Hack Day London - a missed opportunity

I can't help feeling that Hack Day London missed a good chance to help keep the internet free for hacking (and for human rights). Both the BBC and Yahoo (the institutions behind Hack Day) lost the opportunity to make a strong value statement about freedom of expression and internet rights. And imagine the funky anti-filtering & socially positive hacks that could have come out of a weekend's hacking by 500 geeks!

hack day

Of course, the organisers deserve a lot of credit for pulling the event together, and for getting their respective institutions to back it (many wouldn't have). But Yahoo in particular has a lot of ground to make up to be seen as one of the good guys again, given the long-running case of Shi Tao (imprisoned for 10 years with the help of information from Yahoo) and the recent flurry of accusations that Yahoo Inc. provided information to the Chinese government that led to the persecution, torture and imprisonment of dissidents, for which the company is now being sued .

Hack Day was a creative event, not a political one - but it could have been so much more. A lot of the fun behind hacking lies in the freedom to mix and mashup, and it's eactly this kind of freedom that's at stake in the titanic clash between two legal regimes , namely Intellectual Property Rights versus Human Rights.

If I'd had a chance to introduce some social themes to Hack Day, I would have started with a rough definition of hacktivism, staring with this overview (quoting ron diebert from the Open Net Initiative). As a practical example, there's the Firefox extension that allows people in Iran (and other censored locations) to access Flickr. I asked a few friends what they would add, and the ideas included

  • show examples of what others have already done (like TOR, Psiphon, all the work of Cult of the Dead Cow) and invite folk to think about how innovations like yahoo pipes could be turned to similar ends
  • think globally when developing tools: in the West, people have alternatives to the information and resources available on the Internet, whilst many people living in developing countries do not. The Internet is their only source of real information. Develop open source, prepare for localisations and don't be afraid to answer simple user questions
  • Are there ways people could use for instance GreaseMonkey to build a kind of javascript decryption tool with which to reveal information encoded in images or videos? (Lots of bytes to hide information in.) Use one website as a “key” to filter information from another website? How to make it very easy to spread?

All the big technology companies (from Google to Cisco) rely on the kind of young developers that attend these events, who in turn could influence company activities when they show a blatant disregard for human rights. Having hacktivism as a standing part of Hack Days could help raise awareness of the ethical dimension (along the same lines as the Brazilian HackerTeen project).

We need a campaign to keep the internet open for creativity and hacktivism is going to be a part of that. But if the young d00dz are content to play trivia with frivolous API's, the internet control-heads will get to say 'I 0wn3d you'.

 (Thanks to ron , rolf and dmitri for their help with this post.)

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