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?