Category: Symposium (Coding Freedom)


Embracing Expertise

I first want to thank Danielle Citron and the contributors for engaging so thoughtfully with Coding Freedom. Since the entries spurred so many thoughts I thought instead of only replying via comments as I have done with some of them, I would write one post and especially address the one concern nearly everyone voiced: the limits to and the problem of elitism and exclusion in hacker based politics.

It is a bit ironic that I went from one domain of hacker and geek politics—free and open source software—whose politics are configured narrowly around questions of productive freedom to Anonymous, which is so fundamentally about political change and transformation through direct action and protest politics. So while free software developers embrace the politics of their actions only reluctantly, if at all, Anonymous has become a banner used by activists to organize diverse forms of collective action, ranging from street protests to web site defacements. Juxtaposing Anonymous with free software is a reminder that while hackers are in the first instance technologists, they are diverse in thought and action, which mean they are not bound to any single type of politics.

I often describe hacker politics as Weapons of the Geek, in contrast to Weapons of the Weak—the term anthropologist James Scott uses to capture the unique, clandestine nature of peasant politics. While Weapons of the Weak is a modality of politics among disenfranchised, economically marginalized populations who engage in small-scale illicit acts —such as foot dragging and minor acts of sabotage—that don’t appear on their surface to be political, Weapons of the Geek is a modality of politics exercised by a class of privileged actors who often lie at the center of economic life. Among geeks and hackers, political activities are rooted in concrete experiences of their craft—administering a server or editing videos—and portion of these hackers channel these skills toward political life. To put another way hackers don’t necessarily have class-consciousness, though some certainly do, but they all tend to have craft consciousness. But they have already shown they are willing to engage in prolific and distinct types of political acts from policy making to party politics, from writing free software to engaging in some of the most pronounced and personally risky acts of civil disobedience of the last decade as we saw with Snowden. Just because they are hackers does not mean they are only acting out their politics through technology even if their technological experiences usually inform their politics.

It concerns and bothers me that most technologists are male and white but I am not concerned, in fact I am quite thrilled, these experts are taking political charge. I tend to agree with Michael Shudson’s reading of Walter Lippman that when it comes to democracy we need more experts not less: “The intellectual challenge is not to invent democracy without experts, but to seek a way to harness experts to a legitimately democratic function.

Imagine if as many doctors and professors mobilized their moral authority and expertise as hackers have done, to rise up and intervene in the problems plaguing their vocational domains. Professors would be visibly denouncing the dismal and outrageous labor conditions of adjuncts whose pay is a pittance. Doctors would be involved in the fight for more affordable health care in the United States. Mobilizing expertise does not mean other stakeholders can’t and should not have a voice but there are many practical and moral reasons why we should embrace a politics of expertise, especially if configured to allow more generally contributions.

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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.


What Are the Limits to What Hackers Produce?

I’m writing this from an airplane somewhere over the US-Canadian border. I forgot my copy of Coding Freedom at home, and was cursing my ineptitude. But then it occurred to me that, given the subject, I could probably find a copy online. Sure enough, I downloaded a pdf via the airport wifi. (For free! – those Canadians…).

This, in the most mundane of ways, is a simple reenactment of what Gabriella Coleman writes of so compellingly in her new book. Gabriella, inspired no doubt in part by her years of exposure to hacking culture, struck a deal with her publishers. The resulting CC license gives all of us who might want to read the book more freedom to do what we want with it – read it on any device, search it, and even pull it up in an airport so we can file a nearly-too-late contribution to a terrific online discussion. Gabriella didn’t know I’d forget my book at home when she decided to negotiate the license. But she did have the sense – I assume – that she needed something more than copyright law to help her achieve what she wanted from her book. Which was in part to give to the rest of us more freedom than standard copyright law would allow.

But how far does that freedom go? This is surely one of the most important and interesting questions about this new form of making software, and the new legal forms that attend it. So that’s what I want to focus on here. One of the book’s great strengths is the spectacularly detailed and clear-eyed account that it provides of hacker culture, or at least a certain hacker culture. As it points out, this is a culture that is built upon a deep commitment to the pleasures of technology (like Ed Felten, I loved the bit on hacker humor), a ferocious conception of self-help and meritocratic ordering, and also to an overt aversion to things “political.”

