LJ Archive


Our Assignment

Doc Searls

Issue #239, March 2014

We need to protect the freedoms in which Linux was born and grew up.

I've been with Linux Journal since it was a gleam in Phil Hughes' eye, back in 1993. Phil's original plan was for something he called “a free software magazine”. I was one of the friends Phil recruited to think and talk, mostly by by e-mail, about how to make the magazine happen. The project was pretty far downstream when Phil sent the whole thing sideways with five words: “There's this kid from Finland....” That was the first I'd heard of Linus, or of Linux. But Phil was one of the world's experts on UNIX (having fathered many UNIX publications in previous years), and he was convinced that Linux was exactly the free operating system the world was waiting for. He was right.

And so Linux Journal was born, in March 1994, just as Linux itself arrived at version 1.0. Its first Editor in Chief was Bob Young, who knew almost nothing about Linux when Phil recruited him. (“He was selling circuit boards or something from a booth in the back of a tradeshow”, Phil said.) Not long after that, Bob left to start a Linux company of his own, called Red Hat.

The first piece I wrote for Linux Journal was an interview with Craig Burton for an insert called Websmith. Craig sought me out, because he wanted to alert the Linux folks to LDAP, which he said was throwing a monkey wrench into Microsoft's plans to do for networked directories what it had done for desktop operating systems. Craig was right, and the wrench worked.

I started writing full time for LJ in 1998, covering the open-sourcing of Netscape's browser (now known as Firefox) and the creation of its new parent, Mozilla.org. This coincided with the birth of the open-source movement and the dot-com explosion, for which Linux itself was ground zero. The biggest IPOs of 1999 (a record IPO year) were Red Hat, Andover (which had earlier acquired Slashdot) and VA Linux (which later acquired Andover). Linux Journal also had offers at the time to sell out, but Phil turned them down. If he had said yes, some of us (especially Phil) would have scored big, but Linux Journal would have been long gone by now.

Back then, most of the staff worked in our Seattle headquarters. I worked remotely from California or wherever else I happened to be, and would fly in every couple months for meetings and work, and enjoyed it totally. We hit all the Linux tradeshows, plus O'Reilly's OSCon and Emerging Tech conferences. LJ was hot stuff, and so were our advertisers, most of which were venture-funded dot-com players. Then, when the crash hit in 2000, most of those advertisers vanished, leaving nobody to bill, sue or get on the phone. And then, after the attacks on 9/11/2001, companies everywhere dropped all kinds of discretionary expenses, including travel and advertising, and that hit us hard too. (I got an extra whammy by losing every one of the speaking gigs that were lined up at the time.)

Then, over the next few years, the Web became a “content delivery platform” for literally millions of blogs, sites that were “publishers” in name only, and “social networks”, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and the rest. So, while Linux Journal eagerly covered open-source CMSes (content management systems) like Drupal and WordPress, it also had to compete in a world filled with abundant low-grade “content” or worse: editorial matter scraped and republished, often without attribution, from legitimate sources (including Linux Journal), just to game Google and other advertising systems. That Linux Journal is still alive, and thriving, is testimony to amazing leadership and fortitude by Carlie Fairchild (our Publisher), Jill Franklin (our Executive Editor) and everybody else on our masthead (www.linuxjournal.com/staff).

But that's just us. There are bigger battles going on that I want to take this anniversary opportunity to talk about. One is over the future of journalism. The other is over the future of the Internet as an environment for developing and deploying Linux and other open platforms like it. Both are battles over the same organizing principle.

First, journalism.

For the past year and a half, I've been a visiting scholar at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at NYU (journalism.nyu.edu). My main work there has been helping professor Jay Rosen (who stars on Twitter as @JayRosen_NYU) with Studio 20 (studio20nyu.tumblr.com), which is defined as “a consultancy that gets paid in problems” (www.flickr.com/photos/docsearls/11416036656/in/set-72157638756349696). In academic terms, the class is clinical: students work on real-world problems with real-world publishers. During my time there, Studio 20 students have consulted Fast Company, Pro Publica, The Wall Street Journal, Quartz, Pando Daily, Syria Deeply, ABC News, TimeOut New York, Atavist, Al Jazeera America, DFM Thunderdome and others (studio20nyu.tumblr.com/post/50351221259/studio-20s-networked-reporting-project). Here are a few of the learnings I've gathered over the course of that time, both from the class and from experience with Linux Journal and other media:

