April 30, 2008

Patent Death

Category: IP Law,Pharma,Politics — Biella @ 5:11 pm

““This is like imposing the death penalty for relatively minor acts of misconduct.”

Got a Cause? Call

Category: Politics,Tech — Biella @ 3:43 pm

Some of the more powerful tools combine data banks of information with robust technological features. One such tool is the Cause Caller developed by Fred Benenson, an ITP graduate student who developed it for his thesis project.

Here is some more information and make sure to check out the blog for even more:

The promise of a truly participatory democracy has never been clearer than digital media has made it today. The unique distributive nature of the Internet provides a platform that has the potential to deliver on this promise by facilitating better group action at lower cost,thereby encouraging actual participation in democracy. There have been many meaningful developments in bringing better information and actions to citizens looking to use digital networks to serve their political needs, but many useful tools and databases remain proprietary and costly while others remain too general or ineffective for political action.

Cause Caller uses open source technology to deliver on the promise of a participatory democracy by taking the hassle and difficulty out of organizing phone banks. Users of Cause Caller can create individual causes and associate new politicians to those causes.

The Future of the Internet Depends on its Past

Category: Ethics,F/OSS,Internet,IP Law,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 8:41 am

A few weeks ago, NYU hosted an interesting event about the future of the Internet, appropriately tittled The Futures of the Internet, the video of which is now available here. One of the panelists was Jonathan Zittrain (who recently wrote an important new book bearing the same name as the event) and during the talk he provided a few ideas about how geeks and developers can help secure the Future of the Internet. While I agree with a lot—in fact most—of his assessments about the state and fate of the Internet as he lays out in his book and his talks, his characterization of geek/hacker/developer politics is not one of them.

Basically, one of Zittrain’s claims is that developers are not doing enough to save the Future of the Internet and it is their rampant, Atlas-like libertarianism, which is, in part, to blame (first made 37:20 minutes into the video for those who want to listen to the actual comments). They have little-to-no “political consciousness,” are “too cool” to care about the “fine print” and they don’t care about the broader politics of the the Internet because they assume that they can just hack around any sort of barrier and impediment.

While we can, without a doubt, identify a strain of libertarianism among hackers, it is by no means representative of all of geekdom and in fact, is becoming more and more a worn out 1990s stereotype/cliché as time passes than an accurate representation of what is a far more variegated set of ethics and practices among hackers (and I will soon publish an article on this topic).

It also completely fails to capture the ethical spirit as well as sociological, and political workings of one of the most important strains of hacking—free and open source software—which not only powers most of our (open) Internet but which in fact has provided a pretty hefty ethical backbone by which to conceptualize one of the ways we should think about the fight for the future of the Internet.

Ok, time for a rant now :-)

Geeks not only designed the Internet, an indisputably revolutionary medium, but also implemented, and continue to maintain it, and then in their copious spare time, also engage in fighting back the political, legal and corporate encroachment which threatens to limit the very revolutionary nature of the Internet (as Chris Kelty’s new book on Free Software argues). If these acts by geeks are not enough political action, then maybe the development of not just one, but multiple entirely open and free alternatives to the only two proprietary operating systems that exist today might be a political act that would satisfy? Many would agree that even simply using a free operating system is a political act. It would be better to claim that individuals, lawyers and other political actors are not doing enough to save the Future of the Internet, rather than imploring the already overtaxed geeks to set aside everything that they are already doing to do something even more.

(end rant)

It also seems that when it comes to political questions related to the Internet, net neutrality being the hot topic now, or fighting restrictive and problematic laws like the DMCA, one of the only groups of people (outside of lawyers and librarians) to actually understand and dissect the fine print (and geeks actually are pretty attuned to and like to dissect the fine legal print), to protest these unsavory laws, and to support the organizations who are doing something about it (like the EFF), are geeks and hackers. While many geeks are not necessarily keen on conceptualizing their labor in traditional political terms, or aligning their technical projects with a political affiliation, and yes would rather just be writing good code, they do fight for their productive freedom and this productive freedom just happens to relate to most questions and concerns related to an open, accessible, and tweakable Internet, built by the geeks, lest we forget

What was perhaps most surprising was that he also seemed to think that geeks and developers have not turned to “apprenticeship,” nor policies and procedure to coordinate their development projects, unlike Wikipedia, which he considers a shining example that geeks should look towards as a beacon of policy that geeks should consider emulating in their projects (comments made answering my question). He clearly has not been hanging out with any Debian developers in the last 10 years nor has he gone through their New Maintainer Process ;-)

In other words, he seems to think they are allergic to regulation due to their accentuated libertarianism, or are against structure because of their anarchism, neither which is remotely true. I think I found this characterization most ironic and problematic for before Wikipedia was even an entry on a Wiki, projects like Debian (and most other F/OSS projects) were transforming and changing to integrate normative procedures and policies that allowed a group of people to work together, scale, grow and deal with crises’. No, they don’t have the Wikipedia “badge” system, but that system is emblematic of Wikipedia’s own transformation into integrating its own normative procedures and policies for working together, not an example of an idealized policy system that other projects are too primitive to have evolved into yet.

