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Editor's Note: Hackers Defend Liberty

Feb 18, 2011, 23:03 (16 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Carla Schroder)

by Carla Schroder
Managing Editor

We've all seen the many failures of the law, of government and business. That's where hackers come in.

I'm one of those grouchy old geezers who resents that hacker is nearly always used to mean "criminal who breaks into computer systems to do bad things". Hacker and hack mean a lot of different things:

  • A golfer without skill, a weekend hacker on the golf course
  • An ordinary, nothing special saddle horse: "We rented a hack for the weekend for trail riding"
  • A writer or artist with little skill or talent, or a writer or artist doing low-quality hack work
  • A bought politician with no principals is a political hack
With such a long history of negative connotations it's no wonder that computer hacker slides so easily into a negative meaning. If we go with the classic negative definitions then Microsoft is the top computer hacker of all time.

But I like rescuing good words from sad bad fates, and so I cling to Eric Raymond's definition:

"1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities, as opposed to most users, who prefer to learn only the minimum necessary...

"6. An expert or enthusiast of any kind. One might be an astronomy hacker, for example.

"7. One who enjoys the intellectual challenge of creatively overcoming or circumventing limitations.

"The term 'hacker' also tends to connote membership in the global community defined by the net."

I also like tinkerer, as defined by Freedom to Tinker:
"Your freedom to understand, discuss, repair, and modify the technological devices you own."
It amazes me that this is a concept that we actually have to defend. If it weren't for hackers jailbreaking PS3s and Apple devices, breaking laughably weak copy protection schemes, and exposing the many weaknesses of proprietary products we would have no way out. It is amazing and amusing, in the most bitterly cynical way, that instead of improving their shoddy products the goons I mean fine upstanding titans of industry instead resort to jackbootery, to pushing through terrible legislation like the DMCA, terrible international treaties like ACTA, wholesale abuse of the civil courts, and unrestrained invasions into our personal business. It's a sickness.

Mitigating the Failures of Business and Government

Hackers get things done with no strings attached. After Hurricane Katrina struck hackers were setting up free community wireless networks while the criminally incompetent FEMA chief Michael Brown was goofing around sending "funny" emails like "Can I quit now? Can I come home?" The Helios Project, Free Geek, GeekCorps, Software Freedom Law Center, Creative Commons, Free Software Foundation, Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Electronic Privacy Information Center are just a few of the many groups and individuals doing good and necessary work, often in opposition to government and business. Not that there is much of a separation between the two anymore.

Hackers gave us PGP, Tor, and anonymizers. Hackers find ways around the fences that world governments keep putting up on the Internet, and the silly tollgates that business keeps trying to herd us through.

When the law fails, when government fails, when greed and corruption triumph that is when we need hackers the most-- hackers of technology, law, journalism, community service, of every essential job and workaround that needs doing. Hackers of liberty.