This is from April 7, 2018. Complete transcription and video available here at the Internet Archive. (A complete index of all speakers is forming here on the Aaron Swartz Day website.)
Below is Mitch Kapor’s entire opening talk AND his two Q & A answers. CIA story here.
Cindy Cohn: So let’s start with our esteemed panel.. let me start with Mitch Kapor. He’s a pioneer of the tech industry and a longtime startup investor. He founded Lotus Development Corporation and designed Lotus 1 2 3. The first killer app which made the personal computers ubiquitous in business. He’s the co-founder with Barlow and John Gilmore of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He was the founding chair of Mozilla, creator of the Firefox web browser, and currently he works to bring together the worlds of business and social impact and to diversify the tech ecosystem.
One of the things that Mitch gave us, that we still use all the time at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is the idea that architecture is politics. That the idea of embedding cooperation, mutual aid and the sense of civic duty into the Internet’s protocols and operations makes our world better, and that we need to continue to push for that.
So now, without further ado, Mitch Kapor.
Mitch Kapor: Thank you Cindy, and hello to everyone. So many old friends and familiar faces here today. I thought I would read just five short sentences from EFF’s first public statement. “Across the electronic frontier.” It bears both of our names as authors but as you’ll hear it’s really in John’s voice and it sets the tone for what was to come. [01:10:00]
(He starts reading:) “Over the last 50 years the people of the developed world have begun to cross into a landscape unlike any which humanity has experienced before. Cyberspace, the repository for all digital or electronically transferred information, will be the venue for most of what is now commerce, industry, and broad scale human interaction. It is the homeland of the information age. The place where the future is destined to dwell. Certainly the old concepts of property, expression, identity, movement, and context, based as they are on physical manifestation, do not apply succinctly in a world where there can be none. Sovereignty over this new world is also not well-defined. It is therefore a perfect breeding ground for both outlaws and vigilantes.” [01:10:58]
So first of all, this was in 1990. If you can think back, or look back if you’re not old enough to have been there, just prehistoric times. Five years before the web as we know it was even born. Almost no one was on the Internet. It was still very much a research and military driven network that was just beginning to be made available to the public. But Barlow absolutely nailed its essential character and what was going to happen. And that was his genius. And that expression of it was quintessentially Barlovian and it was visionary and poetic. But what he said had enormous practical consequences. And my role in this; I did a bunch of things. I brought some money. I brought some entrepreneurial energy. But as John liked to say I always came equipped to provide Barlow with a hyperbolectomy.
But at the same time, you should know, that so many of the stories that he told were literally true, not literarily true. So, for instance, as he wrote in Crime and Puzzlement. I really did detour my jet to Pinedale, Wyoming. I was on a trip from Boston (where I lived at the time in Silicon Valley) and I could not stop thinking about the dangerous ignorance of the law enforcement’s vendetta against teenage cyberspace vandals and I needed to talk to the only other person I knew who really got it and that was John Perry Barlow. And I flew the jet and stopped in Pinedale, and we connected, and you know the connection was one, a bit the way alien abductees sharing their UFO experiences have. They’re just trying to make sense of this weird thing that’s happened to them, and how to tell it to the larger world. (And that was his metaphor by the way.) [01:13:27]
And thus was born a partnership and like a rock band, unsurprisingly we took our show on the road, not to the Fillmore, but to hearing rooms in the Senate and the house, and inside the bowels of the CIA (where we smuggled in listening devices), into the heart of Silicon Valley, into more than a few dark basements of teenage hackers, and more than one courtroom. (Note! More on the CIA recording in the Q & A answer below).
Yes, the EFF got its start as a civil liberties organization, and for decades, I resented the way The Wall Street Journal characterized us as a “hacker defense fund,” but you know that’s not completely unfair. The issue was it wasn’t just that. Civil liberties were a place where Barlow and I came together, despite our very different politics. But the legacy of EFF, and what we created and what he brought to it, was far more than that.
In hindsight, the biggest impact that I think we had, was in raising consciousness. That these issues matter: property, expression, identity, and movement, and that things were changing, and they were going to change a lot and soon. And there was an urgency to get ahead of the issues before the issues got ahead of us. And to do it in a way that was as thoughtful and as generous of spirit as possible. [01:15:12]
And one of the moments of which he and I were both justifiably proud, was when, the first time, we saw in one room, the hackers and the feds shaking hands and seeing each other as human beings and not faceless enemies. Well, it’s nearly 30 years later now. If anything, I think we underestimated the transformative impact of information technology. And while the crises of today are deeply, deeply troubling, I believe we’re all better off for having gotten an early start; even if, as is surely the case least, if you ask me, we got some of it right and a lot of it wrong. But Barlow never gave up hope and neither should we. And I can feel his generous and optimistic spirit right here in the room today inspiring all of us. Thank you. [01:16:30]
Audience Question: “What did you disagree with Barlow about?”
Mitch Kapor: We really disagreed about whether government could have a constructive role in addressing some of the considerations to get appropriate (Stops. Thinks.)
Well, look at it this way: I thought there was a place for appropriate regulation; public policy around telecommunications and infrastructure, and led EFF on a death march to Washington D.C. and its early days, to try to bring that about. And John, at that point, was a pretty resolute libertarian; the less government the better. I lost that battle entirely, both in D.C. and how it was resolved and EFF became, and was, staunchly libertarian. John Gilmore and I and others, in that phase of things. So it was only later that I came to understand that really the only thing that liberals and libertarians agree about is civil liberties. On pretty much everything else, they’re on you’re on opposite sides. Nonetheless, the fact that we disagreed didn’t reduce the intensity of feeling we had for each other. [01:56:10]
Audience question: Can you describe a moment that you and John had that frightened you?
Mitch Kapor: Yeah I alluded to it. We were invited into the CIA, this is early days, to just talk about the issues that we were we were working on. And in Langley, in the headquarters. I’ve never been there. I don’t think John had ever been at that point. And it’s this big fortress and there are lots of signs about no recording devices and turn everything in. And John and I conferred and we devised a plan. We said “well, can we bring in our laptops?” This is in the early 1990s. Yes, actually if you check the laptop, (they said) you can bring your laptop.
Our laptops were recording devices. This was brand new at that point that our Macs had mics in them and audio capture software and this wasn’t a common thing and we said to each other “I wonder if the CIA knows this?” [02:01:50]
So we were scared. And they didn’t know that. And we went in and recorded the meeting inside the bowels of the CIA. Quite illegally. We thought of it as a sort of science experiment. I mean, we didn’t just want to make claims that the government was cluefull or clueless. We wanted to see. Since they made such a big point about the security saying you know understood that Mac duo had a…and they didn’t. But we were pretty nervous going in. That’s a true story!
Transcription by Lisa Rein (Co-founder Aaron Swartz Day & Creative Commons, and friend of John Perry Barlow). Lisa Rein used Teme to start – and then cleaned it up by comparing it to the video, over many days :) Corrections are very much appreciated-please send them to: lisa[@]lisarein.com.