Category Archives: Technology

Aaron Swartz, Carmen Ortiz and the meaning of justice

Aaron Swartz in January 2012. Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski. For details, click on image.

Aaron Swartz in January 2012

An earlier version of this commentary was published on Sunday at The Huffington Post.

The suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has prompted a wave of revulsion directed at U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz, who was seeking to put him in prison for 35 years on charges that he illegally downloaded millions of academic articles.

Swartz, 26, who helped develop the RSS standard and was a co-founder of Reddit, was “driven to the edge by what a decent society would only call bullying,” wrote his friend and lawyer Lawrence Lessig. “I get wrong,” Lessig added. “But I also get proportionality. And if you don’t get both, you don’t deserve to have the power of the United States government behind you.”

By Monday morning, more than 11,000 people had signed an online petition asking President Obama to remove Ortiz. Swartz’s family released a statement that said in part: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach.”

Ortiz’s vindictiveness toward Swartz may have seemed shocking given that even the victim of Swartz’s alleged offense — the academic publisher JSTOR — did not wish to press charges. But it was no surprise to those of us who have been observing Ortiz’s official conduct as the top federal prosecutor in Boston.

Last July I singled out Ortiz as the lead villain in the 2012 Muzzle Awards, an annual feature I’ve been writing for the Phoenix newspapers of Boston, Providence and Portland since 1998. The reason: her prosecution of Tarek Mehanna, a Boston-area pharmacist who had acted as a propagandist for Al Qaeda.

Mehanna was sentenced to prison for 17 years — not because of what he did, but because of what he said, wrote and translated. Though Mehanna had once unsuccessfully sought training at a jihadi terrorist camp in Yemen, the government’s case was based almost entirely on activities that were, or should have been, protected by the First Amendment.

Make no mistake: Mehanna’s propaganda was “brutal, disgusting and unambiguously supportive of Islamic insurgencies in Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia,” Yale political scientist Andrew March wrote in The New York Times. But as March, the ACLU and others pointed out in defense of Mehanna, the more loathsome the speech, the more it deserves protection under the Constitution.

In addition to the prosecution of Tarek Mehanna and the persecution of Aaron Swartz, there is the matter of Sal DiMasi, a former speaker of the Massachusetts House who is now serving time in federal prison on political corruption charges brought by Ortiz.

Last June DiMasi revealed he had advanced tongue cancer — and he accused federal prison authorities of ignoring his pleas for medical care while he was shuttled back and forth to Boston so that he could be questioned about a patronage scandal Ortiz’s office was investigating. It would be a stretch to connect Ortiz directly with DiMasi’s health woes. She is, nevertheless, a key player in a system that could transform DiMasi’s prison sentence into a death sentence.

Notwithstanding the anger that has been unleashed at Ortiz following Aaron Swartz’s death, she should not be regarded as an anomaly. As the noted civil-liberties lawyer Harvey Silverglate pointed out in his 2009 book, “Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent,” federal prosecutors have been given vague, broad powers that have led to outrages against justice across the country.

“Wrongful prosecution of innocent conduct that is twisted into a felony charge has wrecked many an innocent life and career,” wrote Silverglate, a friend and occasional collaborator. “Whole families have been devastated, as have myriad relationships and entire companies.”

Ortiz may now find that her willingness to use those vast powers against Swartz could have a harmful effect on her future.

As a Latina and as a tough law-and-order Democrat, she has been seen as a hot political property in Massachusetts. In 2011 The Boston Globe Magazine named her its “Bostonian of the Year.” She recently told the Boston Herald she was not interested in running for either the U.S. Senate or governor. But that doesn’t mean she couldn’t be persuaded. Now, though, she may be regarded as damaged goods.

Those who are mourning the death of Aaron Swartz should keep in mind that he had long struggled with depression. Blaming his suicide on Carmen Ortiz is unfair.

Nevertheless, the case she was pursuing against Swartz was wildly disproportionate, and illustrated much that is wrong with our system of justice. Nothing good can come from his death. But at the very least it should prompt consideration of why such brutality has become a routine part of the American system of justice.

Update: MIT, where Swartz allegedly downloaded the JSTOR articles, has announced an internal investigation, reports Evan Allen of The Boston Globe. Lauren Landry of BostInno has statements from MIT president Rafael Reif and from JSTOR.

