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.
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.
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 Read the rest of this entry »
House Magazine, 6 December 2012
(Download the PDF)
It is deeply disturbing to read Brian Leveson’s recommendations on regulating the press at a time when police and security services are trying to legalise the broadest surveillance powers yet on ordinary citizens.
The Leveson Inquiry was “sparked by public revulsion about a single action – the hacking of the mobile phone of a murdered teenager”. Yet the Communications Data Bill will give the state a legal right not simply to ‘hack’ voicemails, but rather to spy on all our communication – both telephone and internet – without judicial oversight.
Regulating the press? The state spying on its citizens? These are not the hallmarks of a democracy. When the supposed torch-bearers of Enlightenment values fall under the spell of authoritarianism, we must worry not only for ourselves, but for the citizens of truly authoritarian countries. The West is in danger of abdicating its values and becoming a place where the stifling of a free press and universal surveillance of citizens is legitimised.
The Leveson report is a screaming in the wind by an Establishment who cannot believe how fast power is slipping from its grasp in the digital age. Watching the hearings I was reminded of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ with Leveson as Norma Desmond, waiting for his close up.
Leveson is an exercise in delusion and denial. For the sad fact is that newspapers are dying. News is now online. Digital information does not respect national borders. If there is any jurisdiction it does respect it is that of the United States where most of the major technology companies operate and where there is a First Amendment protecting free speech and a free press. The judges, lawyers, the great and the good of Britain who once controlled what could be said, now cannot. In their pique, they are in danger of throwing away what still matters: our democratic values.
Leveson deals with inconvenient truths – such as the largely self-regulating internet – by ignoring it. The sheer bulk of the report symbolises bias towards a statist ideology where bigger is better and centralised state control best of all. That the Internet has become so fabulously successful precisely because it is not centrally regulated is again ignored.
A few proposals are worth singling out. Leveson acknowledges the importance of whistleblowers in identifying and alerting us of corruption and injustice. But the ‘us’ he refers to are not the public. Even when he admits there is no authority within the police service that commands the trust of officers, he wants only a confidential channel. He proposes that employment or service contracts include a clause ‘to the effect that no disciplinary action would be taken against them as a result of a refusal to act in a manner which is contrary to the code of practice’. But this is limited only to journalists’ contracts. Why not public servants such as NHS staff where gagging clauses can be found that deter, undermine and penalise whistleblowers? They are dealing dealing with matters of life and death.
He claims the “Police Service as a whole has responded positively and proactively”, which is not what the journalists who investigated phone-hacking say. And if the police did fail to do their job, Leveson forgives that, too, because they had ‘perfectly reasonably decided to limit the prosecutions in 2006 not least because of their incredible workload that was a consequence of terrorism.’ No such real-world pressures – such as lack of public records, severe financial constraints even the collapse of the industry – are accepted for newspapers.
He concludes that the press is too close to politicians and the police but entirely ignores why this is so. In Britain, there is simply no other way to get information without getting close to either. It is the secrecy of the system that has created the collusion and the information cartels.
Despite all my efforts to investigate MPs’ expenses using the law, in the end it came down to an inside leak paid for with cash. Newspapers are pragmatic. They operate in the system as they find it. The only reason I was different is that I came from America where the records are public and there is less need for reporters to collude with the powerful to get information.
Check out the Guardian’s Prince Charles page for the latest news on our unelected and unaccountable heir to the throne.
You couldn’t make it up. While the UK Transparency twitter feed was sending out gushing messages about Cabinet Minister Francis Maude’s latest open government agenda, Speaker John Bercow, in cahoots with Tory MP Julian Lewis, was trying a rear-guard action to keep MPs’ expenses secret.
You’d have thought Bercow might remember how his predecessor was brought low due to his obstinate stance on publishing expenses. But no. They’re at it again. Even a High Court ruling isn’t getting in their way. In 2008, MPs argued against my freedom of information request to disclose the full details of their second home allowance and address. They claimed such disclosure would endanger them. They had no proof. Just their own paranoid narcissism. Three of the nation’s top judges ruled in my favour saying that public accountability required the claims and addresses be published. Now some MPs are trying to subvert that ruling by stealth. The new broom, it seems, still has some sweeping to do.
I had a few words to say about it on Sky News.
A few upcoming events…
Friday 12 October 2012 – 8pm Wells Literary Festival
I’ll be speaking on the opening day of the Wells Literary Festival. For more information and to book tickets check out the Wells Festival website.
Monday 22 October 2012 – 7pm – Off the Shelf Festival of Words
I’ll be talking about the revolutionary aspect of digitising information and how it’s changing politics and power around the world at Off the Shelf. Click here for more information and to book tickets.
Monday to Wednesday 29 – 31st October, 2012 – Power Reporting Conference
Wits University, Johannesburg, South Africa
I’ll be speaking and doing hands-on teaching sessions at this conference, the leading investigative journalism conference in Africa. If you live anywhere nearby then I’d urge you to come along. There is a fantastic line-up of journalists who have done some stellar investigations both in Africa and abroad. For more information visit the Power Reporting website.
Perusing some old books in the London Library, I came across this statement on the English press. It’s as relevant today as it was in 1938.
But in England the links between government and newspapers are much more remote and subtle. The newspaper press is largely trustified – that is, controlled by rich men whose interests on the whole are bound up with conservatism. At the same time the commercial aspect of newspapers – reader-interest on the one hand and advertising on the other – make daily newspapers incline towards sensationalism, which means, towards opening their columns to anything which seems likely to increase circulation. And this sensationalism, bad as it is on the aesthetic and moral sides, does at least ensure a continuation of competition and rivalry in enterprise, which brings in its wake much of what we value as “freedom of expression of opinion.”
From “Propaganda” by Richard S. Lambert (Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd, 1938)