  1. The future of journalism is what Jay Rosen calls networked (pressthink.org/2013/05/designs-for-a-networked-beat), Andrew Leonard calls open-source (www.salon.com/1999/10/08/geek_journalism), and Dan Gillmor calls We the Media (www.authorama.com/we-the-media-1.html). Everybody with a stake in the output contributes input. While this comprises a kind of model, it is far from being a complete system. The media between individual contributors—telephony, texting, e-mail, blogging and postings on “social” and other media—are all fluxy and provisional. You use whatever works today, which might not be what worked yesterday or will work tomorrow. The old system was as solid and vertical as an office building—and mostly happened inside of buildings filled with paid staff working on finished pieces for publishing or airing at specific dates and times. The new system is all scaffolding, all the way down, with very few people getting paid for the work they do.

  2. Most professional journalists who had work when the Web was born are out of the business, or under-employed within it. Many work for little or no money. Crazy as it may seem, they keep working because they believe the world needs what they do. (Rollo May once wrote that writers differ from other artists in this one significant respect: they suffer the illusion that the world really needs to hear what they have to say.) In this respect, journalists are a lot like Linux kernel hackers.

  3. The portfolio of helpful skills for journalism today goes far beyond writing, photography, video and the ability to dig into a subject. I was amazed to hear new graduate students in journalism, when asked what skills they bring to the table, say stuff like “Ruby, Python and PHP”. When we went around the room introducing ourselves on the first day of Studio 20, I heard only one student say “writing” and one say “investigative reporting”. The rest all talked about their skills with software tools and services.

  4. “Direct response” advertising is all the rage in digital media (wfoa.wharton.upenn.edu/perspective/docsearls). This stuff might be called advertising, but it is instead directly descended from direct mail, better known as junk mail. It works on the assumption that surveillance-fed “big data” mills can give individuals an ideally personalized “advertising experience”. For whatever good it does (such as keeping publishers alive), it is also why the most popular browser extensions and add-ons are ones that block ads and tracking. It also models spying for the NSA. In The Intention Economy (www.amazon.com/The-Intention-Economy-Customers-Charge/dp/1422158527), I call it a bubble, and I stand by that claim. If you want to know more about why it is doomed, read Don Marti (zgp.org/~dmarti), our former Editor in Chief, who is doing the world's deepest and most prophetic thinking and writing on the topic (zgp.org/~dmarti/business/#.UtwhOKWtv0E).

  5. The subscription model is stronger than ever. Interesting fact: when Linux Journal went all-digital (dropping print), we lost a few subscribers but gained many more. This was, and remains, a Good Thing. But it's also one aspect of another thing....

  6. We no longer own our stuff. We just have limited rights to use it. This is true of music, movies, books and countless apps on mobile phones and tablets. In a de facto sense, it's even true of much of the hardware we depend on, every day. Look at what it actually says in the terms and conditions (www.tacma.com) you accept when you buy your smartphone or tablet, and the software that runs on it—even the stuff that costs nothing. Also look at who is snarfing up your usage data and what's being done with it. (If you can tell at all. Most of it is behind walls you can't penetrate.) Then consider this fact: there are few generic white-box phones or tablets. The existence of those in the computer market made both Linux and the Internet possible.

  7. The commercial world has turned into a forest of silos. Every “loyalty program”, every subscription system (ours included), and every Web site and service that requires its own login and password is a silo. Every one of these silos exists for the convenience of those who maintain it, and every one compounds the inconveniences suffered by the individuals who need to maintain countless separate “relationships” contained inside all these silos. Implicit in this “system” is the assumption that a captive customer or user is more valuable than a free one.

Next, the Internet.

