The first thing I noticed, looking around at the other audience members before the event began, was that there were more men in the audience than women. If you have ever book to an author event before, you’ll realize this is unusual. But of course, Cory Doctorow isn’t just an author; he’s also an activist, the co-editor of Boing Boing, and an all-around nerd hero (see xkcd comics featuring him here and here). Plus, the Harvard Bookstore is a stone’s throw from Harvard and just two stops from MIT on the red line.
Doctorow started off by complimenting the Harvard Bookstore as “one of the most awesome-sauce dispensaries in the northeast,” and saying that he wasn’t actually going to read from his new book, Homeland; there was an audio clip of him reading online (Internet Archive), and there were other things to talk about.
First, he outlined the case of Robbins vs. Lower Merion School District (PA), wherein the school equipped its students’ laptops with spyware and took pictures of the students in their rooms at home, unbeknownst to students or their parents. The school denied wrongdoing.
Next, Doctorow talked about the German Chaos Computer Club’s (CCC) discovery and cracking of government spyware, which was not only illegal but also, apparently, dangerously easy to hack.
Then there was the case of spyware on rent-to-own laptops. Allegedly, the spyware was installed in order to prevent theft – one of the same reasons there was spyware on the students’ laptops in Lower Merion – but of course it was used more nefariously than that.
Next, Doctorow moved on to those long, impenetrable Terms of Service we all sign, which he called “weird” and “totally objectionable.” Signing a contract with an employer is one thing, he said, but since when have consumers signed contracts with manufacturers?
Now, of course, it’s almost impossible not to. Do you use facebook? iTunes? Online banking? Twitter or Tumblr? Then you might have a vague memory of scrolling through a vast amount of fine print to get to that “I Agree” button so that you can use the service in question. (Ed Bayley at the Electronic Frontier Foundation proposes that the buttons should read “I Agree” and “I Have No Idea What This Says.” Read the white paper, “The Clicks That Bind.”)
We might all skim and disregard the Terms of Service or Terms & Conditions, but under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), breaking ToS/T&C “isn’t a little illegal, it’s a lot illegal” (Doctorow’s words, not the legislation).
The scary part is that even though most people don’t read before agreeing, it’s still a legally binding document (though there is some question about the enforceability), and breaking the agreement is a felony under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA). After Aaron Swartz’s suicide, two years after being charged under the CFAA, Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) introduced “Aaron’s Law,” which would amend it.
Doctorow then segued into speaking about the late Aaron Swartz, computer programmer and activist; Aaron was involved with the development of RSS, the Creative Commons, and reddit (he also wrote an afterword for Homeland). By now, most will be familiar with the JSTOR debacle, but before that, Aaron was involved with an attempt to liberate U.S. legal documents from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database. For a relatively short overview of that case, see the New York Times article from February 2009; for more in-depth (and fascinating) explanations, check out Steve Schultze’s article (February 2011) and Tim Lee’s piece on Ars Technica (February 2013).
Lee points out, “The documents in PACER—motions, legal briefs, scheduling orders, and the like—are public records. Most of these documents are free of copyright restrictions, yet the courts charge hefty fees for access” (reminiscent of the way that government (i.e. taxpayer)-funded science research ends up behind paywalls). What Aaron did was help Schultze with the code to download a high volume of documents from PACER during a free trial; with those documents, RECAP (“turning PACER around”) was born. RECAP is still going strong.
Aaron was also involved in leading a grassroots campaign to fight the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The bill was defeated when, as Doctorow put it, “Congress realized that as hard as it is to get reelected without campaign finance, it is really hard to get reelected without votes.”
Finally, there was the JSTOR case. JSTOR is a database that contains a tremendous volume of research, much of which was funded directly or indirectly by the federal government. However, this research resides behind a paywall. Aaron had access through MIT, and downloaded a vast quantity of articles. The government cracked down, with federal agents charging Aaron under the CFAA. Two years later, facing jail (“You’re gonna put me in jail for 35 years for checking too many books out of the library?”), and seeing no other way out, Aaron committed suicide.
Doctorow emphasized the importance Aaron’s cause: that people have the right to access information, whether or not they happen to be affiliated with an institution of higher education. “We never know where the next great thing is going to come from,” he said. “This isn’t GOING to be a matter of life and death, it IS a matter of life and death….This is the beginning of the future.”
Doctorow referred to computers and the internet as “the nervous system of our world. The world is made of computers…We put our bodies in computers [e.g. cars]…we put computers in our bodies [e.g. headphones, medical equipment]….We’ve gotta get this right….And it matters. It matters a lot.” He is concerned, to say the least, about regulating this technology and making sure it is secure. (A recent article about NASA highlights the danger of collecting personal data and failing to protect is closely.) Doctorow said, “I’m not interested in how something succeeds, I’m interested in how it fails.” His sincere and urgent concern doesn’t prevent him from using colorful, humorous language to make his case: “We regulate them like…a fax machine attached to a waffle iron.”
It can all seem like an overwhelming problem, too large to tackle, too impossible to change. But the campaigns against SOPA (and PIPA) were powerful; they proved that people do care about their rights, and about the worst case scenario consequences un-thought-out legislation can have on the internet and other technology. There has been an outpouring of support for Aaron’s cause since his suicide (he also had strong supporters before his death). The open access (OA) movement is gaining power in higher education, especially as journal prices continue to skyrocket and become unaffordable for even the Harvard Libraries. And awareness is growing as consumers begin to wonder who really owns the content they produce (on facebook, twitter, etc.) and the digital products they buy (or are they really only licensing?). One thing you can do, Doctorow said, is “refuse to use technology that takes away your freedom.”
“Information doesn’t want to be free. If anything it wants us to stop anthropomorphizing it.
Referring to smartphones: “A police tracking device that happens to make phone calls.”
“Don’t talk to cops without a lawyer present.”
After the energetic and inspiring talk, Doctorow stayed around to sign books. I hadn’t read Homeland yet, but I read its prequel, Little Brother, and I told him that I’d recommended it to many people in my capacity as a librarian…at which point he gave me a high five.