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Not Your Activism

By Annalee Newitz

HERE'S A big surprise: The mainstream "progressive" media still hasn't figured out high-tech activism. Every story I've seen or heard in the lefty press about geek politics lately sounds like warmed-over 1980s Pablum about party politics and creating a new activist movement through online organizing. Back in the late 1980s, when I first became a political activist as an undergrad at UC-Berkeley, this same rhetoric (without the online organizing part) sounded like warmed-over 1960s crap, which I can only hope did not sound stale and stupid back when Todd Gitlin and Abbie Hoffman were shooting their wads about free speech and the Vietnam war.

I think the latest example of lefty cluelessness in the media can be seen in the overcoverage of the Diebold voting-machine scandal. A lot of smart geeks and a few paranoid schizophrenics discovered that Diebold, manufacturer of hardware and software for electronic voting, was funded heavily by Republicans and had taken very few precautionary security measures to keep nasty script kiddies from throwing various elections.

It was a scary, weird mess, and I'm glad contrarian pubs like Mother Jones and Counterpunch jumped on the story; and the activists at various universities who posted internal Diebold memos on their websites were brave and right to make sure voters had access to information about how poorly their allegedly private and protected votes were being handled.

However, an interest in government elections hardly constitutes the entirety of high-tech activism. The Diebold scandal got so much coverage because progressive publications, with their 1960s Luddite leanings, could grok the issue. It was vote tampering! It involved party politics! There were no messy new concepts to understand, like open-source software or security vulnerability disclosure or the frequencies used by wireless devices or peer-to-peer networking.

Although there is a tremendously subversive, activist geek community, the computer-phobic left only notices when techies speak out about issues that dovetail with traditional "we hate oil let's protest" radicalism. There are, however, other kinds of activism in the geek community--activism that isn't recognized by The Nation or my former colleagues in the academic Marxist Literary Group. But the left can't afford to dismiss a whole generation of rabble rousers just because they don't fit the old paradigms. Nor, I would add, can geek rebels ignore the connections between their political concerns and those of their great-grandparents, who fought the power on picket lines instead of over the wires.

Take the case of Fyodor, author of a widely used computer program called Nmap, who recently caused a stir by announcing that he would no longer allow a controversial company called the Santa Cruz Operation (SCO) to distribute his software. Nmap is available under a GNU Public License (GPL), which allows anyone to use or modify the software as long as they continue to make it available under the GPL. In this way, the GPL is a magnificently subversive license: If you want to use any of the very valuable GPL'd tools, your own creations become public property, too.

SCO has historically bundled Nmap with its SCO Unix software. The problem is that SCO is currently involved in a lawsuit with IBM over whether IBM created a derivative work out of SCO Unix and contributed this work to Linux, another GPL'd piece of software. SCO claims that anyone using Linux should therefore be paying licensing fees to SCO. (Not surprisingly, Microsoft suddenly became SCO's biggest customer when the little Utah company announced its suit.) In fact, SCO lawyers have argued in a court filing that the GPL violates the U.S. Constitution, and is "unenforceable, void and/or voidable." And yet, according to Fyodor, SCO has been taking advantage of the GPL for years by distributing Nmap without paying a licensing fee to him. "They use the license when it benefits them," argues Fyodor, "but otherwise they ignore it. I wanted to make a political point."

Because Nmap is such a popular program, the fact that its author is taking this stance has brought more attention to the problems with SCO's business practices. Its litigiousness and anti-GPL stance rob the technical community of its ability to build better software. And yet I doubt that a traditional progressive activist would recognize Fyodor as a comrade. The left understands labor, but not licenses; it protests companies who pollute the environment, but not ones that threaten freedom of data transfer.

Fyodor is only one of many principled geek activists who fight corporate power by arguing that certain goods should be publicly owned. But their protests are far from the usual Nike boycotts. Instead, they have to do with something that will only become more important as we move into a global information economy: the nature of intellectual property, and who gets to own it.

Annalee Newitz ([email protected]) is a surly media nerd who looks forward to hacking Unix on the picket line with her union brothers and sisters.

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From the March 10-17, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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