I've probably written more about the Internet in Linux Journal than about any other topic. Two of my longest and most cited pieces were both titled “Saving the Net”. The first was in June 2003 (www.linuxjournal.com/article/6989), and the second was in November 2005 (www.linuxjournal.com/article/8673). Here's an excerpt from the first:

The Net's problem, from telco and cable industries' perspective, is it was born without a business model. Its standards and protocols imagine no coercive regime to require payment—no metering, no service levels, no charges for levels of bandwidth. Worse, it was designed as an end-to-end system, where all the power to create, distribute and consume are located at the ends of the system and not in the middle. In the words of David Isenberg (www.isen.com), the Internet's innards purposefully were kept “stupid”. All the intelligence properly belonged at the ends. As a pure end-to-end system, the Net also was made to be symmetrical. It wasn't supposed to be like TV, with fat content flowing in only one direction.

The Net's end-to-end nature is so severely anathema to cable and telco companies that they have done everything they can to make the Net as controlled and asymmetrical as possible. They want the Net to be more like television, and to a significant degree, they've succeeded. Most DSL and cable broadband customers take it for granted that downstream speeds are faster than upstream speeds, that they can't operate servers out of their houses and that the only e-mail addresses they can use are ones that end with the name of their telephone or cable company.

And why not? These companies “own” the Net, don't they? Well, no, they don't. They only “provide” it—critical difference.

Eleven years later, those companies are now solving that problem by shifting billing for Internet services from a single monthly subscription rate to billing for data traffic (the telco model) and for content (the cable TV model). They're implementing both gradually moving television to the Net—and turning the Net into mostly-TV in the process. Their thinking goes like this:

  1. The Net and TV are both just screens. In “Report: 90% Of Waking Hours Spent Staring At Glowing Rectangles” (www.theonion.com/articles/report-90-of-waking-hours-spent-staring-at-glowing,2747), The Onion writes, “staring blankly at luminescent rectangles is an increasingly central part of modern life. At work, special information rectangles help men and women silently complete any number of business-related tasks, while entertainment rectangles—larger and louder and often placed inside the home—allow Americans to enter a relaxing trance-like state after a long day of rectangle-gazing.” So the distinction between watching TV and using the Net hardly matters.

  2. If you have a cable or satellite subscription, you can already watch many networks—or all of them (we use Dish Anywhere)—on your laptop or hand-held. Likewise, you can watch lots of stations and networks, also with subscriptions, delivered via IP, the Internet Protocol.

  3. Captive lawmakers have kindly allowed their overlords in the content and transport industries to verticalize entertainment supply chains, making it easy to shift TV from cable and satellite to the Net, while keeping the existing billing systems intact and opening opportunities for many more. Susan Crawford unpacked this nicely in Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age (yalepress.yale.edu/book.asp?isbn=9780300153132).

  4. Bandwidth is naturally scarce, and it costs a lot to build out infrastructure, especially for mobile devices that can suck down 4K video (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/4K_resolution) over cellular connections. Why not price the offerings accordingly?

And that's how Hollywood will finish body-snatching the Internet.

So, what does this mean for Linux? Won't we still be able to write code, submit patches, participate in lists and so on?

Sure, but what else? What options will be foreclosed in a system that's run by Hollywood and its allies at Apple, Google, Facebook and Microsoft—and the only software available for most people will be on the shelves of company stores?

In a word, freedom. In Linux Journal's bones is a belief that free software, free hardware and free people are more valuable—to themselves and to the world—than captive ones. We believe in openness too, but freedom is the deeper, more essential and more personal virtue. Freedom is embodied in the GPL v2 license (opensource.org/licenses/GPL-2.0) that Linus chose for Linux at the start, and which I am sure is one reason Linux succeeded to degrees other OSes can only envy. Freedom is also in the hearts of Linux kernel hackers, and many Linux developers and users.

