in discussing the applications of our technology is now starting to bite in very nasty ways. Almost all PCs (and I include Macs here), phones and game consoles have onboard functions that are not there for our benefit but for companies that want to earn our money. When you’re not in contol of your computer, is it still your computer / phone / console / router / etc … ?
This is an old political lesson: if you wait too long to protest, maybe you will no longer able or allowed to protest. This applies not only to addressing governments that start wars or the state stupidly bailing out the banks. This applies equally to the question of who is in charge of the computers and networks that we now all depend on. If we collectively do not demand principles as part of our tech, then we will get technology without them.
The ideas of the Free Software Foundation have never been more important. Not because proprietary software is worse (sometimes) nor because Free Software has become so much better (much!), but because our own systems, our digital home, is where we should all have have a say.
Only principled thinking (in addition to technical function) about our IT will keep the wolves from the door.
iTunes for ebooks
<originally a Webwereld column – in Dutch>
In 1996 I got my first MP3s. Storage was expensive, so I burned files onto CD-ROMs. There were 10 to 12 audio CDs on a CD-ROM. Conversion of an audio CD to a series of MP3s lasted hours using an encoder from the command line. They could only be played on a PC (or a very expensive laptop) so I had no good answer to the frequent question from family and friends: “why do you bother?”. Except that I was confident that bigger hard drives and smaller, cheaper laptops would evolve. I first had an audio PDA in 2000 – with a 256Mb memory card that could hold a few albums. I’ve forgotten what all that has cost, but probably quite a lot.
A year later, Apple came out with iTunes to make it easy to manage digital music collections. The first iPods with graphical software came along soon after, and MP3s were accessible to a wider audience. The result is that virtually all music can be downloaded from somewhere. It is up to the individual whether to pay for it, because downloading is not illegal in many countries and even where it is, there has been little noticeable effect on people’s behavior.
E-books and e-readers
In 2003 I bought a Zaurus PDA on which I could read books. I had those books first as a plain ASCII file on a memory card and there was no real reading app. It worked technically, but not realistically. The iRex e-reader that I bought in 2007 was the first proper device for reading books, although the ease of use and battery life left much to be desired. That first iRex was the equivalent of the first iPod – an expensive gadget with severe limitations. But what was really missing was an iTunes equivalent. A user-friendly piece of software with which non-technical book lovers could manage their collections. There are now many affordable e-readers and also a lot of people read on tablets and smartphones. I read on my own Android phone, which now has replaced my iPod.
But the game-changer is the availability of an iTunes equivalent for e-books: Calibre (pronounced Kali-ber). Calibre is a desktop app on Windows, MacOSX and Linux, and brings the management of large collections of e-books within reach of most computer users. As with iTunes books can be sought directly from Calibre, bought at online bookstores, or downloaded from other sources. As a European who travels a lot, I am constantly frustrated by the fragmentation of the market for digital books (‘this e-book is only available in the U.S. and Canada for copyright reasons’). So I order it as a hardcover for the bookshelf and I download the digital version to fit with my 21st century lifestyle.
Calibre is very different from iTunes, in that it is completely open source and designed to serve the interests of the end-user. With Calibre it is therefore easy to convert the DRM e-books to other formats so that they can be read on devices other than those the the seller stipulates. Calibre also has several tools to help share e-books. It is possible to mail books directly from Calibre, which you can programme to individual addresses making the required format conversion. This is useful for friends, fathers and loved ones with a different brand of e-reader from you. It is also possible to export (parts of) your collection in the neutral ePub format or to share your library over a LAN via an integrated Web service.
The scene is set for a repeat of the rise-of-the-mp3-and-fall-of-the-music industry drama: cheap handy readers, software management and conversion, and a global infrastructure to share content. A widespread embrace of e-books will be much faster than MP3s because people have become accustomed to sharing and downloading, and because books are much smaller than music or video files (a novel is about 0.2-1 MB). On a 10 euro USB stick you can fit more books than most people will ever read in their lives. The last year has seen the diversity of books and quality of shared online collections increase dramatically. Just search the name of your favorite author with .torrent and bingo. You can also search for "epub" or "Kindle" and find wonderful collections and discover new authors.
When discussing books over the next 2-3 years we can expect a rehash of all the tired old arguments from the last decade about the digital distribution of music. The outcome of this discussion will probably be the same: ‘industry’ argues vociferously that it is not fair and that nothing more will be written without tough DRM enforcement. The public shrugs and downloads book collections anyway as more writers than ever write more books than ever and make more money than ever.
Discussion and reading
Calibre software, e-readers for less than $100 and The Pirate Bay will probably do more for the availability of books than the 2 Euros per capita the central government is willing to spend. I hope you all enjoy your reading!
For those who wish to pursue discussions on the legal and/or ethical aspects of downloading, I suggest you have a read of my earlier columns on copyright, to avoid repetition of arguments.