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.)

open letters shame corporates for their complicity in china

It's good to see that Isaac Mao's Open Letter to Google Founders has got a lot of attention. The basic message is that Google is losing big time because of it's compromise with the Chinese authorities, and it really hits home to have this said by a prominent Chinese blogger. I'm sure there's been similar rumblings inside Google itself for a long time - even back in July last year Google co-founder Sergey Brin admitted that the company had compromised its principles by launching a censored search engine in China, and when he was challenged at this year's WEF in Davos he said "On a business level, that decision to censor... was a net negative."
At the end of his letter Mao makes 3 recommendations - the most interesting to me is the second that called on Google to "develop anti-censorship tools and service for global Internet users". This reminded me of a great post by Greg Walton asking Can Google afford privacy? which lays out the case for doing exactly that. Greg brings together two facts - that Google one of the most powerful supercomputing platforms in the world, and existence of Tor, a distributed network that anonymizes web browsing. As he says

Suppose Google were to install Tor's Onion Routers throughout its serverfarms. Global internet users communications would bounce around anonymously in a massive distributed network of virtual tunnels. It would be unprecendented in scale, a network that would open up the internet to people in censored regimes all around the world. It would enable a generation of software developers to create new communication tools with privacy built-in. The Google platform running onion routers would provide an ecosystem for a range of applications that allow organizations and individuals to share information over public networks without compromising their identity.

Too right! Although these days, i think more people would question whether Google could be trusted to run a service like this.

Isaac's letter to Google is a worthy missive, but its topped for sheer force and raw impact by Liu Xiaobo's Open Letter to Jerry Yang, Chairman of Yahoo! Inc., which appears as an appendix to the Human Rights Watch report “Race to the Bottom” - Corporate Complicity in Chinese Internet Censorship. His letter contrasts the careers and fates of Jerry Yang and the journalist Shi Tao, who was imprisoned with the help of documentation that Yahoo provided to the Chinese authorities.
As he says
Shi TaoShi Tao

In my view, what Yahoo! has done is exchange power for money, i.e. to win business profit by engaging in political cooperation with China’s police. Regardless of the reason for this action, and regardless of what kinds of institutions are involved, once Yahoo! complies with the CCP to deprive human rights, what it does is no longer of a business nature, but of a political nature. It cannot be denied that China’s Internet control itself is part of its politics, and a despotic politics as well. Therefore, the “power for money” exchange that takes place between western companies like Yahoo! and the CCP not only damages the interests of customers like Shi Tao, but also damages the principles of equality and transparency, the rules that all enterprises should abide by when engaging in free trade. And it follows that if Yahoo! gains a bigger stake in the Chinese market by betraying the interests of its customers, the money it makes is “immoral money”, money made from the abuse of human rights.

I've personally heard unconvincing excuses from the representatives of such corporates as Google and Yahoo, and Liu Xiaobo’s letter from the heart speaks for me too.

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