Digg, Hacking, and Civil Disobedience

Randy Picker asks when civil disobedience is acceptable, and concludes that posting HD-DVD encryption keys doesn’t cut it:

I wouldn’t think that not being able to play an encrypted high-definition DVD on your platform of choice would fall into that category. I understand fully that people disagree about whether digital rights management and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act are good copyright policy. I also understand that users can be frustrated by limitations imposed by DRM (I’ve run into those myself). But I think the DMCA (and the DRM that it makes possible) is a long, long way from the sorts of laws for which civil disobedience is an appropriate response. Simply not liking the law is not enough. There must be more, something that recognizes the nature of reasonable disagreement over law, and the range of possible legitimate variations about those laws.

Ed Felten points out some of the reasons that geeks felt so strongly about this case. Partly it was geeks’ knee-jerk opposition to censorship. Partly it’s a protest against the DMCA.

There are a variety of reasons that the DMCA is bad public policy. I presented some of them in a paper I did for Cato last year. But instead of rehashing those arguments, let me quote an excellent essay by Paul Graham about America’s heritage of hacking. Prof. Picker dismissively characterizes this week’s incident as a dispute over “being able to play an encrypted high-definition DVD on your platform of choice,” but from the perspective of computer programmers it’s about something more fundamental than that:

Hacking predates computers. When he was working on the Manhattan Project, Richard Feynman used to amuse himself by breaking into safes containing secret documents. This tradition continues today. When we were in grad school, a hacker friend of mine who spent too much time around MIT had his own lock picking kit. (He now runs a hedge fund, a not unrelated enterprise.)

It is sometimes hard to explain to authorities why one would want to do such things. Another friend of mine once got in trouble with the government for breaking into computers. This had only recently been declared a crime, and the FBI found that their usual investigative technique didn’t work. Police investigation apparently begins with a motive. The usual motives are few: drugs, money, sex, revenge. Intellectual curiosity was not one of the motives on the FBI’s list. Indeed, the whole concept seemed foreign to them.

Those in authority tend to be annoyed by hackers’ general attitude of disobedience. But that disobedience is a byproduct of the qualities that make them good programmers. They may laugh at the CEO when he talks in generic corporate newspeech, but they also laugh at someone who tells them a certain problem can’t be solved. Suppress one, and you suppress the other…

It is by poking about inside current technology that hackers get ideas for the next generation. No thanks, intellectual homeowners may say, we don’t need any outside help. But they’re wrong. The next generation of computer technology has often — perhaps more often than not — been developed by outsiders.

In 1977 there was, no doubt, some group within IBM developing what they expected to be the next generation of business computer. They were mistaken. The next generation of business computer was being developed on entirely different lines by two long-haired guys called Steve in a garage in Los Altos. At about the same time, the powers that be were cooperating to develop the official next generation operating system, Multics. But two guys who thought Multics excessively complex went off and wrote their own. They gave it a name that was a joking reference to Multics: Unix.

The latest intellectual property laws impose unprecedented restrictions on the sort of poking around that leads to new ideas. In the past, a competitor might use patents to prevent you from selling a copy of something they made, but they couldn’t prevent you from taking one apart to see how it worked. The latest laws make this a crime. How are we to develop new technology if we can’t study current technology to figure out how to improve it?

Why are programmers so violently opposed to these laws? If I were a legislator, I’d be interested in this mystery — for the same reason that, if I were a farmer and suddenly heard a lot of squawking coming from my hen house one night, I’d want to go out and investigate. Hackers are not stupid, and unanimity is very rare in this world. So if they’re all squawking, perhaps there is something amiss.

Could it be that such laws, though intended to protect America, will actually harm it? Think about it. There is something very American about Feynman breaking into safes during the Manhattan Project. It’s hard to imagine the authorities having a sense of humor about such things over in Germany at that time. Maybe it’s not a coincidence.

Hackers are unruly. That is the essence of hacking. And it is also the essence of Americanness. It is no accident that Silicon Valley is in America, and not France, or Germany, or England, or Japan. In those countries, people color inside the lines.