Bruce Sterling, 2008. Photo by Guido van Nispen.
I've been ready Bruce Sterling's The Hacker Crackdown: Law and Disorder on the Electronic Frontier, because it really seems like "required reading" to understand the background of the Aaron Swartz case and that of Matthew Keys and other hackers and hacker accomplices. Read up on these on my other blog Wired State.
There's a lot there in this landmark book from 1993 and I'm even going to re-read it to think about it some more. It probably has more about Mitch Kapor than any other public source I know. There is very little else around about Kapor, especially in the years since about 2005-2006 when he stopped blogging and became more mysterious.
Basically, I found myself with this operating premise: had I known more about him and EFF -- had I read Sterling's book seriously in 2003, let's say, I would never have spent a dime on Second Life and I might not have invested as much time and effort as I did in trying to reform the society's rules and corporate practices or lobbying for various forms of progress in the TOS and policies.
Oh, it's easy to say with hindsight, and had I read this book in 1993 as avidly as I read, oh, The Soul of the New Machine, I might not have understood its real criminal dimensions without the intervening 10 years of experience. Even so, I doubt I would have been persuaded by its essential sinister argument: that the technological revolution, like the natural resources and transportation revolutions before it, with its ensuing tycoons, required the same kind of criminality to be built into it -- this time as "science" and "innovation".
Oh, I could see what Kapor and the rest of them were all about pretty early on -- not serious about intellectual property and avatar rights. I get all that. And it was all obvious in terms of the gambit Lawrence Lessig indulged in -- praising SL as a way of fighting the typical corporate TOS he didn't like as it grabbed people's IP and threatened draconian punishment for violating the corporation's IP -- he thought giving "the little guy" IP was something that was a wedge in that larger goal and that "the little guy" would just want to "share" stuff anyway. He dropped it all after awhile when a) his Creative Commons licenses were hardly ever used b) people preferred selling digital creations, claiming IP copyright and c) not sharing as much as he thought they would or could browbeat them into doing, in fact, despite the plethora of freebies. People like selling stuff; they like getting paid.
The IP problems and other political issues were clear, of course, and when Kapor said we were misfits and such and pulled away from much engagement with the world, speaking only of his own "liquidity event," I definitely didn't need a blimp to give me the message of cynical uncaring sheathed in betterworldism. Take from the middle class in fees and more fees in your business, give to the poor in your nonprofit foundation schemes, make yourself rich from the squeezed middle class' fees -- and promote socialist theories in your foundations the whole while that tend to undermine that middle-class small and medium business class that doesn't have the scale and the lack of ethics to do big-time capers like you do. It's Ebay's formula as well -- Pierre Omidyaar was also an early investor no longer involved. He got out. They all did or will.
But what I found more startling was the insight I got from Sterling was the sheer criminality being supported of hacking and phreaking (phone intrusion). There never is really much of a crackdown, in the sense that only a few people go to jail for more than a few months. Most of them get off. They get off because Mitch Kapor, John Perry Barlow, and their lawyers in EFF help them get off -- and therefore move the slider of legality over to their side -- sell the proprietary software, make the millions, then spend the rest of your life liberating everybody else's software, digital products, privacy -- and security!!! See if you can will utopia into existence!
When you read the elaborate and contrived arguments in Sterling's book used to exonerate people who really did commit crimes -- like hacking into and stealing the 911 manual for a phone service, exposing the people of the US to harm if they were attacked by enemies who could take advantage of this and put the 911 system into disarray -- you just boggle. They manage to take this very real threat -- threat taken very seriously today by government at home and abroad -- and they convert it into a non-crime like "the copying of a document that has no victims" or "exploring of a system" etc. If you prosecute this, why, you prevent bright kids like Philip Rosedale or Steve Jobs from exploring and tinkering and innovating.
The 911 document isn't really code anyway, they say; it's just an organizational document, it isn't worth much, it doesn't have much in it, etc. etc. Read it -- and you will the sinister logic all the way down. No company can have proprietary documents. Even companies with critical missions. If a hacker takes them and posts them on electronic bulletin board systems and hostile actors get them, too bad, it's not significant, and anyway, it's prosecutorial overreach to take those people's computers because hey, you took games and a PhD thesis along with it. And so on. Endlessly Tragically Misunderstood Artists.
John Perry Barlow claimed they were moving the Constitution online, so that "unreasonable search and seizure" in violation of the 4th amendment couldn't take place online more easily than it does offline. Yet the unreasonable search and seizure that hackers did of other people's individual or corporate private property was thereby sanctioned, as criminal law got left behind in the dust of Barlow's Wyoming ranch in the move to the Electronic Frontier. The Internet is a special autonomous realm so we get a pass with stealing stuff because you can't stop the copying of it, but oh, hey, we want the Constitution to apply to us and aid and abet us further in our criminality. It's a terrible, terrible racket. A racket that has set up our entire country to be weakened by our own hackers and then made us vulnerable to Chinese and Russian hackers. Thanks, guys!
What Sterling himself concedes is that this criminalization and exoneration of criminal hackers took place not as actual judicial decision, not as landmark judgements in court cases, but through pressure and even harassment from the community of hackers and their lawyers and friendly media -- and through cases merely being dropped, and a kind of social hack that Kapor and lawyers effected with media spin. We're going to be a long time in undoing the damage that Kapor and EFF has inflicted on our society by the criminalization of the fledgling Internet and perhaps we will never recover.
Meanwhile, I had an interesting chat inworld with someone who had a frivolous avatar name and a "I just want to have fun" description on her 2008 avatar profile, but who turned out to be a lawyer with the same default harsh opinion about IP in virtual worlds avatar rights that most corporate lawyers bring to the SL situation. Enjoy. The name has been removed.