About one hour into the talk when questions opened up, I objected to his characterization, but given his answer back to me, I did not make much of a dent in his thinking. Another lawyer Tim Wu (who also wrote a wonderful book on the Internet) chimed in to give me some props and also made a good point that even if geeks are the only groups of people who would “storm AT&T” and know intimately about the importance of net neutrality, there is a lot of room for thinking about how to strengthen and improve the tactics and politics among geeks and developers so that we can ensure the type of open and “generative” Internet and set of technologies we value.

As part of thinking and rethinking new strategies, it is as key to acknowledge and honor the past. In this regard, free software development has been pivotal both in terms of providing software (and making it is an important political act as is choosing to use free software over propriety software) and a set of important set of ideas that a lot of lawyers like Yochai Benkler and Lawrence Lessig have run with to make some important political claims of their own.

So despite my rant above, which was a rant and thus exaggerates things to some degree, I do think there is much more that geeks and non-geeks can do, such as help translate these uber-geeky issues into less geeky terms (and actually this is already being done by some geeks as the work of Jelena Karanovic has shown, or translate the technical issues into new domains as the uber-geek Karl Fogel is doing with question copyright but first lets give credit where credit it due and recognize that labor is political

April 23, 2008

Ephemeral Videos

Category: Film,Tech — Biella @ 3:01 am

Last night someone told me about this amazing archive of “ephemera”l videos made possible by the work of Rick Prelinger. I spent a lot of time last night wathching videos and while they cover a wide host of topics (and there is a tag cloud to help with the categorization), they are generally short educational, advertising, or corporate films that would never had survived if it were not for these types of archives/efforts.

April 18, 2008


Category: Hackers,Tech — Biella @ 6:24 am

Phrack is back..

Think about Copyright

Category: IP Law,New York,Not Wholesome,Politics — Biella @ 5:54 am

This is a very local copyright story that concerns a local NYC coffee shop by the name of Think and a NYU student but it is this locality, or the fact that copyright regimes often act as a barricade in everyday, “mundane” situations, which makes these regimes so problematic in the first place.

Oh, the trauma

Category: Not Wholesome,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 5:18 am

If only I had this book My Beautiful Mommy when I was a youthful spring chicken, I may have grown with a less traumatized soul. It is a “book that helps kids cope with mommy’s plastic surgery” and without such an aid, I was lost, so lost.

April 17, 2008

Chiki-Chiki Precario,Euromayday’08

Category: Politics,Tech — Biella @ 4:53 am

It is not the case that “copyleft” is paired with issues such as sexual freedom and immigrant rights all that often. But there are times when they are bundled together as in this video, which is advertising a Pan-Europe set of May 1st events. And even if you don’t know Spanish, you will get something out of the video given its zany aesthetics (and note that “El Copyleft” is number 1 on their list :-) )

April 16, 2008

My Special Topics Course on Hacking

Category: Academic,Hackers,Teaching,Tech — Biella @ 4:52 am

So I am nearly done with teaching this year, which is a relief, not because I don’t like it but because after a full year of teaching, one naturally wants a break. But before it is even over, you have to start thinking about your fall courses, mostly so you can order books in time and because developing a syllabus also requires more than a few days or weeks of work. Next fall, I am re-teaching a first year course Introduction to Human Communication and Culture as well as a new course on computer hacking. While I have an old version of the syllabus, I am going to spend the next few weeks revising, reshuffling, and updating. If there is anything you think should be included in this type of course drop me a line.

Below is the new description of the course.

The Culture and Politics of Computer Hacking.

This course takes as its object computer hackers to interrogate not only the ethics and practices of hacking, but to examine more broadly how hackers and hacking have transformed the politics of computing and the Internet more generally. We will examine how hacker values are realized and constituted by different legal, technical, and ethical activities of computer hacking—for example, free software production, cyberactivism and hactivism, cryptography, and the pranksih games of hacker underground. We will pay close attention to how ethical principles are variably represented and thought of by hackers, journalists, and academics and will use the example of hacking to address various topics on law, order, and politics on the Internet such as: free speech and censorship, computer gaming, privacy and security, and intellectual property. This will allow us to critically 1) problematize thinking on computer hackers as a socio-cultural group guided by a singular ethic and set of practices 2) examine the multiple ways hackers draw on and reconfigure dominant ideas of property, freedom, and privacy through their diverse moral codes and technical activities 3) broaden our understanding of politics of the Internet by evaluating the various political effects and ramifications of hacking.

April 10, 2008

Joe Reagle’s Dissertation

Category: Academic,Politics,Tech,Web 2.0,Wikipedia — Biella @ 8:58 am

Wikipedia, though increasingly becoming an everyday fixture for many in the Wired World, means a lot of different things to different people. If you want to take a fascinating look into what one person, Joe Reagle has written about this unwieldy project, community and encyclopedia, take a look here. He recently defended his dissertation and I have read it through and through a couple of times. It has some great insights about the significance and culture of Wikipedia by laying bare its cultural dynamics as well as putting it in historical context with similar encyclopedic endeavors.