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‘On the Internet, No One Knows You’re a Child’: The Short Life of Aaron Swartz, at Sundance

PARK CITY, Utah, January 23, 2014 – On the internet, no one knows you’re a child.

That, at least, was the message I took from watching the film about the life of Aaron Swartz. The film, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” premiered this week here at the Sundance Film Festival, during which it received a sustained standing ovation.

The documentary is a biography of, and tribute to, the all-too-short life of Swartz, who died a year ago this month, at age 26.

Swartz had been under intense pressure from the federal prosecutors in Massachusetts. Criminal charges filed against him, if proven, could have imprisoned him for 35 years. Those charges stemmed from Swartz’s having downloaded millions of articles from JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, onto a computer at the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While it is unclear what Swartz intended to do with the articles, it seems implausible that he would have republished them in an act of copyright infringement.

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PARK CITY, Utah, January 23, 2014 – On the internet, no one knows you’re a child.

That, at least, was the message I took from watching the film about the life of Aaron Swartz. The film, “The Internet’s Own Boy,” premiered this week here at the Sundance Film Festival, during which it received a sustained standing ovation.

The documentary is a biography of, and tribute to, the all-too-short life of Swartz, who died a year ago this month, at age 26.

Swartz had been under intense pressure from the federal prosecutors in Massachusetts. Criminal charges filed against him, if proven, could have imprisoned him for 35 years. Those charges stemmed from Swartz’s having downloaded millions of articles from JSTOR, a digital library of academic journals, onto a computer at the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While it is unclear what Swartz intended to do with the articles, it seems implausible that he would have republished them in an act of copyright infringement.

On January 11, 2013, he committed suicide at his home in Brooklyn.

The film, and the life of Swartz himself, has been called several things.

On one view, it’s a parable of prosecutorial abuse, or the vast overreach of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, the 1986 law — passed, ironically, in the year Swartz was born — which was responsible for 11 of the 13 charges leveled against Swartz. Since his death, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., and Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., introduced “Aaron’s Law” to curb CFAA’s extremes.

It’s also a tale of the blessing and the curse of the internet. Swartz said this himself, in one of the many archival clips of him included in the movie: Technologies have enabled freedom, even as they have unleased surveillance conducted by the likes of the National Security Agency.

I prefer to see the message more personally. No matter how advanced our society is, or our technologies become, the only way for a boy to grow to be a man is through the nourishment of the warm cocoon of a family. We are raised in families, and it is from them that we learn the life lessons to sustain us against a cold and often threatening world.

The director of “The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz,” Brian Knappenberger, impressively gathered interviews from countless associates, friends, family members, and critics. These included internet luminaries as World Wide Web founder Tim Berners-Lee, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Cindy Cohn and technologist Peter Eckersley, author Cory Doctorow, law professor Orin Kerr, Harvard cyberlaw expert Lawrence Lessig, Rep. Lofgren, resource.org President Carl Malamud, internet freedom program officer Stephen Shultze, activist Matt Stoller, and Oregon Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden.

These are people familiar to many in the world of broadband and internet experts.

So for me, the best part of the movie was to be able to watch the interviews with his mother, his father, and his two younger brothers, as well as to see home video clips of Aaron and his younger brothers. In the film, we see not a family of crises or of extremes, but a loving father and mother who nourished Aaron’s brilliance and love of computer programming. For him, software was a tool that could magically unlock the knowledge of our universe.

The film opens and ends with clips of videotapes of Aaron as a three-year-old boy, reading a story, engaging with the camera, demonstrating his love of learning and his zeal to make a difference. As a child, he built tools to teach, and to help people to learn.

Clearly precocious, in 1999 at the age of 13, Swartz got excited about RSS, the standard for “real simple syndication” and the backbone for news readers, and social media services that would come.

He was very much a part of the culture of the internet. That culture did not and does not demand permission to innovate. Through e-mail communications, Swartz dived into the work of a standards group within the World Wide Web Consortium. Always opinionated, people started to want to meet him at technical conferences, Doctorow and Eckersley said in the film.

But while he may have had permission to innovate, he didn’t have permission to travel. For that, Aaron needed to ask his mother.

At age 13, when Swartz won second prize at ArsDigita, a competition for you people to create “useful, educational and collaborative” noncommercial web sites, he did travel from his home in Chicago to Boston. By the age of 14 and 15, he had gotten involved helping Larry Lessig to design computer-readable license for the Creative Commons alternative to copyright.

