Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

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Caroline Sinders and Dave Winer at the Media Lab Center for Civic Media on February 11, 2016

After the first Internet bubble burst around 2001 and the Nasdaq came crashing down to pre-Internet size, most of the world wrote off the Internet as having been a failure or a fad. Douglas Rushkoff said at the time, that it was just the Internet fending off an attack. I was lucky enough to still be investing at the time and was very excited by blogging which emerged from the ashes of the crashed dot-com space.

As I become familiar with the characters active in blogging, Dave Winer was one of those guys who was inspiring, aggravating, but only ignored at great expense. When I first started blogging, I learned a ton from Dave, sometimes by having him attack me for using the wrong version of RSS, but with a conviction to the Open Web and a clarity of mission that seemed almost a bit overboard when it felt like everyone was just trying to do the right thing - when many blogging platforms allowed you to export your whole blog and import it into another blogging platform and everyone was mostly working together on all kind of standards.

I've had my own strong beliefs around decentralized networks from when I was in the ISP business, copyright from when I ran Creative Commons and was on the Open Source Initiative Board, but it was only when I saw Dave just a few weeks ago that his views about the importance of the Open Web, or more precisely, the particular layer of the Open Web that Dave has been so focused on since I've known him, hit me with a big "ah ha!"

We talked about how "the walled gardens" like Facebook and at some level Twitter feed off of the Open Web and need it but how the Open Web was being torn apart from all sides. Even the somewhat reasonable sounding announcement that Google will be lowering page rank for non https: sites will push self-hosted blogs lower in the results.

It reminded me about an argument that Google Translate is trained with human-created translations and that it wouldn't be able to train anymore if the translators went out of business. On the other hand, I suppose we may have figured out better translation training by then or maybe already have. Anyway, I digress.

We talked about how a healthy system probably involves a vibrant Open Web along with for-profit companies and that this balance was important, but how we are leaning away from the Open Web right now. Dave isn't anti-platform, just anti-anti-Open Web. Listening to Dave speak at Ethan's Center for Civic Media group meeting, I realized that I needed to pay more attention to Dave, amplify his message and take some of his recommendation to heart and into action.

If you haven't been tracking him recently, I recommend you do. I think he's speaking up about an important topic and a very timely moment in the evolution of the Web.

Here's a provocative but insightful post about why NOT to post on Medium or at least cross-post to the Open Web, which caught my attention most recently and trigged inviting Dave to the Lab with Ethan.

Kevin Esvelt accepted our offer and will be joining us in January as an assistant professor heading his new Sculpting Evolution research group.

Kevin is a Harvard-trained biologist who is merging some of the newest techniques in molecular biology with ecological engineering. He contributed to the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing technology, and was responsible for revealing the possibility of CRISPR gene drives. CRISPR gene drives allow us to edit the genomes of existing organisms and force all subsequent offspring to inherit the alteration. This could, for instance, allow us to release mosquitoes into the wild and over time eliminate the ability for the populations of wild mosquitoes to carry malaria, dengue, or other diseases. Other possible applications include eliminating Lyme disease by permanently immunizing the mice who transmit the disease to ticks, eradicating the blood fluke parasite responsible for schistosomiasis, and even alleviating the need for harmful pesticides by programming pests so they do not want to eat our crops.

As you might imagine, there is a tremendous amount of upside, but also quite a bit of fear and some real risks. One of the key things that Kevin is working on, in addition to figuring how we might deploy these technologies, is to develop safety technologies to ensure that laboratory accidents don't affect the environment as well as an "undo" version that could be released if we wanted to revert the edit.

Kevin and George Church published the first papers on CRISPR gene drives even before starting experiments because they wanted to set a precedent that conversations on responsible use should start early. One of the key things about CRISPR is its low cost - add CRISPR gene drive, and the number of bio facilities able to release potentially world-changing alterations will only grow with time.

At the Media Lab's 30th anniversary event this past October, Kevin asked the audience, "Who should decide?" Who can responsibly make the decision whether we should release these mosquitos and potentially eliminate malaria or allow us to reduce the tons of pesticides we are using, knowing that at the same time we will risk altering our ecosystem in irreversible ways? In a country where the majority of people don't believe in evolution and where we have a Congress that can't even get behind the idea that climate change is a critical issue, it's a hard question.

At our secret meeting with JJ Abrams, Kevin explained that we not only need to decide how to deal with world-changing new science like CRISPR and gene drive, but that we also need to prepare ourselves for a world where the rate at which these world-changing sciences are discovered continues to increase. It is critical for us to understand how to responsibly make decisions as society and as scientists.

We hope that the Media Lab can play a critical role in the discovery of these new technologies, the discussion around their impact, as well as the responsible design and deployment of them. We believe that design in the context of science provides reflection and ethical considerations at a fundamental level. No one discipline should ever be developed in isolation from the many other lenses on the world; the Media Lab has held this as a guiding principle for 30 years. As this new science around gene editing comes online, we are happy it does so here, where science is bound to design, much as it is in Esvelt himself.

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Announcement on MIT News and crossposted on the MIT Medium Blog.

Bassel Khartabil, a leading figure in the Syrian Open Source software community, has been imprisoned by the Syrian government since March 2012, accused of "harming state security". The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention has declared his imprisonment arbitrary and called for his immediate release.

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Khartabil's wife, human rights attorney Noura Ghazi, has recently been contacted by insiders in the Assad government and told that Bassel has been secretly sentenced to death. (English translation/comments on Noura's Facebook post, which is in Arabic.) It is impossible to confirm these rumors, but this is deeply disturbing news for friends of Bassel and defenders of freedom of expression anywhere.