Photo (cc) by Daniel J. Sieradski via Wikimedia Commons and published here under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

Naming names

I’ve seen an uptick in anonymous, pseudonymous and first-name-only comments recently. Some of them are really good, but I won’t post without a real name, first and last — clearly spelled out when you try to post. Here is the full Media Nation comments policy along with some of my reasons for implementing it.

In some cases, it may just be a matter of how you registered with WordPress. (Note: Registration is not necessary.) If you think that’s you, please read this.

Boston Media Tweeters is now a Twitter list

Over the weekend I converted Boston Media Tweeters from a wiki to a Twitter list. I made the move because the wiki had been hit repeatedly by spammers.

The advantage to the list is that you can subscribe to it and instantly start following the people who are on it. The disadvantage is that you can’t add yourself.

Click here to check out the list and to subscribe. Click here to learn a bit more about the list, and to see how you can request to be added.

WordPress.com members and comments

If you are already a WordPress.com member and have logged in, you’ll find that submitting a comment is very simple. But if you are not using your full name in your WordPress profile, then I can’t approve it. (In the case of a few people who have submitted comments using their real names in the past, I’ve done it for you.)

Assuming you don’t mind using your full name (otherwise, why would you by trying to post something at Media Nation?), there’s a simple solution. Go to your WordPress settings and click on “Public Profile.” Now you can change your “Public Display Name” to your full name.

A new look (and more) for Media Nation

As you can see, Media Nation took on a very different appearance over the weekend. I hope you’ll find that it’s cleaner and more readable. I thought you might be interested in why I made the switch.

For the past several years I had parked Media Nation at DreamHost, using free WordPress software as my publication tool. It was a fairly complex set-up — I couldn’t even contemplate changing WordPress themes without bugging my friend Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub, who knew how to delve into the CSS code so that my Google ads would show up properly. And such simple tasks as changing the header photo were labor-intensive enough that I would generally decide I had better things to do with my time.

I already had a number of websites (mainly for my students) parked at WordPress.com, a free publishing-and-hosting platform offered by the same folks who provide the WordPress software. I’d helped my friends John Carroll and Marjorie Arons-Barron set up their blogs there. WordPress.com doesn’t allow advertising, but my Google ad income was fairly minimal, and I found that the ads tended to be low-quality distractions. So I decided to make the switch as soon as my annual DreamHost contract was up.

I almost gave up before I started — it turned out that Media Nation was far too large to transfer to WordPress.com via the normal route. I posted a query to a WordPress support forum. Someone at Automattic, the company that owns WordPress, took an interest and did it for me without charge. So huge props to them.

Now all of my websites are consolidated in one place. WordPress.com is slightly limited in comparison to using WordPress with a hosting service. But it’s also a lot easier, which means that, for my purposes, I’ll be able to do more experimenting.

I’m not crazy about the theme, Twenty Ten. It’s attractive, but it’s so commonly used that it’s lost its distinctiveness. If I can’t find something better, I might at least look into messing with the CSS to make the rather enormous body type a little smaller.

The header photo, by the way, is a picture I took at the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in April 2009.

E-books and the privatization of the village square

This commentary has also been published at the Huffington Post.

Tomorrow I’ll be part of a panel on e-books being organized in Boston by the Association of College and Research Libraries. We’re supposed to talk about what we like and don’t like about them, and I can do that. But what I really hope to discuss is the place of e-books in a world in which what we used to think of as public space is increasingly being turned over to private, profit-making entities.

Let me explain what I mean with a couple of non-book examples.

In 2003 I bestowed a Boston Phoenix Muzzle Award on Crossgates Mall, in the Albany, N.Y., suburb of Colonie, for calling police and having a man arrested because he was wearing a mildly worded T-shirt in protest of the war in Iraq. The protester — actually, he was just having a bite to eat in the food court after picking up his purchase from the mall’s T-shirt store — was quickly released.

But there’s almost no chance he would have been arrested if he’d been hanging out in the village square rather than a mall. The trouble is that in too many cities and towns, we no longer have a village square except in the form of enclosed spaces owned by profit-seeking corporations. What happened to that protester said a lot more about our privatized idea of community than it does about that one particular incident.

In 2008 the Beverly Citizen, a weekly newspaper on Boston’s North Shore owned by GateHouse Media, discovered what can happen when you turn over some of your publishing operations to Google. The Citizen had posted a video of the annual Fourth of July “Horribles” parade, which included an offensive float that featured a giant, water-squirting penis. The float mocked an alleged “pregnancy pact” involving girls at Gloucester High School, a much-hyped story that turned out to be not quite true.