Many readers of BroadbandBreakfast.com may know Swartz. I met him around this time when, as a 15-year-old boy, he attended the oral arguments for the Eldred v. Ashcroft case before the Supreme. I had been covering Lessig’s important case challenging the longevity of copyrights from the time the case was filed. It challenged Congress’ authority to extend copyright terms from 50 years after the life of the author, to 70 years after the life of the author. That 1998 law extended corporate copyrights from 75 years to 95 years, and strategically kept the character Walt Disney from falling into the public domain. Lessig, in turn, offered Swartz one of his tickets to the oral argument.

In the film, it was his mother who noted the incongruity of Swartz’s early engagement with this adult world. Here he was, a young teenager invited to discourse on RSS or machine-readable licenses, or to follow challenges to copyright law, at an important technical conference or legal events.

“These adults regarded him as an adult,” said his mother, Susan Swartz. But she said he was just a boy.

Since Swartz’s passing, we have become uncomfortably familiar with the rest his biography: he attended Stanford University, dropping out to work on the startup and hit web site Reddit. Purchased by Conde Nast, the owners of Wired, Swartz took the money from his buyout and left to become involved projects including watchdog.net, openlibrary.org, and demandprogress.org.

Swartz also got involved in projects to help open up public domain files buried within pacer.gov, the clunky Public Access to Court Electronic Records. And, most ominously, he downloaded the articles from the academic database JSTOR at MIT, which resulted in the government’s indictment.

But at this time of remembrance, it is entirely fitting for the film to crescendo to the last, and perhaps most successful venture of Aaron Swartz’s short life: spearheading the grassroots lobbying campaign to kill Hollywood’s wish list, the Stop Online Piracy Act. Over the course of one day – January 18, 2012 – leading internet web sites like Wikipedia went dark in protest to SOPA. The act, critics said, would have crippled the internet’s domain name system. The anti-SOPA campaign turned around enough senators and members of Congress that no one on Capitol Hill has yet dared to re-introduce such a measure.

Life takes us all through dramatic ups and downs. We are all part intellects, but we are also human being with bodies and lives that need nourishment and strengthening. Watching the film, I believe that Aaron was so nourished by a loving family. They and the rest of the world grieve the loss of Aaron. We should pause to honor such families and homes that provide us with encouragement and resiliency. That’s what all of us need in the face of the sort of adversity that confronted Aaron Swartz.

Drew Clark is Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and tracks the development of Gigabit Networks, broadband usage, the universal service fund, and wireless spectrum policy at http://twitter.com/broadbandcensus. Nationally recognized for his knowledge on telecommunications law and policy, Clark brings experts and practitioners together to advance the benefits provided by broadband: job creation, telemedicine, online learning, public safety, the smart grid, eGovernment, and family connectedness. Clark is also available on Google+ and Twitter.

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

Health

FCC Proposes Notification Rules for 988 Suicide Hotline Lifeline Outages

The proposal would ensure providers give ‘timely and actionable information’ on 988 outages.

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Photo via Health and Human Services

WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission unanimously adopted a proposal to require operators of the 988 mental health crisis line to report outages, which would “hasten service restoration and enable officials to inform the public of alternate ways to contact the 988 Lifeline.”

The proposal would ensure providers give “timely and actionable information” on 988 outages that last at least 30 minutes to the Health and Human Services’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration, the Department of Veteran Affairs, the 988 Lifeline administrator, and the FCC.

The commission is also asking for comment on whether cable, satellite, wireless, wireline and interconnected voice-over-internet protocol providers should also be subject to reporting and notification obligations for 988 outages.

Other questions from the commission include costs and benefits of the proposal and timelines for compliance, it said.

The proposal would align with similar outage protocols that potentially affect 911, the commission said.

The notice comes after a nationwide outage last month affected the three-digit line for hours. The line received over two million calls, texts, and chat messages since it was instituted six months ago, the FCC said.

The new line was established as part of the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act, signed into law in 2020.

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Health

FCC Eliminates Use of Urban-Rural Database for Healthcare Telecom Subsidies

The commission said the database that determined healthcare subsidies had cost ‘anomalies.’

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WASHINGTON, January 26, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission adopted a measure Thursday to eliminate the use of a database that determined the differences in telecommunications service rates in urban and rural areas that was used to provide funding to health care facilities for connectivity.

The idea behind the database, which was adopted by the commission in 2019, was to figure out the cost difference between similar broadband services in urban and rural areas in a given state so the commission’s Telecom Program can subsidize the difference to ensure connectivity in those areas, especially as the need for telehealth technology grows.