But that population is a shrinking minority among professionals working with Linux, simply because Linux is a huge success, and has enlarged the general talent pool. That's why you see billboards yelling “Do You Know Linux? WE ARE HIRING!” From the perspective of Linux 1.0, this is a dream come true. Yet knowing Linux isn't the same as sharing the values that made Linux kick butt. For some perspective on what's happening here, let's revisit “A Tale of Three Cultures” (www.linuxjournal.com/article/5912), which I wrote for the March 2002 issue of Linux Journal. In it, I described what I saw as three different overlapping constituencies, each with their own cultures (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Three Cultures

Lawrence Lessig drew the Geeks/Hollywood distinction in the June 16, 2002 eWeek, where he wrote, “There's a civil war brewing in my state of California. It is again a war between the Silicon Valley-based IT industry in the North and Hollywood content and entertainment producers in the South. Silicon Valley has become the target of punitive legislation being pushed by Hollywood in Congress” (www.eweek.com/c/a/Midmarket/Hollywood-v-Silicon-Valley-Make-New-Code-Not-War). In August of that year, he said this to the geeks assembled at an O'Reilly conference (www.oreillynet.com/pub/a/policy/2002/08/15/lessig.html):

  • Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.

  • The past always tries to control the creativity that builds upon it.

  • Free societies enable the future by limiting this power of the past.

  • Ours is less and less a free society.

The title of Larry's talk was “Free Culture”, same as the book (www.free-culture.cc) he was writing at the time. He was fighting against the expansion of copyright law at the time. We (and he) lost that fight, because Hollywood controls Washington. But never mind that. Mind instead the word culture. That's what we're talking about. We're kinda Libertarian in our approach to technology, and we'd rather not screw around with “policy”, as it's known in academic circles.

The third culture is Embedded. Here's what I said about it in A Tale of Three Cultures:

I was at the Embedded Systems Conference in San Francisco (https://web.archive.org/web/20020803003421/http://www.esconline.com/sf), which seemed a world away in time. It was a big conference, filling most of both the North and South Halls at the Moscone Center. Linux was huge here. Domination of the embedded world looks no less inevitable, in spite of the huge Microsoft and Wind River booths, which stood out like boulders in the stream of history.

[Embedded is] purely technical. It's pre-Net, pre-UNIX and maybe even pre-cultural. It shows up where raw technology meets the real world, and its concerns are utterly practical. “Here's the problem”, it says. “Let's solve it.” This is a heads-down culture and civilization depends on it. Embedded systems are what run our cash registers and brake systems, our airplane guidance systems, our factory robotics, our flow meters, our stoplights and our heating systems. The Net and Linux are both handy ways to solve countless embedded systems problems—extremely handy, it turns out. One morning at SXSW I read that embedded Linux will soon run in something like 60,000 cash registers at Home Depot. It's a big story, but mostly a technical one. Does Home Depot give a damn about Linux as a cause? Or about the lawmaking that threatens to turn the Net into nothing more than a backbone for industrial-grade commerce, plus a bunch of culverts for moving “content” stamped and sanitized by ubiquitous digital content management? I kind of doubt it.

Good as it is, and much as we celebrate its success, Android is an embedded Linux operating system. It is also run by one giant company. The Android source FAQ (source.android.com/faqs.html) makes that quite clear. Android is Google's show. To contrast that with Linux, dig what Andrew Morton (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrew_Morton_%28computer_programmer%29) told me a few years back (www.linuxjournal.com/content/linux-now-slave-corporate-masters):

Look for example at the IBM engineers that do work on the kernel. They understand (how it works) now. They are no longer IBM engineers that work on the kernel. They're kernel developers that work for IBM. My theory here is that if IBM management came up to one of the kernel developers and said “Look, we need to do that”, the IBM engineer would not say, “Oh, the kernel team won't accept that.” He'd say “WE won't accept that.” Because now they get it. Now they understand the overarching concern we have for the coherency and longevity of the code base.

One point here is that kernel developers are autonomous individuals who work for the kernel, not for any one company—even if that company employs them to work on the kernel. The same goes for the people we call “users”. The Net, by design, supports autonomy, independence and freedom for everybody. Protocols such as HTTP, FRP, IRC, NNTP, POP, SMTP and IMAP all give individuals their own way of connecting with and communicating with anybody or anything, outside any one company's or government's controlling systems. Those all embodied principles I call NEA: Nobody owns it, Everybody can use it, and Anybody can improve it. Linux is that way too. It's only natural for companies operating in the Net's wide open commons to try enclosing it. Usually this fails. (Read Greg Kroah-Hartman's take on what Apple's doing with Thunderbolt, www.kroah.com/log/blog/2013/06/20/hardware, for a perfect example of what these big companies never seem to learn.) But I'm not sure about Hollywood. It won the battle that Larry Lessig outlined 14 years ago. And now Linux geekery is highly diluted by its embedded uses and the corporate purposes of embedded development work. The tragedy of the Internet's commons is one where free and open geek culture is losing to the cultures of Hollywood and embedded development, and the expediencies of both.

