22) Three Little Words

February 2001

All I wanted was to fight for a nobel cause…
But is was naive to think that, knowing the other side is evil, was enough to make us good.

It was mid February and Napster had just lost their appeal. As a side effect, we were all being pilloried in public. Headlines and editorials screamed:

  • “Information superhighway robbery!”
  • “Save the poor artists!”
  • “Fight evil pirates!”
  • “Stop child pornography!”
  • “Hackers commune with underworld demons!”

I never shed a tear for the Fannings. They’d played the game badly. Their hair-splitting legal defense had been shelled from the media industry’s moral high ground. The grown-up public turned on them quickly. After that, the judge had only affirm the general perception. Yes, Napster had turned our teenagers into bands of plundering thieves!

It was a case teenagers saw as a lightning rod. I, on the other hand, found it disappointingly predictable and anti-climactic. I tried to feign outrage but I couldn’t even manage that.

I felt nothing but indignity. Eighteen months after our victory in Rio, and not a soul could put forth a single emotionally compelling argument on behalf of our movement.


“I’m thinking about sending some money to Brewster Kahle.”

The WAIS guy? Why? We don’t even use it anymore.”

“No, not for WAIS. He’s starting a new project. He wants to archive the world-wide-web.”

“OK, Bill. I can buy, ‘Save the World!’ But, ‘Save the Data!’ You liberal types will blow your money on anything!”

Bill was one of my closest friends at NASA. A few years younger than me, and with long wild hair, I used to tease him that he’d gone to Austin’s “Hippy University”.

“Brewster Kahle’s got a good thread about it on usenet.” Bill said. “Turns out he got rich selling WAIS, Inc. Now he’s starting a new company and using his own money to build the archive on the side.”

“I have only two questions… Why??? and You’re fucking with me!!!

First, have you seen the web, Bill? Ugly yellow and orange mess of flashing, babbling gibberish. You’re going to back that up? Usenet maybe, but the web? You going to back up the dancing hampsters too? They’ll probably sue you for copyright infringement.

Second, you really think he can afford more hard disk space than the whole world? Inconceivable!”

“That’s why we should send him some money!” Bill replied straight faced. “You should really read the thread!”

Bill tried to excitedly repeat Brewser’s logic. It wasn’t just one backup. He wanted to make copies every week. Something about newspaper archives not getting broken links. The web being a future medium of record. Content being lost as fast as new pages were updated…

“One guy vs the web, Bill? Jeeze!”

The whole thing sounded so implausible. I just couldn’t get past my incredulity. I didn’t even bother to go back and read the thread.


Now, a mere half decade later, I was finally grasping what Bill had been trying to tell me.

“Newspapers don’t get broken links!”

Indeed, every decent size city employs either a librarian or archivist to preserve history. These folks buy a copy of every newspaper and painstakingly bind them into archival volumes for posterity. It didn’t require making copies and nobody asked the paper’s permission.

History, unedited.

That was what Brewster Kahle was fighting to preserve digitally. It wasn’t new or even potentially disruptive, but the cause was truly noble. Something I’d fight to the death over. Or at least I would, if the project ever went anywhere.

Five years had gone by and I’d yet to hear another thing.

But in those days after Napster something kept bringing it back into my head. I couldn’t stop thinking, “How would they react if it did?”

There was very little technical or legal difference between Fanning’s and Kahle’s projects. Both sought to make existing published works trivial to search for and access. Both wanted to keep these works publicly available beyond the publisher’s intentions. But of the two projects, Kahle’s was much more radical.

Fanning left each copy where he found it and only pointed others toward it. He never touched the actual media.

Kahle, on the other hand, proposed to make actual copies of every page, picture and sound on the web. All to be kept on, and served to the public from, his own private server. It was an audacious plan. It thumbed its nose at everything the industry’s copyright lawyers were working to have us believe. He was copying *everything* in sight and not even paying lip service toward asking permission.

Surely, they would not be amused.

Yet somehow I knew Kahle’s would be a moral win. In the public’s mine, his cause would always be nobel. They’d feel that as strongly as they felt Fanning to be sinister.

Obviously Kahle knew something none of Napter’s lawyers did…

Nor, unfortunately, did I.

Nor in fact, did the geeks who launched Hotline, Gnutella, and Freenet. Nor did any of the LimeWire, Kazaa, Morpheus, Grokster, eDonkey, or Bittorrent lawyers to follow.

I wanted the geeks and lawyers to be right. I really did. They’d pulled a rabbit out of a hat so many times before. But this time I knew it would be different.

This time it wasn’t about legal hair-splitting. It was about energizing the public. It was about rallying folks to your noble cause…

…and we didn’t have one.

No, there was nothing left to fight for.

Well… Nothing at least, until February 22, when a new champion appeared.

One who changed everything with three little words…




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  1. Hey!

    There’s at least one evil bankster listening…

    Keep going dude!

  2. Thanks for the words of encouragement. I have two more posts written but I’m never sure they are interesting enough to post. 🙂

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