Monthly Archives: October 2018

Tim Berners-Lee tells us his radical new plan to upend the World Wide Web With an ambitious decentralized platform, the father of the web hopes it’s game on for corporate tech giants like Facebook and Google.

09.29.18

Exclusive: Tim Berners-Lee tells us his radical new plan to upend the World Wide Web
With an ambitious decentralized platform, the father of the web hopes it’s game on for corporate tech giants like Facebook and Google.

By Katrina Brooker5 minute Read

Last week, Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, asked me to come and see a project he has been working on almost as long as the web itself. It’s a crisp autumn day in Boston, where Berners-Lee works out of an office above a boxing gym. After politely offering me a cup of coffee, he leads us into a sparse conference room. At one end of a long table is a battered laptop covered with stickers. Here, on this computer, he is working on a plan to radically alter how all of us live and work on the web.

“The intent is world domination,” Berners-Lee says with a wry smile. The British-born scientist is known for his dry sense of humor. But in this case, he is not joking.

This week, Berners-Lee will launch Inrupt, a startup that he has been building, in stealth mode, for the past nine months. Backed by Glasswing Ventures, its mission is to turbocharge a broader movement afoot, among developers around the world, to decentralize the web and take back power from the forces that have profited from centralizing it. In other words, it’s game on for Facebook, Google, Amazon. For years now, Berners-Lee and other internet activists have been dreaming of a digital utopia where individuals control their own data and the internet remains free and open. But for Berners-Lee, the time for dreaming is over.

“We have to do it now,” he says, displaying an intensity and urgency that is uncharacteristic for this soft-spoken academic. “It’s a historical moment.” Ever since revelations emerged that Facebook had allowed people’s data to be misused by political operatives, Berners-Lee has felt an imperative to get this digital idyll into the real world. In a post published this weekend, Berners-Lee explains that he is taking a sabbatical from MIT to work full time on Inrupt. The company will be the first major commercial venture built off of Solid, a decentralized web platform he and others at MIT have spent years building.
A Netscape for today’s internet

If all goes as planned, Inrupt will be to Solid what Netscape once was for many first-time users of the web: an easy way in. And like with Netscape, Berners-Lee hopes Inrupt will be just the first of many companies to emerge from Solid.

“I have been imagining this for a very long time,” says Berners-Lee. He opens up his laptop and starts tapping at his keyboard. Watching the inventor of the web work at his computer feels like what it might have been like to watch Beethoven compose a symphony: It’s riveting but hard to fully grasp. “We are in the Solid world now,” he says, his eyes lit up with excitement. He pushes the laptop toward me so I too can see.

On his screen, there is a simple-looking web page with tabs across the top: Tim’s to-do list, his calendar, chats, address book. He built this app–one of the first on Solid–for his personal use. It is simple, spare. In fact, it’s so plain that, at first glance, it’s hard to see its significance. But to Berners-Lee, this is where the revolution begins. The app, using Solid’s decentralized technology, allows Berners-Lee to access all of his data seamlessly–his calendar, his music library, videos, chat, research. It’s like a mashup of Google Drive, Microsoft Outlook, Slack, Spotify, and WhatsApp.

The difference here is that, on Solid, all the information is under his control. Every bit of data he creates or adds on Solid exists within a Solid pod–which is an acronym for personal online data store. These pods are what give Solid users control over their applications and information on the web. Anyone using the platform will get a Solid identity and Solid pod. This is how people, Berners-Lee says, will take back the power of the web from corporations.

[Image courtesy of Tim Berners-Lee]
For example, one idea Berners-Lee is currently working on is a way to create a decentralized version of Alexa, Amazon’s increasingly ubiquitous digital assistant. He calls it Charlie. Unlike with Alexa, on Charlie people would own all their data. That means they could trust Charlie with, for example, health records, children’s school events, or financial records. That is the kind of machine Berners-Lee hopes will spring up all over Solid to flip the power dynamics of the web from corporation to individuals.

A new revolution for developers?

Berners-Lee believes Solid will resonate with the global community of developers, hackers, and internet activists who bristle over corporate and government control of the web. “Developers have always had a certain amount of revolutionary spirit,” he observes. Circumventing government spies or corporate overlords may be the initial lure of Solid, but the bigger draw will be something even more appealing to hackers: freedom. In the centralized web, data is kept in silos–controlled by the companies that build them, like Facebook and Google. In the decentralized web, there are no silos.

