Crackers and Crackdowns

From Kevin Mitnick to Jon Johansen, the Empire strikes back.
Fight government—shoot back

“We're going to need some bigger guns” says EFF attorney (presumably free-of-charge) Robin Gross as quoted on the 2600 homepage. Fortunately, on one level, you can't have much bigger guns than the Linux community, the 2600 community, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Slashdot community. Hackers across the board have been taking action against the MPAA's assault of civil liberties by mirroring the DeCSS source code all over the Internet. Indeed, after just one injunction was filed against Slashdot and 2600, hundreds of mirror sites sprung up all over. “Whack the mole” on a grand scale (if you're the Slashdotter who came up with this phrase, let me know so I can give you credit because this will be the technique for civil disobedience in the information age). Chris DiBona, Linux Evangelist from VA Linux, was even handing out DeCSS source code in the court-room while the judge was deciding on whether or not to allow the MPAA to get a restraining order against, essentially, the entire electronic world.

The problem, however, is the typical situation revolutionaries face: in order to fight the system, we often have to work within it. A close to home example is how Richard Stallman had to develop his GNU project on proprietary Unix. Socialists often have to work for the corporations and operate in the free markets they oppose, because otherwise they'll die. Free marketeers in communist countries again have to live in state housing, take state jobs, receive state food and state money even though it seems hypocritical. The GNU project even had to use copyright law in order to create the copyleft which accomplishes everything copyright restrictions are set up to prevent. In the DVD case, even though the law is the bad guy, and we are very effective at ignoring the law, a critical chance for winning the DVD war (which is, in essence, a struggle to protect the freedom to reverse-engineer, a freedom we cannot afford to deny the world) is to win the battle on the legal front. We can distribute the code as much as we want, mirror it, perfect free DVD players for all sorts of platforms, but as long as we're in violation of the law, we're open season for the government snipers. A world in which a whole community is in violation of a law is a world in which the government can arbitrarily arrest anyone, essentially a police state. Another description of a police state is when the government has all the guns, but who needs guns when you can have lawyers? A crafty lawyer can arbitrarily point the guns of government at anyone. Lawyers are one thing we need, to protect the first amendment, before anyone has to fall back on the second, and they're our key to success within the law.

“When I hear that word 'government' I reach for my revolver”

I will remember very clearly for the rest of my life that night, early last decade, when I had to fill a travel bag with hundreds of disks and thousands of pages of printed material and run off to the woods to hide it in the hopes that when the police came, they wouldn't find anything. People buried disks in parks, demagnetized their hard drives (those who had them), even simply destroyed collections of disks (or in one case, someone panicked and destroyed a collection of disks I had lent him). We waited all night but the police never came. In a few weeks, most of the boards (BBSs) were back up. However, that marked the beginning of the end for a lot of people, not because anyone got arrested but because they finally got scared off. Living in terror of the government wears on people, and I felt relieved when a couple years later I largely abandoned the old ways in favor of the GNU/Linux movement. (Nowadays I'm particularly careful; I haven't even got a home computer anymore.) The point is partially to brag how cool I am, but mostly to illustrate the point that living in terror of the government is not a good way to live, though there's another lesson here that you can break the law hundreds of times and not even get noticed ...

DeCSS is not directly and exclusively about government, however. The governments of the US and Norway would have ignored Jon's contribution to the Linux community had it not been for corporate pressure. Slashdot author Jon Katz has called it corporatism: the collusion between mega-corporations (essentially industry-wide cartels) and government in their effort to propagate American-style corporate capitalism across the world and arbitrarily construct laws that actually have nothing to do with the typical free market rhetoric which normally accompanies such tasks. (Not exactly the same kind of right-wing fascist/socialist government a la Peron that political scientists mean by corporatism, though similar in many ways.) People like Michael Parenti have been writing and lecturing about American imperialism for decades now, so the notion is not something new. What is new is that with the fall of the Soviet Union and (re)unification of Germany, global capitalism has reasserted itself with invigorated violence and aggression (although it has always been violent, aggressive and imperialist, from the Roman Empire to the Hanseatic League to the British Empire and beyond). The other new feature is that there is a backlash against it, albeit not very strong.

The WTO protests in Seattle were a good example of global capitalist violence directed against peaceful opposition, even though huge numbers of people overwhelmed the police and ultimately shut down the talks. However, the police had guns, gas and grenades, and the people didn't, so the cops stormed about with impunity assaulting anyone they pleased and ultimately chased everyone away. Later, they would commit spectacular acts of malice such as filling a bus with protesters and gratuitously discharging gas inside the bus—which incidentally had no restrooms. When the whole WTO affair was finished and the nearly 600 protestor-prisoners were released (after large, protracted protests at the county jail), the police were never held responsible for their actions and the victims were just left victimized and told to be grateful and flattered that the police hadn't just killed them outright. Indymedia is a good source if you want to read the extent of the brutality of Seattle police, though that's old news and a bit cliche by this point. The lesson is that authoritarians never back down. They went after their opponents viciously during the WTO confrontation, and they used special police to go after Jon Lech Johansen and his father during the DVD affair.