Thursday, 24 June 2010

LSD Magazine interviews Internet Guru & Activist 'Austin Heap' - ISSUE 4

Could you give us some background on yourself, how you honed your skills, and some insight into how you ended up designing software to circumvent Iranian internet filters

Well myself and Daniel, the other primary guy that I work with in the non profit organisation, are both self taught computer junkies. I often joked with my parents that it was the internet rather than them which raised me and there was a point in the 6th grade when they actually tried to take me to internet addiction therapy! The internet for me has always been this endless source of information, an incredible way to learn, and such an empowering tool and even when I was in 4th grade learning my first programming language, I saw just how amazing it was that we could all participate. There I am sitting at home on my little 25mhz computer and my dial up and there are these giant universities with their 100mhz machines but we can all participate in this global community. The ground work at that point in time was just being laid and I was spending phenomenal amounts of time on line learning a vast range of different programming languages and  the internet just became a central point in my life. I don’t want to speak for Dan but I know that he has a similar history. We learned everything from the open source community and from people who didn’t necessarily want any money but a chance to contribute their knowledge to what could be a greater good and help develop the potential of the internet. Throughout that time I had always been a heartfelt opponent of censorship and a vigorous supporter of open information, consumer rights and human rights, even down to Apple telling you how you can and can’t use the iphone.

I got in trouble a few years back for posting some internal emails from a company here in the states called Diebold. They are the manufacturer of our voting machines and in one of the emails to Jeb Bush before the 04 election, the head of the company promises to “deliver the election” to George Bush in Ohio. There were 5 of us, all students that were involved in the leak and people all over the world helped post and disseminate these documents. Diebold slowly started going after various people and going after their schools and you know it really doesn’t matter who or where it comes from, I just don’t like when people try to control information especially when they have no business doing it. Bottom line, when you make our voting machines, you sign up for openness, proprietary technology or not. I’m sorry but when you control our democracy via your technology, if you don’t want to be open we’re going to help you be open.

On that basis what do you make of sites like Wikileaks?

We’ve been talking to some of the guys at Wikileaks and I really hope that we can collaborate in the future. I think that Wikileaks is one of the most breathtaking projects on the internet and in their short history, they have broken more giant stories than the Wall Street Journal has in the past 100 years. Standing up for this cause, dealing with the law suits, dealing with the political impacts, setting up servers all over the world just so they can give a whistleblower the chance to tell their story is I think such an remarkably noble cause and I’m a huge huge fan of theirs.

How did you come to be a part of the Censorship Research Centre?

Pretty much right after the election happened this past summer I was on Twitter (on the internet as always!) and it occurred to me that Iran behaving in a way that falls into the category of stuff that I don’t like. Trying to mess with the internet is not something I take kindly to and that combined with Iran having such a young, well connected and tech savvy population really brought the whole thing crashing home. It became very clear, very fast (of course I say this in hindsight!) that we had to set up the non profit and do everything we could to tilt the power back in favour of the people and we were lucky enough to team up with the most phenomenal pro bono legal team you could ever ask for.

I’ll never forget them sitting me down in a bar here in San Francisco and saying ‘look Austin, you have to stop doing things so fast, you have to do them legally, you have to set up your organisation and if you want to take on internet censorship and freedom of speech as a human rights issue which was the core of our mission, you have to do it within the letter of the law or it’s not going to be sustainable. So that’s where forming the CRC came in. If you had asked me a year ago whether we would be setting up a non profit I would have said no – we’re just going to release some technology, then I’ll go back to my job and Dan will go back to his, Today, Dan and I are working 60 to 80 hours a week at the CRC and that’s not including the travel which I now consider personal time! It just got so busy, there is so much to take care of and I’m lucky to have such a great team who shares this vision but it’s not an easy or quick undertaking to say that you will provide a whole country with unfiltered internet. It’s not something that happens overnight and I think the foundation of our non profit was just step 1 in doing this the right way and making sure that we are able to meet our goal and remove the ability of oppressive governments to censor and control what people can say online.