Starting this week, developers around the world will be able to start building their own decentralized apps with tools through the Inrupt site. Berners-Lee will spend this fall crisscrossing the globe, giving tutorials and presentations to developers about Solid and Inrupt. (There will be a Solid tutorial at our Fast Company Innovation Festival on October 23.)

“What’s great about having a startup versus a research group is things get done,” he says. These days, instead of heading into his lab at MIT, Berners-Lee comes to the Inrupt offices, which are currently based out of Janeiro Digital, a company he has contracted to help work on Inrupt. For now, the company consists of Berners-Lee; his partner John Bruce, who built Resilient, a security platform bought by IBM; a handful of on-staff developers contracted to work on the project; and a community of volunteer coders.

Later this fall, Berners-Lee plans to start looking for more venture funding and grow his team. The aim, for now, is not to make billions of dollars. The man who gave the web away for free has never been motivated by money. Still, his plans could impact billion-dollar business models that profit off of control over data. It’s not likely that the big powers of the web will give up control without a fight.

When asked about this, Berners-Lee says flatly: “We are not talking to Facebook and Google about whether or not to introduce a complete change where all their business models are completely upended overnight. We are not asking their permission.”

After Years of Abusive E-mails, the Creator of Linux Steps Aside

After Years of Abusive E-mails, the Creator of Linux Steps Aside

By Noam Cohen

September 19, 2018

After years of verbally abusing programmers who contribute to the Linux operating-system kernel he created, the celebrated coder Linus Torvalds is stepping aside and says he is getting help.
Photograph by Kimmo Mäntylä / REX / Shutterstock

The e-mails of the celebrated programmer Linus Torvalds land like thunderbolts from on high onto public lists, full of invective, insults, and demeaning language. “Please just kill yourself now. The world will be a better place,” he wrote in one. “Guys, this is not a dick-sucking contest,” he observed in another. “SHUT THE FUCK UP!” he began in a third.

Torvalds has publicly posted thousands of scathing messages targeting programmers who submit what he deems flawed code to the Linux computer-operating-system kernel, which he brought to life more than twenty-five years ago and now administers as a collaborative, open-source project. Today, the Linux kernel is famous, running the enormous computers of Google, PayPal, Amazon, and eBay, and the two billion mobile phones using the Android operating system. Torvalds, though, retains final say over each precious line of code, just as he did when he first started working on the system as a graduate student at the University of Helsinki. For years, he has been known as Linux’s “benevolent dictator for life.”

On Sunday, the benevolent dictator announced that he would be stepping down temporarily, to “get some assistance on how to understand people’s emotions and respond appropriately.” Torvalds, who is forty-eight and lives with his family outside Portland, Oregon, made clear that he wasn’t burned out. “I very much do want to continue to do this project that I’ve been working on for almost three decades,” he wrote in a post to the Linux-kernel mailing list. “I need to take a break to get help on how to behave differently and fix some issues in my tooling and workflow.” Torvalds named a deputy, Gregory Kroah-Hartman, to run the project while he was away.

Torvalds’s decision to step aside came after The New Yorker asked him a series of questions about his conduct for a story on complaints about his abusive behavior discouraging women from working as Linux-kernel programmers. In a response to The New Yorker, Torvalds said, “I am very proud of the Linux code that I invented and the impact it has had on the world. I am not, however, always proud of my inability to communicate well with others—this is a lifelong struggle for me. To anyone whose feelings I have hurt, I am deeply sorry.”

Torvalds’s response was conveyed by the Linux Foundation, which supports Linux and other open-source programming projects and paid Torvalds $1.6 million in annual compensation as of 2016. The foundation said that it supported his decision and has encouraged women to participate but that it has little control over how Torvalds runs the coding process. “We are able to have varying degrees of impact on these outcomes in newer projects,” the statement said. “Older more established efforts like the Linux kernel are much more challenging to influence.”

Until this weekend, Torvalds had not only defended his aggressive behavior but insisted that it contributed to Linux’s runaway success. “If you want me to ‘act professional,’ I can tell you that I’m not interested,” he wrote in 2013, in response to a prominent Linux contributor, Sage Sharp, who demanded on a public e-mail list that Torvalds stop using “physical intimidation, verbal threats or verbal abuse” in his e-mails. “I’m sitting in my home office wearign [sic] a bathrobe,” Torvalds wrote. “The same way I’m not going to start wearing ties, I’m also not going to buy into the fake politeness, the lying, the office politics and backstabbing, the passive aggressiveness, and the buzzwords. Because THAT is what ‘acting professionally’ results in: people resort to all kinds of really nasty things because they are forced to act out their normal urges in unnatural ways.”

