Coding Freedom Symposium: Community is Key

Thanks to the Concurring Opinions folks for inviting me to join in all the Symposium fun, and for the chance to mull over the insightful posts from my fellow participants. A special thanks goes to Biella for shedding much-needed anthropological insight into a problem my lawyer-brain has been puzzling over for months.

I have long been fascinated by what co-participant Julie Cohen called the romantic hacker trope – especially those that thrust themselves into the politics of freedom of information in a broad political sense. In early 2011, I interviewed a number of founders of what I call the “Leaks projects,” or WikiLeaks-inspired platforms that encourage the general public to anonymously contribute content.

Despite a common inspiration – or at least branding – these platforms had few common interpretations of “freedom of information” as a political good. A handful believed in radical transparency of all social interaction, on one extreme; most others demanded this transparency of government function. Still others built their platforms as tools to help existing projects, including anti-corruption initiatives or protections for the journalist-source privilege. Almost all, however, described their platforms as using code to protect speech. That is, they wanted to protect the ability of the public to share information, particularly that content that had seemingly been confiscated from the public domain by classification or corrupt obfuscators.  In doing so, code could allow them to escape repercussions – almost always framed as unjust legal retaliation. Rather than engaging in the law, so many of the interviewees explained, they would route around it.

What many of the now-defunct Leaks platforms did not have, however, is the community and culture of engagement that Biella describes so compellingly of the Debian community. Community wasn’t an absent concept, by any means: national, regional, global, or even topic-centric responsibility was at the core of these projects. But in the everyday, there was no community interaction – I suppose because broad participation involved one-way, often one-off donation of information. (Notably, those platforms that still thrive are those in which the Leaks platform was an outgrowth of their pre-existing livelihood: transparency activism or journalism, both with vibrant communities of interest and ideology to tap into.) I’ve flirted with many explanations for why the worldwide Leaks moment didn’t persist longer than a flurry of months, including: fear of prosecution; arguments over how to responsibly publish and present the solicited information; the natural ebb and flow of other causes; the divisive nature of the most visible face of this “movement,” and so on. It’s all too obvious now, after a voracious read of Coding Freedom, but I had never before contemplated the lack of community as an explanation for the demise of many Leaks projects.

I firmly believe we need hacker citizens, as Danielle describes. We need individuals with both technical expertise and legal understanding to participate in our broader political landscape – but we also need to understand the forces that cultivate, shape, and sustain these communities of action. Coding Freedom gives us insights into exactly that.

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