As a few others have in the course of this discussion, I wonder too about the limits of a form of practical revolution that starts here. How far can this new mode of production take us, if it is characterized by technoelitism, an aversion to politics, and by a subject position that is decidedly fairly privileged and high-skilled? After all, you can’t be part of this crowd and lack access to a computer and internet connection, or be bereft of free time.


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Coding Freedom: Getting Your Culture Handed to You

coding-freedom-coverFish do not write academic analyses of water (at least, fish who haven’t gone to graduate school don’t), and I won’t attempt an academic analysis of Prof. Gabriella Coleman’s insightful book Coding Freedom.

While I enjoyed reading Coding Freedom, and reading some previews of the material leading up to it, it was also an odd experience for me.  By the time Prof. Coleman published the book, I’d been living in that freedom-supporting hackers’ world for nearly two decades already — a world whose existence and boundaries are surprisingly (albeit perhaps illusorily) clear to its inhabitants, even though there is still no canonical word or phrase to name that world.  To be honest, I didn’t expect to learn much from an anthropologist’s writings about it.  What could she tell me, a native, that I didn’t already know about the world I lived in, the air I breathed every day?

One of the first conclusions many historically-minded hackers come to is that while there is such a thing as politics, there are also material circumstances that offer an escape from politics, and that hacking might be one of those circumstances.  This is less ridiculous a thought than it might at first seem.  “Politics,” whispers the hacker’s reductive mind “is about the allocation of scarce resources.  But in free software, we don’t have that problem; thus, we can’t really have politics, not the way other endeavors do.”  All the artifacts are digital, after all, and anyone is free to copy them and work on those copies themselves, without asking permission first.  People can collaborate or work separately, depending on how closely their goals align, but such decisions are all strictly voluntary.  It’s freedom of association, but hypertrophied to a scale probably inconceivable to those who first theorized that freedom of association might be an important principle.  So what could there be to argue about, asks the hacker mindset, aside from debating strictly technical questions in attempt to get at technical truth via a combination of Socratic and experimental methods?

This is not to say that anyone denies the existence of the usual small-p politics, of course: someone insults someone else, someone sleeps with someone else’s lover, social relations are frayed and have to be repaired.  But these aren’t, you know, Politics.  Politics is about grander stakes: will this land be used for wheat or for a factory?  What will our tax structure be and how do we justify it?  Who controls the missiles?  That sort of thing.

The hacker’s reductive mind is, of course, wrong in this case, but that’s not always easy for one to see from the inside.  It takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes an anthropologist to point out to the village that they’re doing it.  As I read Coding Freedom, what struck me the most was that she had realized that not only did we have politics, but that in some ways we were all about politics — that our technical activities and social behavior were inextricably intertwined, that group attention was itself a scarce resource and that group decisions were being made about its allocation all the time (sometimes through formal methods, more often through informal ones), and that the narrow definition of “politics” I at least had been accustomed to wasn’t the right one anyway.  Among other things, it didn’t include the rituals of tribal identity signification, including rituals of exclusion, that Coleman carefully documented and that I had to admit, when confronted with the evidence, we all practiced.  It also didn’t include the sometimes overt, other times unspoken performative agenda that at least partly motivates so many in our community: the desire to show the world that freedom works, that it is a practice anyone can take up, and that once you’re doing it in one area you’ll want to try it elsewhere too.  (Her connection of the modern free software ethic to its antecedents in the free speech legal tradition are some of the most valuable parts of the book.)  Perhaps, I began to understand, free software is just politics by other means.

Is Coding Freedom itself part of the hacker project?  Whether Coleman herself intended it to be, I think it is.  Free software hackers are probably not her primary intended audience.  To teach them that they have both culture and politics is a valuable thing, but I think it’s much more important that the book argues for the strong connection between a certain category of modern technical practice and an older tradition of political and social freedom, and explains that connection in ways that can be understood by those outside the community.  This is harder to do than it looks: to write about the meaning of a technical culture, one must first understand the technologies themselves enough to avoid drawing incorrect conclusions, and then one must relate that world to more familiar ones.  Prof. Coleman did this by immersing herself in her fieldwork both socially and technically (I witnessed some of this process), in a way that is perhaps considered normal for anthropologists but that would be daunting by any normal standard [1].  One result is that it’s the book I point to first when I need to explain to someone on the “outside” — those rituals of exclusion again! — exactly what this thing is that we’re doing, this movement or project or community of practice or whatever one should call it.