Although it distributes its product for free, the Linux project has grown to resemble a blue-chip tech company. Nominally a volunteer enterprise, like Wikipedia, Linux, in fact, is primarily sustained by funds and programmers from the world’s large technology companies. Intel, Google, IBM, Samsung, and other companies assign programmers to help improve the code. Of the eighty thousand fixes and improvements to Linux made in the past year, more than ninety per cent were produced by paid programmers, the foundation reported in 2017; Intel employees alone were responsible for thirteen per cent of them. These same companies, and hundreds of others, covered the foundation’s roughly fifty-million-dollar annual budget.

Linux’s élite developers, who are overwhelmingly male, tend to share their leader’s aggressive self-confidence. There are very few women among the most prolific contributors, though the foundation and researchers estimate that roughly ten per cent of all Linux coders are women. “Everyone in tech knows about it, but Linus gets a pass,” Megan Squire, a computer-science professor at Elon University, told me, referring to Torvalds’s abusive behavior. “He’s built up this cult of personality, this cult of importance.”
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For a research project, Squire used e-mails from Torvalds to train a computer to recognize insults. According to Squire’s tabulations, more than a thousand of the twenty-one thousand e-mails Torvalds sent in a four-year period used the word “crap.” “Slut,” “bitch,” and “bastard” were employed much less frequently during that period. Squire told me that she found few examples of gender bias. “He is an equal-opportunity abuser,” she said. Squire added, though, that for non-male programmers the hostility and public humiliation is more isolating. Over time, many women programmers leave the community. “Women throw in the towel first,” she told me. “They say, ‘Why do I need to put up with this?’ ”

Linus Torvalds and Linux Code of Conduct: 7 myths debunked

Linus Torvalds and Linux Code of Conduct: 7 myths debunked

No, protesting programmers are not removing code from Linux; there are no purges of politically incorrect Linux kernel developers. And Linus Torvalds is coming back.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols

By Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols for Linux and Open Source | September 25, 2018 — 16:04 GMT (09:04 PDT) | Topic: Enterprise Software

Since Linus Torvalds announced he was taking time off to work on his behavior in the Linux developer community and a new Linux kernel developer Code of Conduct (CoC) was introduced, there has been endless malarkey written about both moves.

Here are some of the more hysterical myths regarding what’s happening:

Myth 1. The Linux kernel has been taken over by Social Justice Warriors (SJW)!

Hardly! The new CoC is based on Coraline Ada Ehmke’s Contributor Covenant, version 1.4. It’s been been adopted by many open-source projects such as Eclipse, Ruby, and Kubernetes.

While the code isn’t that controversial, Ehmke has spoken out against transphobia, which has been seen by some as pushing her own agenda on open-source projects. Her sarcastic tweet (“I can’t wait for the mass exodus from Linux now that it’s been infiltrated by SJWs. Hahahah.”) helped bring on the flames. But Ehmke has no leadership role in the Linux community. And Ehmke later tweeted, “Maybe they think I have a commit bit on the Linux kernel? Maybe they can’t read git and so they think that I merged the commit. ”

Also: Tech industry is leaving behind women of color, report shows CNET

Torvalds, with other senior Linux kernel developers, added the CoC. No one else did. The Linux Foundation’s Linux Technical Advisory Board (TAB) is in charge of enforcing it. Theodore “Ted” T’so, a senior Linux kernel developer and Google engineer, explained on the LKML, “The TAB can make a recommendation, but the decision to act on that recommendation resides with the Maintainers in general, and ultimately, Linus.”

Sage Sharp, the former kernel developer who left the Linux community because of its toxicity, doesn’t trust TAB to do its duty by the code. Sharp tweeted, “I have no faith that the Linux Foundation Technical Advisory Board will respond to a Code of Conduct violation promptly or with a well-thought out response. Please push the board to release an anonymized transparency report on all past Linux kernel Code of Conduct violation cases.”

Does this sound like SJWs are taking over Linux? I don’t think so.

Myth 2. Linus Torvalds left and then adopted the CoC to get ahead of The New Yorker article about his discouraging women from working on the kernel.

It played a factor. But, having known Torvalds for almost 30 years, I doubt it mattered much to him. There was no new news in the article. The Linux Kernel Mailing List (LKML) is open, and Torvald’s sometimes angry management style has been on display for decades. As Torvalds wrote, he realized he “had been ignoring some fairly deep-seated feelings in the community.”

