Ethan Zuckerman: We’re very lucky to have an addition to the program. We’ve got Professor Abelson from MIT, who wanted to offer some thoughts and reactions to our last session. We’re going to give Hal a brief chance to share some ideas before we move to the panel that we’re having before lunch, which is a practical introduction to some of the problems with law and regulation within this space. But I’m thrilled that we’re able to have one of MIT’s most celebrated faculty, a real great figure within the field of computer science and computer engineering, Hal Abelson.
Hal Abelson: Last night, Star sent me the closing paragraphs of her beautiful remarks that we heard this morning, and then somehow my brain decided that that was the theme which we would wrestle about as it kept me awake around three in the morning. Didn’t come to any conclusions. I showed Star’s message to my wife this morning and she said, “You’re going to get into trouble.”
As usual, she was right. I was going to not say anything this morning and just sit and free associate in a [fugue] state until Star kind of mentioned the story about Dean Wadley and the batteries, which are kind of an emblematic thing that we share about MIT. So long ago, in fact, that I think most MIT students don’t even know it, and probably almost none of the administration doesn’t know about the MIT administration putting it in the position of saying, “Hey, we’re hackers, too,” and Star saying you don’t see that anymore.
Then Jeremy got up and talked about New Jersey and what my deranged mind remembered is that there’s a member of MIT’s Office of General Counsel who’s also a fellow at the Berkman Center who’s written a marvelous marvelous book called The Witch of the New Jersey Turnpike, which is about a woman who’s about 20 years old who lives on the New Jersey Turnpike and sleeps and eats in the rest stops and evades a special division of the New Jersey State Police. What she does is she does performance art which consists of jumping out in the middle of the Turnpike at random times and creating massive traffic jams, and in this she is aided by a group of three people who call themselves The Engineers who consist not of MIT students but in fact people that these days we would call “members of the extended MIT community” who hang around and of course do tremendously valuable things, as Aaron [Swartz] did. And sometimes I think that one of the things that gives me faith in MIT is that there can be somebody who’s deranged enough to think that up who works in our Office of General Counsel.
So, The Witch of the New Jersey Turnpike, the thing we all have to understand is that Star was persecuted for being a witch. And I mean that really seriously. Notice even the words of the law. She had manufactured an “infernal device.” We are talking about witchcraft. We are talking about doing infernal things. And even if it turns out that she didn’t actually do something terribly illegal, she at least did something that was “reckless.” Remember the MIT administration actually publicly said that her acts were reckless. So we have to be careful, as witches, not only do we not conjure the devil with out devices, but that we don’t offend the sensitivities of people who might be upset like this. Like people in the New Jersey prosecutor’s office who might be protecting the citizens of New Jersey from corrupting their computers into doing infernal things with those cycles.
One of the things that we could do is actually think about how to turn that around. Maybe what we ought to do is start advocating that hacking is a religion. We can expand, right? We can carry around our little circuit boards with lights and maybe extend to e-meters or something. We could say this is a religion, or perhaps we could point out to people that being reckless and upsetting the sensitivities of say, people in schools who are not used to seeing alarm clocks without their cases and just circuit boards, maybe that’s like being reckless in terms of a mixed-race couple trying to check into a motel in some area where it’s reckless because it would upset people even though it in itself is not wrong.
We have to understand that we’re all happy and friendly here, but there are real fights going on. Joi’s not here, but the first thing that happened to me this morning is I saw Joi, who’s just talked as he did about how he was at the White House talking with Megan Smith and Alex MacGillivray and people about what the White House could do. And I wanted to say one of the things the White House could do is get your trade representatives to stop strong-arming the rest of the world into making Section 1201 even worse than it is.
One of the things that the White House could do is, when Cory and Jonathan [Zittrain] talk about how crazy it is that you can’t actually examine the code in cars, that when the EFF asks for an exemption to do exactly that kind of examination in the name of public safety, maybe one of the things you can do, Mr. President, is get your Department of Transportation, and your EPA, to stop opposing that kind of exemption.
So we need to understand that we’re having a great conversation here about how good we all feel, but there’s real politics going on, and real complicated stuff, and the question is what can we do about that?
Well, there are a couple of hints. And we have the beginning of examples of doing that. We have Herdict that Jonathan and fellows created, which is about thinking about blocking in various countries. We have Wendy, who did this beautiful example of Chilling Effects, which makes the people who are threatened by those letters feel not alone. So one of the things I would hope we can think about over the next day is what could we do, the people here, to make the people who are threatened by this stuff feel not alone? Maybe the Media Lab should publish an archive of the code that’s gotten by breaking into all of these Internet of Things devices and we just have that as a public thing. And maybe we get our friends in the Berkman Center how we can do that without taking an incredible risk.
So there are lots of things we can do. The assembled group in here is just an enormously powerful group and we have to remember that. And I think the key in doing something as we talk over the next two days is to say how do we do things to make the witches feel not alone?