If you’ve been following the story of The Internet Archive being sued by big book publishers, you’ve probably seen stuff about how the Great Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, is a library hero standing against the evil capitalist publishers.
But, as always, the truth is more complicated. Without getting too deep into the details of the lawsuit, here’s a very brief primer. Publishers license ebooks to libraries at absolutely predatory cost. Brewster Kahle asserts that if his Open Library, a division of The Internet Archive, owns a physical copy of a book, they have the right to digitize that book and lend out the digital copy forever. Publishers disagree.
As for me, I think the terms for libraries to license ebooks are outrageous and should be changed. I also have unauthorized digital copies of some of my books circulating through The Open Library, and while I’m sure this doesn’t represent a whole lot of lost revenue for me, it does represent some. Every other library that wants to circulate my ebooks pays for them. I think The Open Library should too.
But you can find lots of people with way more knowledge about copyright law than I have talking about this lawsuit online. What I’d like to talk about is Brewster Kahle, the founder of the Internet Archive and its subsidiary, The Open Library. (And something else called The Open Library of San Francisco, about which more later.)
You would think that we’d be starting to get a little skeptical of Noble Rich Tech Guy narratives, but not where Brewster Kahle is concerned. It’s hard to find a critical word about Brewster Kahle on the internet. I’d like to change that.
First, let’s go through the official version of his bio and note some pretty significant stuff that’s missing. Here’s the first part of the Wikipedia entry on his career: After graduation, he joined Thinking Machines team, where he was the lead engineer on the company’s main product, the Connection Machine, for six years (1983–1989).
You know who else started at Thinking Machines after graduation? Me! I used to sort the mail and do gofer-type-stuff for the customer support department!So let me give you some inside knowledge on The Connection Machine: it cost millions of dollars, and it didn’t work. I mean, I guess it kind of worked, but let me tell you as someone who spent a lot of time in the customer support department: the damn things broke down literally all the time. Fun fact: if you purchased a Connection Machine from Thinking Machines Corporation, you got two full-time engineers to go with it. It was that unreliable. So being lead engineer on this absolute turd of a product is really nothing to brag about.
But how, then, did Thinking Machines manage to sell any of these machines? Well, the rumor at the time was that cofounder Sheryl Handler, had a lot of government connections, and so a bunch of these went to National Labs or had their purchase funded by DARPA grants. So, like so many inspiring tales of entrepreneurship, Thinking Machines Corporation was essentially a transfer of public money into private pockets. Eventually even the Department of Defense wanted machines that actually worked, and the machines stopped selling and the company effectively ceased to exist. Did you enjoy those unreliable Connection Machines and reliable full-time engineers you bought with your tax money in the 80’s and 90’s? I know I did! (The engineers would periodically come to Cambridge and they were pretty cool guys and fun to party with besides, so there was that).
Something else I noted in one of the St. Brewster hagiographies is the assertion that Thinking Machines developed “systems for searching large text collections.” Now, while it’s true that Brewster Kahle did head up such a project at Thinking Machines, the implication here is that this was the focus of the company. This is pure horseshit. You just can’t make me believe that national labs, which spend more than half their money on military research, were shelling out five million bucks in 1990 to buy Connection Machines to do text searches.
Okay, so somehow Brewster takes his indirectly-funded-by-taxpayers search project, WAIS, out of Thinking Machines (no idea how, contractually, he managed this, but good for him, I guess) in 1992, and sells it to AOL for 15 million bucks in 1995, parlaying public investment into private wealth in the storied tradition of Silicon Valley. Kahle’s official bios refer to WAIS as “a precursor to the world wide web,” which I guess sounds better than “the tech behind AOL’s godawful Webcrawler search engine.”
Having cashed out of WAIS, Brewster Kahle started another project. Here’s the official word from his bio on publicknowledge.org: In 1996, Brewster co-founded Alexa Internet, which provides search and discovery services included in more than 90 percent of web browsers, and was purchased by Amazon in 1999.
The hagiographies will tell you that Alexa Internet is the backbone of the Internet Archive because it collected snapshots of webpages that users visited in order to archive them. What they gloss over is that this means that they got this (and created recommendations for other pages for users to visit) by tracking users across the web. Why do you think Jeff Bezos bought this technology for a quarter of a billion 1999 dollars? Because he cares about preserving the internet for future generations? No–because he wants to know what web pages you’re looking at so he can more efficiently sell you stuff and make more money!
How’s this for irony: Brewster Kahle, a guy who made hundreds of millions of dollars helping Jeff Bezos obliterate your internet privacy, is on the board of advisors of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Is this hypocrisy or atonement?
Okay, so the great hero of open information sells your web activity to Amazon and then devotes himself full time to “working to provide universal access to all human knowledge,” as his official bio at epic.org says, which somehow, years later, equates to him refusing to pay for legitimate ebooks.