Increasingly, I find people are asking about it, and more interestingly, they’re much quicker now to see the connection between open source software (free software) and other kinds of freedom.  Ed Felten rightly observes that the practice of radical transparency that has long been the ideal in the free software world is suddenly intensely relevant to the wider world as well, as we struggle to figure out which software we can conditionally trust not to betray us and which we can’t — and that the data we have so far about the effects of that transparency in free software teaches us something about the kind of politics that are now playing out in on a larger stage.  But even as that particular concern abates, as it inevitably will, the phenomena documented by Prof. Coleman are likely to take on increasing relevance in many areas.  The free software world has been an incubator for a set of practices that will increasingly come to be seen as expected components of engaged citizenship: participating constructively in a semi-real-time online discussion forum, reporting bugs, commenting on others’ bug reports, treating the scalability of communications mechanisms and the inclusiveness of process as first-order problems that must be solved collectively — these are increasingly becoming part of everyday life, and the politics of the future will be partly defined by groups like the ones Prof. Coleman describes.  To quote Danielle Citron in her own post in this symposium, “The inert, as [Justice] Brandeis would say, are not welcome.”

My thanks to Prof. Danielle Citron and Concurring Opinions for arranging this symposium, and to all the other participants.  It’s a pleasure to  write about why this book is so stimulating and valuable from a subject’s perspective, and to see how it’s been so for others.

[1] For example, we’ve recently learned that journalists for whom such knowledge would be very useful for interacting securely with sources were nevertheless slow to acquire it.


Hacker Romanticism

I’d like to pick up on a theme that has emerged in some of the other symposium posts, which is that of the romantic hacker: someone who not only enacts liberal commitments within a particular context but also comes, through that process, to personify liberal individualism in its purest form. Which leads, in due course, to speculation on the movement as a template for reinvigorating liberal citizenship, legal education, and so on.

Here some realism about romanticism seems in order. One could also say that clever tax shelters represent successful hacks of the tax code, and arcane financial derivatives represent successful hacks of the global financial regulatory system, and so on. There are, of course, important differences in the ways that we would assess the results, and that tends to suggest that what is most valuable about the F/OSS movement is not hacking in the abstract, but rather hacking deployed in the service of particular goals and subjected (albeit internally) to the normative and ethical constraints that arise from the situated practices of particular communities. What differentiates the F/OSS movement from the corporate tax bar or the world of high-end financial trading, in other words, are factors that are much more specific than a commitment to “coding freedom.” And, as Nicklas suggests, the comparison to other accounts of freedom is a complicated one.

This is not, for the most part, a criticism that I would level at Biella’s extraordinary book, which takes a refreshingly clear-eyed view of the F/OSS community’s beliefs, behaviors, and quirks. (The title is perhaps a bit misleading on that score.) Instead, it’s more a reminder to the rest of us to be careful as we read it. At minimum, before concluding that the F/OSS model can be ported straightforwardly to other contexts, we might ask the question Biella herself poses in her epilogue: what support structures does the liberal society require?


Open Source Values: Transparency in the Post-Snowden Era

First, let me add to the chorus of praise for Coding Freedom.  The book gives an insightful and sympathetic take on geek culture generally, and on the social dynamics and governance of the Debian community specifically.  I was especially charmed by the section on geek humor.

The book rightly emphasizes the values of freedom (as in speech) and transparency in Debian.  I want to talk about transparency, which has taken on added importance in light of the recent NSA revelations.

Now that we know about the NSA program to “[i]nsert vulnerabilities into commercial encryption systems, IT systems, networks, and endpoint communications devices” we have to wonder whether the platforms we are using have built-in back doors.  So we care a lot more about software transparency.

Debian is about as transparent as a large software project can be. The code, the bug/issue tracker, and most of the email conversations among the developers are all public, going back to the early days of the project.  So we can look not only at the evolution of the code itself, but also at the reasons given for the changes that were made.