Also: ‘There’s a culture that works against women’

Torvalds added, “I am not an emotionally empathetic kind of person and that probably doesn’t come as a big surprise to anybody. Least of all me. The fact that I then misread people and don’t realize (for years) how badly I’ve judged a situation and contributed to an unprofessional environment is not good.”

Myth 3. Nothing is going to change.

Personally, I think the Code of Conduct in and of itself won’t make much of a difference. I believe you can’t legislate morality. What Torvalds does when he gets back will make the difference. He has always set the Linux kernel community’s tone, and he will again.

Myth 4. Linus won’t/can’t change.

I think he will change. In any case, he should be given a chance.

As VM (Vicky) Brasseur, open-source consultant and VP of the Open Source Initiative (OSI), tweeted, “Folks, I know there’s a lot of work yet to be done and that this is only the first step, but if you criticise someone for taking that first step (even if you think they should’ve done it much earlier), there’s less likely to be more steps after that.”

Also: The state of women in computer science TechRepublic

Myth 5. Purges of Linux kernel developers have begun.

No. And, there’s no sign of this happening.

Myth 6. Developers are leaving Linux and taking their code with them.

No, they’re not leaving.

Yes, someone under the nom de plume “unconditionalwitness,” who had never posted to the LKML before under that name, wrote that people ejected from the Linux Kernel Community due to the code could “rescind the license grant regarding their property via written notice to those whom they are rescinding the grant from (regarding their property (code).”

In other words, they can remove their code from Linux. But no one has been ejected from the Linux kernel community, and no one has removed their code. To the best of my knowledge, no one has filed a complaint against anyone to the TAB. Even if someone was kicked out, it’s unclear what would happen to the code they had already donated.

Eric S. Raymond, one of the creators of the open-source concept, wrote, “This threat has teeth. I researched the relevant law when I was founding the Open Source Initiative. In the US there is case law confirming that reputational losses relating to conversion of the rights of a contributor to a GPLed project are judicable in law.”

Also: Women are better in tech than men, says a report CNET

Richard M. Stallman, who wrote the GPLv2 and champions free software, is purported to have written, “The developers of Linux, or any free program, can remove any and all code, at any time, without giving a reason. However, this doesn’t force others to delete that code from their own versions of the program.”

Heather Meeker, a partner at the law firm O’Melveny & Myers, who specializes in open-source software licensing, wrote, “Copyright ownership in large projects such as the Linux kernel is complicated. It’s like a patchwork quilt. When developers contribute to the kernel, they don’t sign any contribution agreement or assignment of copyright. The GPL covers their contributions, and the recipient of a copy of the software gets a license, under GPL, directly from all the authors. (The kernel project uses a document called a Developer Certificate of Origin, which does not grant any copyright license.) The contributors’ individual rights exist side-by-side with rights in the project as a whole.”

Also: Diversity at Google hasn’t changed much over the last year CNET

So, what’s what? No lawyer has spoken directly to the point on this issue, and it’s never come up in court. I am inclined to doubt that the code can be removed, or if it could, that it would have any practical effect on the kernel.

As Matthew Garrett, Linux developer and Google security engineer, remarked on Twitter, “For every person that leaves the kernel over the CoC, I pledge to help mentor a new contributor interested in taking over their work.” He quickly followed up, “Well, so far I’ve got like an order of magnitude more people interested in contributing to the kernel than people who have credibly threatened to stop contributing, so that seems like a good sign.”
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Myth 7. Linus is never coming back!

Linus is coming back.

Greg Kroah-Hartman, Linux kernel maintainer and pro tempore head of Linux, signed the Linux 4.19-rc5 release message, “Greg ‘keeping the seat warm for a few weeks’ k-h.”

He will return when he feels like it.

If I were a betting man, I’d say he’ll be back in time to manage the next release cycle, 4.20/5.0, later this fall. Or, to be terribly precise, Oct. 22, 2018, when Linux Kernel Maintainer Summit will be held in Edinburgh Scotland. After all, one of the reasons Torvalds stepped back from the kernel was because this event had to be rescheduled to meet his schedule.

Also: Linus Torvalds talks frankly about Intel security bugs

When all is said and done — for all the hubbub about the CoC and Torvalds stepping out for a while — Linux is still being developed. And, none of the worst case scenarios has shown any signs of happening. For all the sturm und drang, Linux continues on.