But the cause of freedom got a huge lift from Edward Snowden's revelations about NSA spying (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Snowden). That was a wake-up call, and the world has not fallen asleep since then. In fact, the world is now more awake than ever to the high level of surveillance going on in the digital world, and its threats to freedom. So, while the sun shines, we can make hay.

A year before the Snowden revelations, Eben Moglen (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eben_Moglen) gave a keynote at Freedom to Connect (freedom-to-connect.net/2012) followed by a conversation onstage with Isaac Wilder (thefnf.org/people-2) and myself. After Eben walked from podium to chair, I said what he gave was not only one of the best speeches I had ever heard, but one of the most important. I stand by that claim today. You can find audio at Archive.org (https://archive.org/details/EbenMoglensFreedomToConnectKeynoteInnovationUnderAusterity), video on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G2VHf5vpBy8), and a transcript at the Software Freedom Law Center (www.softwarefreedom.org/events/2012/freedom-to-connect_moglen-keynote-2012.html). The talk was 47 minutes long and addressed to the same audience I am writing for here: people with a deep and abiding interest in free and open software and hardware. Here is my abridged hack of the transcript:

The greatest technological innovation of the late 20th century is the thing we now call the World Wide Web. An invention less than 8000 days old. That invention is already transforming human society more rapidly than anything since the adoption of writing....

The browser made the Web very easy to read. Though we built Apache, though we built the browsers, though we built enormous numbers of things on top of Apache and the browsers, we did not make the Web easy to write. So a little thug in a hooded sweatshirt made the Web easy to write, and created a man in the middle attack on human civilization, which is unrolling now to an enormous music of social harm. But that's the intermediary innovation that we should be concerned about. We made everything possible including, regrettably, PHP, and then intermediaries for innovation turned it into the horror that is Facebook.

If we'd had a little bit more disintermediated innovation, if we had made running your own Web server very easy, if we had explained to people from the very beginning how important the logs are—and why you shouldn't let other people keep them for you—we would be in a rather different state right now.

We created the idea that we could share operating systems and all the rest of the commoditizable stack on top of them. We did this using the curiosity of young people. That was the fuel, not venture capital.

What we need to say is that that curiosity of young people could be harnessed because all of the computing devices in ordinary day-to-day use were hackable....This is happening now elsewhere in the world as it happened in the United States in the 1980s. Hundreds of thousands of young people around the world hacking on laptops. Hacking on servers. Hacking on general-purpose hardware available to allow them to scratch their individual itches, technical, social, career and just plain ludic itches. “I wanna do this, it would be neat.” Which is the primary source of the innovation that drove all of the world's great economic expansion in the last ten years. All of it. Trillions of dollars of electronic commerce....It should embolden us to point out once again that the way innovation really happens is that you provide young people with opportunities to create on an infrastructure that allows them to hack the real world, and share the results.

The nature of the innovation established by Creative Commons, by the Free Software Movement, by Free Culture, which is reflected in the Web, in Wikipedia, in all the Free Software operating systems now running everything, even the insides of all those locked-down vampiric Apple things I see around the room. All of that innovation comes from the simple process of letting the kids play and getting out of the way. Which, you are aware, we are working as hard as we can to prevent now completely. Increasingly, all around the world, the actual computing artifacts of daily life for human individual beings are being made so you can't hack them. The computer science laboratory in every 12-year-old's pocket is being locked-down....If you prevent people from hacking on what they own themselves, you will destroy the engine of innovation from which everybody is profiting.

We said from the beginning that Free Software is the world's most advanced technical educational system. It allows anybody anywhere on Earth to get to the state of art in anything computers can be made to do, by reading what is fully available and by experimenting with it, and sharing the consequences freely. True computer science. Experimentation, hypothesis formation, more experimentation, more knowledge for the human race.