But the commission has had to temporarily provide waivers to the rules due to inconsistencies with how the database calculated cost differences. The database included rural tiers that the commission said were “too broad and did not accurately represent the cost of serving dissimilar communities.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel gave an example at Thursday’s open meeting of the database calculating certain rural services being cheaper than in urban areas, when the denser latter areas are generally less expensive.

As such, the commission Thursday decided to revert the methods used to determine Telecom Program support to before the 2019 database order until it can determine a more sustainable method. The database rescission also applies to urban cost determinations.

“Because the Rates Database was deficient in its ability to set adequate rates, we find that restoration of the previous rural rate determination rules, which health care providers have continued to use to determine rural rates in recent funding years under the applicable Rates Database waivers, is the best available option pending further examination in the Second Further Notice, to ensure that healthcare providers have adequate, predictable support,” the commission said in the decision.

Healthcare providers are now permitted to reuse one of three rural rates calculations before the 2019 order: averaging the rates that the carrier charges to other non-health care provider commercial customers for the same or similar services in rural areas; average rates of another service provider for similar services over the same distance in the health care provider’s area; or a cost-based rate approved by the commission.

These calculations are effective for the funding year 2024, the commission said. “Reinstating these rules promotes administrative efficiency and protects the Fund while we consider long-term solutions,” the commission said.

The new rules are in response to petitions from a number of organizations, including Alaska Communications; the North Carolina Telehealth Network Association and Southern Ohio Health Care Network; trade association USTelecom; and the Schools, Health and Libraries Broadband Coalition.

“The FCC listened to many of our suggestions, and we are especially pleased that the Commission extended the use of existing rates for an additional year to provide applicants more certainty,” John Windhausen Jr., executive director of the SHLB Coalition, said in a statement.

Comment on automating rate calculation

The commission is launching a comment period to develop an automated process to calculate those rural rates by having the website of the Universal Service Administrative Company – which manages programs of the FCC – “auto-generate the rural rate after the health care and/or service provider selects sites that are in the same rural area” as the health care provider.

The commission is asking questions including whether this new system would alleviate administrative burdens, whether there are disadvantages to automating the rate, and whether there should be a challenge process outside of the normal appeals process.

The Telecom Program is part of the FCC’s Rural Health Care program that is intended to reduce the cost of telehealth broadband and telecom services to eligible healthcare providers.

Support for satellite services

The commission is also proposing that a cap on Telecom Program funding for satellite services be reinstated. In the 2019 order, a spending cap on satellite services was lifted because the commission determined that costs for satellite services were decreasing as there were on-the-ground services to be determined by the database.

But the FCC said costs for satellite services to health care service providers has progressively increased from 2020 to last year.

“This steady growth in demand for satellite services appears to demonstrate the need to reinstitute the satellite funding cap,” the commission said. “Without the constraints on support for satellite services imposed by the Rates Database, it appears that commitments for satellite services could increase to an unsustainable level.”

Soon-to-be health care providers funding eligibility

The FCC also responded to a SHLB request that future health care provider be eligible for Rural Health Care subsidies even though they aren’t established yet.

The commission is asking for comment on a proposal to amend the RHC program to conditionally approve “entities that are not yet but will become eligible health care providers in the near future to begin receiving” such program funding “shortly after they become eligible.”

Comments on the proposals are due 30 days after it is put in the Federal Register.

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Digital Inclusion

Broadband Breakfast Interview With Michael Baker’s Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel

Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the bipartisan infrastructure law.

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Digital Equity provisions are central to state broadband offices’ plans to implement the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment grant program under the bipartisan infrastructure law.

In this interview with Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark, Michael Baker International Broadband Planning Consultants Teraira Snerling and Samantha Garfinkel go into detail about the role of Digital Equity Act plans in state broadband programs.

Michael Baker International, a leading provider of engineering and consulting services, including geospatial, design, planning, architectural, environmental, construction and program management, has been solving the world’s most complex challenges for over 80 years.

Its legacy of expertise, experience, innovation and integrity is proving essential in helping numerous federal, state and local navigate their broadband programs with the goal of solving the Digital Divide.

The broadband team at Michael Baker is filling a need that has existed since the internet became publicly available. Essentially, Internet Service Providers have historically made expansions to new areas based on profitability, not actual need. And pricing has been determined by market competition without real concern for those who cannot afford service.

In the video interview, Snerling and Garfinkel discuss how, with Michael Baker’s help, the federal government is encourage more equitable internet expansion through specific programs under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

The company guides clients to incorporate all considerations, not just profitability, into the project: Compliance with new policies, societal impact metrics and sustainability plans are baked into the Michael Baker consultant solution so that, over time, these projects will have a tremendous positive impact.

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