What makes this especially interesting for Debian is that there was a serious security vulnerability in a core component of Debian, which was inserted by a developer and stayed in place for quite a while before another developer discovered and fixed it. The bug made Debian’s pseudorandom number generator (PRNG)—which is the source of virtually all encryption keys used by Debian users and services—vulnerable to a simple attack. Anybody who knew about the bug could recover others’ secret keys without much trouble.

This was a serious failure of Debian’s quality control process, but we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that alternative approaches to software development have stronger defenses against this kind of failure. Debian’s transparency made it impossible to hide the flaw and forced a conversation about quality control afterward.

In hindsight, one can’t help wondering whether the Debian flaw was one of those NSA back doors we have been reading about. The nature of the flaw raises suspicion. A simple and superficially harmless-looking change to the code introduced a vulnerability that was difficult to find but easy to exploit if you knew about it—just what you’d expect from an inserted back door.

Fortunately, we have the full record of who introduced the flaw and what was said about it at the time, not to mention the postmortem discussion after it was discovered.  My student Josh Kroll has examined the record in detail, and he is convinced that this was a simple error and not a deliberate back door. Without a detailed, contemporaneous record, there’s no way he could have answered this question with any confidence.

The lessons of the Debian random number flaw are worrisome. Although this wasn’t a back door, the fact that this flaw could be created, inserted into Debian and remain there undiscovered for as long as it did, teaches us that it was feasible to backdoor Debian at that time.  It’s probably still feasible today. There could be an undiscovered back door now.

There’s suggestive evidence that somebody tried to insert a back door into the main Linux kernel back in 2003.  It looked like a programming error; and it would have created a vulnerability that was difficult to discover but easy to exploit if you knew about it.  Sound familiar?  Fortunately Linux developers spotted the problem and kept the harmful code from shipping.

Linus’s Law says that “given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”  Transparency makes it possible for many eyeballs to scour the code for back doors. But something more is needed to make sure that the army of coders is actually out in the field hunting for bugs.


Fifty Shades of Code

k9883I recently read a trilogy of books addressing the politics of “coding.” Recoding Gender: Women’s Changing Participation in Computing, by historian of technology Janet Abbate, describes the gender transformation from the prominent presence of women programmers in early computer history to the more contemporary cultural stereotype of men as computer geeks. Black Code: Inside the Battle for Cyberspace, by University of Toronto Professor Ron Deibert of the Citizen Lab, examines types of coding by hackers, governments, and corporations alike designed to restrict freedom and enact surveillance, whether as part of new business models, political suppression, or national security tactics. Coding Freedom: The Ethics and Aesthetics of Hacking, by McGill Professor and digital activism anthropologist Gabriella Coleman, explores the culture of certain types of hacking as a form of engaged citizenship promoting both the freedom to communicate and the freedom to innovate.

How are we to resolve the cognitive dissonance of such disparate representations of the politics of coding: as reflecting broader gender struggles; as mechanisms of control and repression; and as culturally and ethically promoting freedom? These accounts actually share a conceptual framework suggesting that software code, like other arrangements of technology, are also arrangements of power. Coding is historically specific and culturally contextual, reflecting broader social tensions and embedding decisions that have implications for individual civil liberties, social arrangements, and global economic conditions.

Long before Google, Facebook, Anonymous, or even the World Wide Web, Langdon Winner wrote “At issue is the claim that the machines, structures, and systems of modern material culture can be accurately judged not only for their contributions to efficiency and productivity and their positive and negative environmental side effects, but also for the ways in which they can embody specific forms of power and authority.” (From “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”) In this sense, technical design in the modern digital media context is a form of political engagement, but a form enacted primarily by the private sector, private citizens, or new global institutional forms. The salient question then becomes – what are the characteristics of technical design and production that imbue these practices with the legitimacy to enact such public interest effects and ultimately promote democratic conditions of communicative and economic freedom. Gabriella Coleman’s Coding Freedom makes a significant intellectual contribution in answering this question, backed up by meticulous research and a sophisticated understanding of political thought across history, cultures, and academic disciplines.