Which brings us back to this question of anonymity, or rather, personal autonomy. One of the really problematic elements in teaching young people, at least the young people I teach, about privacy, is that we use the word privacy to mean several quite distinct things. Privacy means secrecy, sometimes. That is to say, the content of a message is obscured to all but its maker and intended recipient. Privacy means anonymity; sometimes that means messages are not obscured, but the points generating and receiving those messages are obscured. And there is a third aspect of privacy, which in my classroom, I call autonomy. It is the opportunity to live a life in which the decisions that you make are unaffected by others' access to secret or anonymous communication.

There is a reason that cities have always been engines of economic growth. It isn't because bankers live there. Bankers live there because cities are engines of economic growth. The reason cities have been engines of economic growth since Sumer is that young people move to them to make new ways of being. Taking advantage of the fact that the city is where you escape the surveillance of the village, and the social control of the farm.

The network, as it stands now, is an extraordinary platform for enhanced social control. Very rapidly, and with no apparent remorse, the two largest governments on earth, that of the United States of America and the People's Republic of China have adopted essentially identical points of view. A robust social graph connecting government to everybody and the exhaustive data mining of society is both governments' fundamental policy with respect to their different forms of what they both refer to, or think of, as stability maintenance. It is true of course that they have different theories of how to maintain stability for whom and why, but the technology of stability maintenance is becoming essentially identical.

We who understand what is happening need to be very vocal about that. But it isn't just our civil liberties that are at stake....We need to make clear that the other part of what that costs us is the very vitality and vibrancy of invention culture and discourse....And that freedom to tinker, to invent, to be different, to be non-conformist—for which people have always moved to the cities that gave them anonymity, and a chance to experiment with who they are, and why they can do.

This more than anything else, is what sustains social vitality and economic growth in the 21st century. Of course we need anonymity for other reasons. Of course we are pursuing something that might be appropriately described as protection for the integrity of the human soul....

We need Free Software, we need Free Hardware we can hack on, we need Free Spectrum we can use to communicate with one another, without let or hindrance. We need to be able to educate and provide access to educational material to everyone on Earth without regard to the ability to pay. We need to provide a pathway to an independent economic and intellectual life, for every young person. The technology we need, we have.

I have spent some time...trying to make use of cheap, power-efficient compact server computers, the size of AC chargers for mobile phones, which with the right software we can use to populate the Net with robots that respect privacy, instead of the robots that disrespect privacy, which we now carry in almost every pocket.

We need to retrofit the first law of robotics into this society within the next few minutes or we're cooked. We can do that. That's civil innovation. We can help to continue the long lifetime of general-purpose computers everybody can hack on—by using them, by needing them, by spreading them around. We can use our own force as consumers and technologists to deprecate closed networks and locked-down objects.

Then came Edward Snowden. And then, a few months later, in November and December of last year, Eben gave four lectures at Columbia Law School titled “Snowden and the Future” (snowdenandthefuture.info). In them, he revisited some of what he said in the speech above, and laid out specific assignments I now pass along to Linux Journal readers (snowdenandthefuture.info/PartIV.html):

We need to decentralize the data, you understand. If we keep it all in one great big pile, if there's one guy who keeps all the e-mail and another guy who does all the social sharing about getting laid, then there isn't really any way to be any safer than the weakest link in the fence around that pile.

But if every single person is keeping her and his own, then the weak links on the outside of that fence get the attacker exactly one person's stuff. Which, in a world governed by the rule of law, might be exactly optimal: one person is the person you can spy on because you've got probable cause.

E-mail scales beautifully without anybody at the center keeping all of it. We need to make a mail server for people that costs five bucks and sits on the kitchen counter where the telephone answering machine used to be, and that's the end of it. If it breaks, you throw it away.

Decentralized social sharing is harder, but not so hard that we can't do it. Three years ago I called for it. Wonderful work has been done that didn't produce stuff everybody is using, but it's still there: it can't go away, it's free software, it will achieve its full meaning yet.

For the technologically gifted and engaged around the world this is the big moment, because if we do our work correctly, freedom will survive and our grandkids will say: so what did you do back then? I made SSL better.

So let's do that. And much more.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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