A couple more interesting nuggets. In 2012, Brewster Kahle founded the Internet Archive Federal Credit Union. In 2015, the Federal Government shut it down. Here’s the government’s version, and here’s Kahle’s, filtered through a credulous NYT reporter and boosted by the normally-skeptical Cory Doctorow. I don’t know about you, but I find the idea of overzealous bank regulators in the United States of America pretty tough to swallow. Having said that, the assertion that regulators wouldn’t leave them alone after they flirted with Bitcoin…doesn’t seem like a terrible thing to me. Finally, this institution had 2.5 million dollars of assets when it shut down in 2015. I don’t know much about banking, but I do know that that is a pathetically small amount of money for a credit union. I guess the best face you can put on this is that it was a halfassed effort by people who had no idea what they were doing, which is usually the best face you can put on any disaster that follows from a tech guy getting out of his lane.
So the legend of Brewster Kahle, the hero of open knowledge, omits and glosses over some information that makes the story more complicated. Of course, all of our lives are complicated. So why try to obscure the complications? Why this deliberate mythmaking around a regular, flawed human being? It’s dangerous to create a mythology built on omissions and half truths around a person. It imbues them with some sort of superhuman status which they don’t deserve because no one does. So the fact that there’s a lot of bullshit inherent in the mythology of Brewster Kahle is reason enough to dispel it. He’s a guy who’s done some things that are good and some things that are not so good. He’s good at some stuff and not very good at other stuff. He’s had professional ups and downs like most people his age. But, ultimately, he’s devoting his time and money to a noble cause now. Isn’t that a good thing?
Well. Kind of. Look, there’s no question the Internet Archive is useful, and my quibbles with the Open Library picking my pocket for a few bucks aside, it’s a cool site. The concert recordings alone are worth the price of admission, which is free! It’s great to have this public resource.
Except, wait a minute. It’s not a public resource. It’s a nonprofit controlled by Brewster Kahle, who is accountable to no one for what he does with it. (Yes, the Internet Archive has a board of directors, but it’s three people, and he’s one of them.). We have public libraries all over this country whose directors are accountable to local government officials, who are accountable to voters. The public library belongs to all of us. The Internet Archive belongs to Brewster Kahle.
Public libraries and public archives have many many items in their collections that they’re dying to digitize. Digitization is a tedious, time-consuming, and expensive process and therefore goes very slowly. Brewster’s millions could have helped a lot of libraries digitize their collections. Instead, he’s literally buying hard copies of books that public libraries already own in order to digitize them rather than just funding the digitization process at public institutions. If he really wants to ensure public access to all human knowledge, what’s his objection to funding the work of public libraries? Well, of course, if he did that, we’d ultimately be in charge of the project. What’s Brewster Kahle’s objection to that?
What, for that matter, is his objection to paying estate taxes and capital gains taxes to fund things like roads, schools, and, um, libraries? He and his wife have a private foundation that makes a lot of money from stock appreciation and engages in some relatively anemic giving. Forbes magazine tells me that family foundations are a good way to avoid paying capital gains and estate taxes, though I confess I don’t understand the mechanisms involved, so I assume that’s what this foundation is really about. This isn’t unusual rich person behavior, but it does feel extra shady coming from a guy who styles himself a champion of libraries. (Weird fact: The Kahle/Austin foundation owns shares in a for profit entity called The Open Library of San Francisco which shares an address with the Internet Archive and is also run by Brewster Kahle. No idea what this means, but I assume it’s more wholly-legal-but-ethically-questionable rich person tax avoidance.)
Okay, so Kahle is a rich guy who uses loopholes to avoid properly funding public goods and thinks he’s the best person for the job of ensuring open access to all of human knowledge.. Even still, Kahle seems infinitely more stable (and substantially less wealthy) than Elon Musk, so I don’t think he’ll intentionally ruin TIA for spite, though of course he could do so. Tomorrow. He could decide that certain countries or IP addresses don’t count under “universal access.” He could remove entire domains of knowledge from the archive.. Despite having worked in the same building as Brewster Kahle, I don’t know him at all and have no reason to suspect he’s going to do those things. But he does have the power to do them with no consequence at all. That’s just too much power for one person to have.
But the problem goes beyond the fact that one person (fallible, flawed, and hobbled with unconscious biases like all of us) has placed himself in charge of all this information; a deeper problem is that TIA seems to be yet another Silicon Valley attack on the very idea of the public good. The Silicon Valley elite fundamentally don’t believe in democratic institutions. They believe that a Great Man (always a man) must be in charge of things in order to really get things done. Do you know who runs the New York Public Library? What about the Los Angeles Public Library? Unless you are employed by one of these systems, you probably don’t, and I would argue that this is a good thing. The preservation and propagation of knowledge is far too important to be left in the hands of one person. That’s why we have institutions.
So please. Let’s stop tripping over ourselves to canonize tech guys when they deign to do something not completely terrible, and while we’re at it, let’s fight to preserve and protect the institutions we collectively own and control.