The term “hacking” is obviously malleable. As a scholar of Internet governance, the first issues that jump to my mind include practices such as regular attacks on the Internet’s Domain Name System; the Stuxnet worm sabotaging the control systems of Iranian nuclear centrifuges; infiltration and theft of corporate property; worms that exploit protocol vulnerabilities to disable systems; and the increasing governmental use of distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks to suppress human rights activists. For those who have not yet read Professor Coleman’s book, this is not the type of hacking that Coding Freedom addresses. It more specifically examines the free and open source software (F/OSS) movement and explains how this movement privileges values of freedom, access to knowledge, and privacy. As Coleman writes:

“F/OSS is an ideal vehicle for examining how and when technological objects, such as source code, are invested with new liberal meanings, and with what consequences. By showing how developers incorporate legal ideals like free speech into the practices of everyday technical production, I trace the path by which older liberal ideals persist, albeit transformed, into the present.” (p. 183)

Private corporations operating within free markets have created some of the most open and productive infrastructural components of the Internet, and human creativity and values of free expression can flourish in these environments. Furthermore, there are powerful corporations whose business models are predicated on free and open source software frameworks. But, in many areas of information policy, there are inherent and intractable conflicts between values of property and values of free expression. Coleman tells a convincing and empirically grounded story about how the F/OSS community sought to challenge the prevailing political economy of intellectual property law, create alternative modes of economic production, and produce software with productive potential for both economic and expressive liberty. Anyone examining citizen engagement in other areas of digital policy (e.g. online protests over the Stop Online Privacy Act) would be wise to emulate Coleman’s methodological rigor and interdisciplinary insights into citizen engagement in shaping freedom in the digital public sphere.

**A special thanks to Professor Danielle Citron and Concurring Opinions for the invitation to participate in this symposium**

Laura DeNardis, M.Eng., Ph.D., is an Internet governance scholar, a Professor in the School of Communication at American University, and the author of The Global War for Internet Governance


Coding Freedom Symposium: The Hacker Citizen

Does hacker culture tell us anything about good citizenship (even as it is meritocratic)? As Biella Coleman commented in Nicklas’s post, hacker platforms are”laboratories” where “participants learn and refine a range of technical, legal, political, and legal skills.” As she notes, the time is ripe to revisit debates about democratic participation from the 1920s with Walter Lippmann championing the expert as the necessary bridge between the public and government and with John Dewey calling for citizen to participate directly in public life. That struck me as one of the most salient insights of Coding Freedom. Lippman’s expert is one and the same as the public citizen participant, or at least that person, the hacker, could be.

The hacker process of production creates a culture of an engaged citizenry. Debian developers have moral commitments to personal development, mutual aid, transparency, and collaboration. Reading Coding Freedom, one senses that hackers see themselves as Justice Brandeis saw citizens–duty-bound to speak/develop code for “mutual benefit of each other and society.” (p. 120). The inert, as Brandeis would say, are not welcome. Hackers expect quite a lot of themselves and of others. Hence, the “read the f***ing manual” response to those who don’t try to solve simple questions first on their own. At the same time, hacker developers do what they can to mentor newbies needing guidance. The fruits of their labors are transparent. As the Debian “Social Contract” pledges, “We will keep our entire bug-report database open for public view at all times.” (p. 131). Hackers often make decisions through rough consensus, though not always.  To join Debian projects, hackers go through a process whereby they have to make clear that they share the community’s values. As Coleman aptly writes in her Epilogue, in the world of free software, developers “balance individualism and social cooperation, populism and elitism, and especially individualism and social cooperation.” Collaborators “make technology at the same time that they experiment in the making of a social commonwealth; it is there where the hard work of freedom is practiced.” (p. 210).

Hackers, if interested, could be the perfect marriage of the technical expert and the engaged public participant. State and federal governments have tried to interest hackers in their work, opening up data for hack-a-thons designed to identify solutions to tough problems. E-voting technology is crying out for the hacker’s tinkering. E-voting systems, built by private vendors, are notoriously inaccurate and insecure. Because the software is proprietary, hacker citizens cannot inspect the source code to ensure that it works or is safe. In too many cases, buggy software (or perhaps worse) has disenfranchised voters. Why not open up the source code to hackers who can help identify bugs and insecurities? Hackers could provide feedback on the privacy and security risks posed by e-voting systems. This feedback would exert pressure on vendors to fix problems that they might be inclined to ignore (and could ignore given the black box nature of proprietary software). Non-U.S. countries require the use of open source software in government offices. Australia’s open code e-voting project demonstrated this potential. A private company designed Australia’s e-voting system and posted all the drafts of its source code online for review and criticism. Interested tinkerers and independent auditors studied the source code and provided feedback. Serious problems were detected, and the vendor fixed the source code, shoring up the system’s security. Coding Freedom suggests the great potential of opening up the source code of government systems for hackers to perform as citizen tinkerers.



