Archive for January, 2013

Anonymity is a Privilege Not a Right

Sunday, January 27th, 2013

A few notes on why I generally don’t respond to anonymous people on twitter or in comments.

Anonymity is a privilege. Words are powerful and if that power is not to be abused it must be accountable.

There are some cases where granting the privilege of anonymity is necessary and warranted. Primarily this is where direct harm would befall someone if he or she were identified as the source of the words. Such is the case with whistleblowers, insiders or someone in a vulnerable position. If these people are identified, they face the immninent threat of losing their jobs, their livlihoods or their well-being. They may face personal attack (physical or legal) for speaking out. They may be breaking corporate confidentiality even though what they expose is in the public interest.

Others need anonymity to be able to voice inconvenient truths, or to simply tell their stories. Women posting about driving without a male overseer in Saudi Arabia, for example, need anonymity to avoid being arrested.

The primary justification for anonymity is provable harm.

There are other occasions where people use anonymity to take on a different persona in order to explore different parts of themselves or simply for fun. I don’t see a problem with this so long as they aren’t hurting anyone.

But the idea that anonymity is a right and not a privilege is wrong. There needs to be good reason to avoid being accountable for what we say or write, particularly if what we say affects other people. Too often online, anonymity is the tool of the bullying coward, a means to avoid responsibility for publishing threats, abuse and lies.

That doesn’t mean writing only anodyne, inoffensive drivel. It does mean having the courage of your convictions and the ability to withstand criticism. If you believe in what you say, put your name behind it. People may disagree with you. That’s fine. But if they launch an anonymous ad hominem attack that is not fine. It reveals a weak argument made by someone who is a coward, a fool and/or a nasty piece of work.

Video: Freeing our Data

Saturday, January 19th, 2013

I was on BBC’s Daily Politics show Thursday, 17 January 2013 discussing opening up government databases with Stephan Skakespeare who is leading the government’s review. The main point I hope I made is that access to data should be determined by what is in the public interest not necessarily that which can turn a profit.

Events: Mind Control lecture with Margaret Heffernan

Thursday, January 17th, 2013

23 January Lecture at 7pm


A few thoughts on the death of hacktivist Aaron Swartz

Saturday, January 12th, 2013

Today I heard that hacktivist Aaron Swartz killed himself. He was just 26 years old. I met Aaron at various Open Government conferences. He was an incredibly intelligent original thinker who was committed to freedom of information and democracy. He went beyond the rhetoric and put his principles into action. While I was researching the Boston hacker scene for The Revolution Will Be Digitised he generously agreed to help me. I’ve decided to post that section here to give a sense of the man we’ve lost.

…I can count on one finger my Boston contacts. Fortunately that person is Aaron Swartz, who’s in the Cambridge tech/activist scene. He describes himself as a writer, activist and hacker and at twenty-five his CV is impressive: currently founder and director of a democracy campaign group, Demand Progress, he previously co-founded Reddit.com (a website for sharing news links) and was part of the original team to launch Creative Commons. At fourteen he co-authored the Really Simple Syndication (RSS 1.0) specification for publishing news updates. In the information war he’s participated in a few guerrilla campaigns which have accorded him his own FBI file (posted on his blog). In 2008, he hacked into a federal court library system to leak over 18 million public documents that the government had been charging citizens to access. Swartz only realised how much trouble he was in when the FBI started monitoring him. He got himself a lawyer, but luckily the New York Times got on the case and made him something of a cause célèbre. The FBI eventually backed off: it looked bad to spend taxpayers’ money going after a kid for making public records more publicly available.

Aaron has set me up with a room in a place called the Acetarium but even standing outside the door on this cold November night I can’t tell if it’s a hostel, a hotel or a house. I telephone the proprietor Benjamin Mako Hill and in a few minutes I see pale legs jumping down the stairs. He’s known as ‘Mako’, he tells me, and he has an impish, Irish look with a pointy Pan-like beard and big mischievous blue eyes with a ring through his left eyebrow. He’s wearing an American flag do-rag and a yellow cycling jacket. He’s brimming with energy and hops up the stairs two at a time. On the landing is a sign: ‘Shoes and pants off please’. I leave mine (shoes that is) at the door and head in.

