Brewster Kahle and Philanthropy in the Digital Age

Here at Inside Philanthropy, we've pushed back on the narrative that philanthropy by our nation's biggest tech winners is marked exclusively by innovative and "disruptive" approaches and interests. Tech poster boy Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, has given to plenty of conventional causes, including the $75 million he and his wife Priscilla recently gave to a public hospital in San Francisco.

On the other hand, many leading tech philanthropists are doing some things differently, and have different interests from funders of old. Personalized learning is one example. A more esoteric issue is digital rights and the work being done by outfits such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), whose funders include Evan Williams, Craig Newmark, and Mark Cuban. EFF champions digital-age issues like user privacy and net neutrality. It definitely makes sense that guys like Williams and Newmark would be more inclined than, say, someone who made billions on Wall Street to be stewards of technology.

Related: Who Will Step Up & Save the Internet This Time?

While we've come across funders whose philanthropy considers this space, what we haven't seen as often is someone whose philanthropy makes these issues a priority. Then there's the case of tech innovator Brewster Kahle, who in 1996 founded Internet Archive, the same year he founded the for-profit company Alexa Internet. Internet Archive operates under the premise of universal access to knowledge and has grown into a huge repository of texts, audio, moving images and software. How huge? The Internet Archive houses some 445 billion web pages. Collaborating with institutions such as the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian, Internet Archive believes that "if libraries are to continue to foster education and scholarship in this era of digital technology, it's essential for them to extend those functions into the digital world." 

Kahle, after graduating from MIT in the early 1980s, invented the Internet’s first publishing system, WAIS, and also founded WAIS Inc., a pioneering electronic publishing company that was sold to America Online in 1995 for $15 million. Alexa Internet, which logged Internet traffic patterns and recommended sites, meanwhile, went to Amazon for $250 million in 1999.

Kahle has steadily supported Internet Archive through his Kahle/Austin Foundation, which he runs with his wife, Mary K. Austin. In the 2013 fiscal year, $1 million out of around $1.5 million in total grantmaking went to Internet Archive. Between 2000 and 2010, at least $25.9 million went to the archive. Support has also gone to other related outfits, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Public Knowledge, "a nonprofit Washington, D.C.-based public interest group that is involved in intellectual property law, competition, and choice in the digital marketplace, and an open standards/end-to-end internet," and Free Software Foundation, "a nonprofit organization founded to support the free software movement, which promotes the universal freedom to study." Another recent grantee is, a "nonprofit organization dedicated to expanding the range of acceptable public debate about copyright, and to reframing the way people especially artists and those who work with them think about copyright."

While these issues make up a good chunk of the couple's philanthropy, that's not all they're into. Mary is a collector of artist's books and has some 2000 pieces in her collection. She cofounded San Francisco Center for the Book, which offers "book arts classes, lectures and exhibitions for Bay Area Artists." Recent support has gone to that outfit and to Minnesota Center for the Book Arts; Center for Art In Translation; The Codex Foundation, which promotes "the hand-made book in all its forms;" San Francisco Mime Troupe; and Bread and Puppet Theatre in Vermont. More conventional arts and culture outfits, such as the San Francisco Art Institute, California Academy of Sciences and The Exploratorium have also received support. Money has also gone to schools such as Wellesley College and UC Berkeley Law.

Another example of Kahle's unique philanthropy involves the couple's support of The Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, which has the lofty goal of making long-term thinking more commonplace. The foundation develops clock and library projects and aims to become the "seed of a very long-term cultural institution." Oh, and the foundation notes that it was founded in "01996," the extra zero accounting for what's down the line in some 8,000 years.


Finally, it's worth mentioning that the seeds of another Kahle endeavor began on his blog, which features his thoughts on housing, education, food and health. After posting about the housing market in San Francisco in particular, Kahle announced a new vehicle, Kahle/Austin Foundation House, through which he wants to provide permanently affordable housing to nonprofit employees by purchasing apartment buildings. So far, the Kahle/Austin Foundation House has purchased an 11-unit apartment building close to Kahle's own nonprofit, Internet Archive.

Now this particular story, about a tech philanthropist blogging his thoughts, fielding comments and eventually translating it into real philanthropy, sets an example that tech donors could follow. Whatever the case, as Kahle and Mary dig into a unique set of issues as young as the internet, one wonders what's down the line at the intersection of philanthropy and digital rights.

Related: Brewster Kahle