Although the Citizen’s judgment in posting the video could be questioned, there was no doubt that the float was newsworthy, as it had been seen by hundreds of people attending the parade. Yet Google-owned YouTube, which GateHouse was using as a video-publishing platform, took it down without any explanation. It would be as though a printing company refused to publish a particular edition of newspaper on the grounds that it didn’t like the content. YouTube is an incredibly flexible tool for video journalism. But Google has its own agenda, and hosting content that might offend someone is bad for business.

What’s that got to do with e-books? A physical book, once printed, enters a public sphere of a sort, especially if it’s purchased by a library. But an e-book remains largely under the control of the corporation that distributed it — most likely Amazon, Apple or Barnes & Noble.

We all remember those horror stories from a few years ago when some books people had purchased suddenly disappeared from their Kindles because Amazon was involved in a rights dispute. (Ironically, the books included George Orwell’s “1984.”) In some cases, students lost books they needed for school, along with their notes.

More recently, Apple refused to carry in its iTunes store an e-book by Seth Godin called “Stop Stealing Dreams.” The reason: Godin included favorable mentions of — and links to — other e-books that were available only through Amazon. “We’re heading to a world where there are just a handful of influential bookstores … and one by one, the principles of open access are disappearing,” Godin wrote.

And I’m not even getting into the U.S. Department of Justice’s investigation of alleged price-fixing by Apple and several leading book publishers.

Another concern I have involves the rights of authors. Several years ago Rodale, the publisher of my first book, “Little People,” reassigned all rights to me after the book had reached the end of its natural life. I published the full text on the Web, which led to my hometown high school’s adopting it as its summer read — which in turn pushed me to create a self-published paperback edition with the help of the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge. “Little People” has had a pretty nice second life for an out-of-print book. (I wrote about the experience recently for Nieman Reports.)

But now that e-books and e-readers have become ubiquitous, I’m worried that publishers will simply have no incentive to let authors benefit from the full rights to their own work. If a publisher can make a little bit of money by selling a few e-copies each year, then it might just decide to keep those rights to itself. This is long-tail economics for the benefit of corporations, not authors.

And have you ever tried to lend an e-book to someone?

There is a lot to like about e-books. As someone with terrible eyesight, I like being able to adjust the type to my own preference and use my laptop’s or iPhone’s backlighting rather than depend on iffy room lighting. And my iPhone, unlike whatever book I might be reading, is always with me.

But when unaccountable corporate interests maintain control over what shall take place in the village square, what content shall be deemed suitable for public consumption and what rights the authors and even the purchasers of books shall have, we have put our culture at risk in ways we couldn’t have imagined a generation ago.

Thanks to Twitter followers @jcstearns, @JimandMargery and @BostonGuyinNC, who responded quickly to my pleas for help with research.

BostonGlobe.com wins major design award

Except for the Pulitzers (which are being announced next week), I try to stay away writing about journalism awards. There are so many that this could become little more than an awards blog if I opened the door.

This, though, seems worth an exception: BostonGlobe.com has just been named the “World’s Best Designed website” by the Society for News Design. Here is some of what the judges had to say:

The re-launch of BostonGlobe.com decisively raised the bar for digital news design. The Globe’s intrepid embrace of responsive design rewrote the equation of our industry’s expectations and ambitions and defined state-of-the-art across the Web. Most importantly, the site embraces the increasingly chaotic ecosystem of devices without sacrificing thoughtfulness or splintering user experience.

“Responsive design” refers to the fact that the Globe’s website senses whether you are using a computer, a tablet, a smartphone or some other device and automatically adjusts its appearance accordingly. I wrote about that last fall for the Nieman Journalism Lab a few weeks before the site made its debut.

Coincidentally, last night my Reinventing the News students at Northeastern visited the Globe Lab, where they heard from several members of the Globe’s technology team, including Miranda Mulligan, design director for BostonGlobe.com and Boston.com.

BostonGlobe.com is at the heart of the Globe’s efforts to persuade readers to pay for online content. The paper is off to something of a slow start in that regard — about 16,000 digital-only subscribers at last count. But its technology is innovative and excellent. It’s nice to see that being recognized.

Talking about self-publishing this Sunday

I’ll be speaking at the National Writers Union’s annual book party this Sunday, Jan. 22, which is being held from 2 to 5 p.m. in Central Square. Details here. My subject will be the new world of self-publishing, which I wrote about recently for Nieman Reports. Hope to see you there.