The Internet Governance Forum in João Pessoa, Brazil, has released a statement demanding that the Syrian government alert Bassel's family to his whereabouts and exercise clemency in his case. We at the MIT Media Lab join this call, and urge the internet community to exercise whatever pressure we can on the Syrian government to make Bassel's whereabouts known and release him from detention.

On October 22, the MIT Media Lab invited Bassel Khartabil to join the Lab as a research scientist in the Center for Civic Media, to continue his work building 3D models of the ancient city of Palmyra, whose ruins have been destroyed by ISIS. We continue to hope that Bassel will be able to take his position at the Media Lab, and we desperately hope the rumors of his death sentence are untrue.

We ask for your help in calling attention to Bassel's arbitrary detention and seeking his whereabouts and immediate release.

- Joi Ito, Director, MIT Media Lab
- Ethan Zuckerman, Director, MIT Center for Civic Media

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Post on Ethan's Blog

I am proud to announce that we have offered Bassel Khartabil a position as a research scientist in the Center for Civic Media at the MIT Media Lab, where he will work directly with its director, principal research scientist Ethan Zuckerman. As a research scientist at the Media Lab, Bassel will be able to continue his longstanding work protecting spaces for online speech-work that fits naturally with the core research mission of the Center. In particular, Bassel is currently working on reconstructing in 3D the ancient ruins of Palmyra, one of the sites raided and destroyed by ISIS.

Bassel Safadi

Bassel Khartabil is a dear friend and former colleague at Creative Commons, and a vocal and brilliant advocate and worker for free culture on the Internet. Bassel invited me to Damascus in 2009 and introduced me to students, artists, and Syrian culture, and it remains the most inspiring trip I've ever made in the region. While I was there, he took me to visit ancient Roman sites as well as arranging a wonderful dinner with local tech entrepreneurs. The relationship between history, arts, and technology was stunning-something that no other city does as elegantly as Damascus. (Here are some of my photos from the trip.)

On March 15, 2012, Bassel was arrested by the Syrian military police, and eventually tried without a lawyer present at a military field court. Advocates across the globe have challenged his arrest and detention, arguing that his work presented no threat to anyone inside or outside of Syria, and instead represented the best aspirations of the open software movement.

I am writing this post now because, along with his family, friends, and colleagues around the world, I am very concerned about Bassel's safety. Until recently, he has been held at Adra Prison, but his current whereabouts are unknown-as of yet the Syrian government has not shared any information about where he is or why he was moved.

Bassel has devoted his career to the rich culture of Syria and to protecting that culture. His contributions to the open Internet and open culture internationally, and his research and creativity, have benefitted all of us. Without people like Bassel, the Internet wouldn't be the vibrant and open resource that many of us take for granted.

Stéphanie Vidal has written a detailed and thoughtful piece about Bassel's situation for Slate.fr, and Creative Commons has published a translation by Philippe Aigrain, Mélanie Dulong de Rosnay, and Jean-Christophe Peyssard on their blog. I encourage you to read these to understand the intricacies of Bassel's situation. One part of Stéphanie's essay in particular really stood out for me:

When there is no longer respect for human rights, public calls can only state what one hopes for. This brings us to the second point: the more the affirmation of our hope is shared and present on the Web and social media, the more it may turn to a reality. Bassel's engagement in favor of a free Internet may have brought him to jail, but the attention that we, citizens on the Internet, give to this case may, to some degree, help bring him out of the darkness.

In the name of the international academic community, I would like to ask President Assad to please give Bassel Khartabil a presidential pardon. He is an important world citizen and a true Syrian trying to protect the heritage of the country, and a pardon would be a tremendous show of good will and a contribution to the preservation of Syrian culture.

Please share this post widely and keep Bassel in your thoughts.

Links:

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As Bitcoin continues to gain momentum and capture the interest of entrepreneurs, hackers, businesses, policymakers, and academics, we have decided to launch an Initiative at the MIT Media Lab, with participation from faculty and students from across the Institute, focusing on Bitcoin and more generally cryptocurrencies.

The Initiative will explore vital research topics that our faculty and students will engage in with the support and participation of some Media Lab member companies. The students running the MIT Bitcoin Club, the MIT Bitcoin Project, and the various events including the Bitcoin Expo have been a key part of getting this initiative started. The MIT Bitcoin Expo, which was hosted by MIT Bitcoin Club President Jonathan Harvey-Buschel and Wellesley Bitcoin Club President Jinglan Wang this year exemplified the kind of interscholastic collaboration and excitement over Bitcoin research that we want to see going forward.

The Media Lab has hired former White House senior advisor for mobile and data innovation, Brian Forde to lead the overall effort along with MIT CSAIL's Nickolai Zeldovich, a highly distinguished professor in security and distributed systems, who will be coordinating the research and academics. Jeremy Rubin, an undergraduate who helped run the MIT Bitcoin Project, will coordinate communications with the broader developer community and MIT students and will also work on research projects. More details on other MIT participants can be found in Brian's blog post.

The Initiative's focus will be heavily informed by the work done by the Bitcoin community, as well as by companies and forward-thinking policy makers. We hope to be able to contribute academically and technically to the field, following the great example set by Princeton and others. This is more about rallying interest within the MIT community than forming a general long-term solution for Bitcoin development and governance.

As I've said in a previous blog post and my talk at the MIT Bitcoin Expo, I do think there is a real need for a coordinating function around standards and policy. I believe that this effort must be multinational and multistakeholder. Continuing discussion with the Berkman Center at Harvard, Stanford Center for Internet and Society, and Oxford University will, we hope, contribute to the broader conversation on this matter.

See the post by Brian on the Media Lab blog for more information about the Initiative. We've set up an IRC channel irc.freenode.net/#mit-dci, where we will be hanging out. We look forward to your feedback and ideas for collaboration.