Inside, over some home-made vegetable dumplings, I meet Mako’s wife and some of the other residents: a twenty-year-old couchsurfer from North Carolina, a freelance software programmer in the spare room and a guinea pig whose owner has gone travelling. Mako himself is a scholar at MIT’s media lab specialising in sociology and online communities and he’s an active member of the Free Software Foundation. He sounds exactly the sort of person who can put me in touch with the people I need to talk to, but when I start asking questions he clams up. ‘I’m not into that scene,’ he says tersely, tapping his foot. ‘I don’t know any of those people.’

Later that evening, Aaron comes over to the Acetarium and tells me this used to be the original Reddit offices. He passed them to Mako when Reddit was bought by Condé Nast and he and the other founders moved out to San Francisco to live the dream. He says California wasn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Neither was the office job at Condé Nast. He’s since been fired, dropped out of Stanford and is now a fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard University as well as running his campaign group. He has an intense curiosity that lasers into whatever happens to interest him at any given moment, but the attention is short, and soon he’s off delving into something else. Fortunately his immediate interest is my ‘quest’, so he grabs a nearby laptop to see what he can find online. A quick glance of Tyler Watkins’ and David House’s social networks reveals they’re both linked to someone called Danny Clark. It’s a long shot, but I ask Mako if he knows Danny Clark. His response is straightforward enough: ‘Never heard of him.’

‘But he’s on your list of LinkedIn contacts,’ says Aaron, now perusing Mako’s profile, and I remind Mako there’s no privacy on the Internet. He reiterates that he’s ‘not involved in any of this, and I don’t want anything to do with it’.

‘What’s wrong with answering her questions?’ Aaron counters.

‘You don’t understand, there’s been all kinds of people round here.’

‘I understand completely. I was investigated by the FBI, don’t forget. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk. We’re not in a police state yet.’

I decide not to press my host any further, but I’m struck by his guardedness. Clearly people are scared, and I begin to worry if I’ll get anything at all out of this trip. Maybe to make up for his reticence, Mako invites me to come along to a pub in Harvard Square where every Sunday he organises a social evening for a group of techie friends studying or working at MIT or Harvard. I meet all sorts of interesting people including a woman working on the human genome project, but the most interesting of all is another Brit who tells me he lives with Danny Clark…

While I was in Boston, Aaron told me he was working on another ‘project’ which I found out later was his guerrilla action to liberate academic articles. In July 2011, he was arrested and charged with downloading 4.8 million academic articles between September 2010 and January 2011 from JSTOR, a research subscription service offering digitised copies of academic journals and documents. He was accused of breaking into a computer wiring closet on MIT’s campus and downloading the documents which prosecutors say he intended to share online. Swartz turned himself in and pleaded not guilty to charges including wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer. He was released on a $100,000 unsecured bond and faced up to thirty-five years in prison, if convicted. In September 2012, federal prosecutors added even more charges.

Aaron wasn’t a dangerous person who hurt people. His mission was to free public information. Shamefully for that he was targeted by certain justice officials in what amounted to more of a persecution than a prosecution. I think the war on hackers has gone on long enough. Officials need to understand that criminalising the best and the brightest is not good public policy.

More on Aaron Swartz here and here.

Article: Government changes would kill FOI in Britain

Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013

Recently the Government published its response to Parliament’s post-legislative scrutiny of the Freedom of Information Act. I wrote a response to this in the Sunday Times.

The Sunday Times, 24 December 2012

The Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) has always sat uncomfortably with the British government. Britain was one of the last western democracies to adopt the act and officials were so worried about people’s “right to know” that implementation of the law was put off for five years — the longest preparation time in the world. Indeed, Tony Blair described its passage as “one of the biggest mistakes I made in office”.

That should tell you all you need to know about officials’ fear of real public engagement. Responding to what people actually want to know is a different form of democracy from telling people what you want them to know through bloated governmental press offices.

After the expenses scandal, this government came to power on a transparency mandate and has substantially improved matters, opening up large tracts of official data, publishing more public spending information than ever before and even providing pay grades for public officials. We are still a long way from what a company chief executive would expect to see from his employees — exact pay and perks for all staff employees with their name attached — but things have improved dramatically.

However, all that good work is about to be undone by one worrying change announced last week in the government’s response to post-legislative scrutiny of the FOIA. This would allow officials to “take into account some or all of the time spent on considering and redacting when calculating whether the costs limit has been (more…)