Hacker Legal Education

In my Jotwell review of Coding Freedom, I commented that “Coleman’s portrait of how hackers become full-fledged members of Debian is eerily like legal education.”

[T]he hackers who are trained in it go through a prescribed course of study in legal texts, practice applying legal rules to new facts, learn about legal drafting, interpretation, and compliance, and cultivate an ethical and public-spirited professional identity. There is even a written examination at the end.

This is legal learning without law school. Coleman’s hackers are domain-specific experts in the body of law that bears on their work. It should be a warning sign that a group of smart and motivated lay professionals took a hard look at the law, realized that it mattered intensely to them, and responded not by consulting lawyers or going to law school but by building their own parallel legal education system. That choice is an indictment of the services lawyers provide and of the relevance of the learning law schools offer. A group of amateurs teaching each other did what we weren’t.

Their success is an opportunity as well as a challenge. The inner sanctums of the law, it turns out, are more accessible to the laity than sometimes assumed. One response to the legal services crisis would be to give more people the legal knowledge and tools to solve some of their own legal problems. The client who can’t afford a lawyer’s services can still usually afford her own. More legal training for non-lawyers might or might not make a dent in law schools’ budget gaps. But it is almost certainly the right thing to do, even if it reduces the demand for lawyers’ services among the public. There is no good reason why law schools can only impart legal knowledge to by way of lawyers and not directly.

Hacker education, however, also shows why lawyers and the traditional missions of law schools are not going away. Law is a blend of logic and argument, a baseball game that depends on persuading the umpire to change the rules mid-pitch. Hacker legal education, with its roots in programming, is strong on formal precision and textual exegesis. But it is notably light on legal realism: coping with the open texture of the law and sorting persuasive from ineffective arguments. The legal system is not a supercomputer that can be caught in a paradox. The professional formation of lawyers is absent in hacker education, because theirs is a different profession.

Legal academics also play a striking role in hacker legal education. Richard Stallman was of course the driving personality behind free software. But Columbia’s Eben Moglen had an absolutely crucial role in crafting amending the closest thing the free software movement has to a constitution: the GNU GPL. And Coleman documents the role that Larry Lessig‘s consciousness-raising activism played in politicizing hackers about copyright policy. They, and other professors who have helped the free software community engage with the law, like Pamela Samuelson, in turn, drew heavily on the legal scholarly tradition even as they translated it into more practical terms. The freedom to focus on self-chosen projects of long-term importance to society is a right and responsibility of the legal academic. Even if not all of us have used it as effectively as these three, it remains our job to try.


Coding collective conformity or RTFM

(Comments here are given in a personal capacity and as merely personal opinions and do not reflect the views of employers, associated institutions, friends or, in fact, anyone else. Like, really, no-one.)

First, a thanks to Danielle Citron for the invitation and opportunity to participate in this discussion with this community, and for the opportunity to read and reflect on Coding Freedom. Gabriella Coleman has written a deeply interesting book about the hacker culture in general and free software in particular, and there are plenty of themes in it that are worthwhile discussing, but before I dig into them I would like to explore a contrary perspective.

The title of the book, Coding Freedom, seems to imply that the hacker culture is positively correlated with the increase of freedom in our societies, but in fact it seems as a critical reader could argue the opposite is true. Are we more or less free today than we were at the beginning of the hacker revolution? It  does really seem possible to argue that the rise of hacker culture coincides with the rise of state surveillance, filtering and the proliferation of control across the networks. Let us leave aside, for the moment, if that is statistically accurate or not and see if there are any explanations in Coleman’s analysis that would help explain such an seemingly contradictory correlation. Read More