Thanks for writing. I’m inspired to write a couple of comments in response.

First, are academic, professional ethicists as irrelevant as you suggest? (Okay, that’s a bit of a strawman framing, but I hope the response is still useful.)

Floridi is an interesting example. I’m also a fan of his work (although I know him more for his philosophy of information work — I like to cite him on semantics/ontologies, for example (Floridi 2013) — rather than his ethics work), but he’s also in the news this week because he’s on Google’s panel of experts (their “Advisory Council”) for determining the right balance in processing right-to-be-forgotten requests.

Also, I think we see the influence of these ethical and other academic theories play out in practical terms, even if they’re not cited in a direct company response to a particular scandal. For example, you can see Nissenbaum’s contextual integrity theory of privacy (Nissenbaum 2004) throughout the Federal Trade Commission’s 2012 report on privacy (FTC 2012), even though she’s never explicitly cited. And, forgive me for rooting for the home team here, but I think Ken and Deirdre’s research of “on the ground” privacy (Bamberger and Mulligan 2011) played a pretty prominent role in the White House framework for consumer privacy (“Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy” 2012).

But second, I’m even more excited about your conclusion. Yes, decentralize!, despite the skepticism about it (Narayanan et al. 2012). But more than just repeating that rallying cry (which I still think needs repeating – I’m trying to support #indieweb as my part of that), is the form of the problem.

I think a really cool project that everybody who cares about this should be working on is designing and executing on building that alternative to Facebook. That’s a huge project. But just think about how great it would be if we could figure out how to fund, design, build, and market that. These are the big questions for political praxis in the 21st century.

Politics in our century might be defined by engineering challenges, and if that’s true, then it emphasizes even more how coding is not just entangled with, but is itself a question of, policy and values. I think our institution could dedicate a group blog just to different takes on that.


Some references:

Bamberger, KA, and DK Mulligan. 2011. “Privacy on the Books and on the Ground.” Stanford Law Review.

“Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World: A Framework for Protecting Privacy and Promoting Innovation in the Global Digital Economy.” 2012. White House, Washington, DC.

Floridi, Luciano. 2013. “Semantic Conceptions of Information.” In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, edited by Edward N. Zalta, Spring 201.

FTC. 2012. “Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change Recommendations for Businesses and Policymakers.” Technical report March. Federal Trade Commission.

Narayanan, Arvind, Vincent Toubiana, Helen Nissenbaum, and Dan Boneh. 2012. “A Critical Look at Decentralized Personal Data Architectures.”

Nissenbaum, Helen. 2004. “Privacy as Contextual Integrity.” Washington Law Review 79 (1): 101–139.

I feel that our noise list has become too predictable and not nearly noisy enough. To address that, below I've included an attempt at an ethnographic and interpretive review of a short talk from a well-known security expert at an SF hacker space. —npd

Seeing Jacob Appelbaum speak at Noisebridge is something of an event, and I think it's perhaps uniquely appreciated as I saw it, with the company of an entirely non-computer-geek friend.

"5 Minutes of Fame" is a version of "lightning" or "ignite" talks, held about one evening a month at Noisebridge, a hacker collective space in the Mission District in San Francisco. (Both of those concepts bear a little explanation.) Lightning talks are kind of the opposite of lectures — they are dramatically short, generally five minutes. Different emcees will manage them differently, but in many cases you revel in the short, tight timeframe: slides might be set to auto-advance, speakers may be forced from the stage at the end of their time limit and so they rush to get everything in and the Q&A period common to academic conferences is generally ignored, you can talk over beer later. (Noisebridge is pretty casual about theirs; scheduled for 8pm to 10pm, I left in the middle in order to catch the midnight Bart train.)

And what is a hacker space? Noisebridge is one of the most well-known of these; it's generally a warehouse space with tools and supplies for mechanical and electrical tinkering. Noisebridge sports classes for knitting and for soldering and has a pretty strong software bent as well, including running Tor nodes (software and infrastructure for Internet anonymity) off of their servers and Internet connection. Members pay some regular dues, can come and go as they please, use the tools and the space for storing stuff and building things. As you might imagine, Noisebridge (and I imagine this is true of hacker spaces in general) is really more about the community of people than it is about the shared physical resources; this is less a tool-lending library and more a makers' clubhouse.

And so that's where M. and I see Jacob Appelbaum talk. Except, he's not on the agenda (a few of these talks are planned well in advance, and others are practically spontaneous — it doesn't, after all, require all that much preparation to give a five minute talk, though, that's not to minimize the act itself, talking for exactly five minutes to a group of your peers can be a nerve-wracking experience), just listed as "Person of Mystery" whom the emcee doesn't even know. But then he appears from the back of the room and there's a kind of roar of appreciation from the crowd, the kind of audience reaction I might imagine for a rock star, except the audience is 50 or 60 nerds of various types and ages. He is introduced initially just as Jake (I recognize him from one or two previous events we've attended together) and then formally as Jacob Appelbaum, though at that point it's clearly unnecessary for the audience, with no background or affiliation given; Jake was a founding member of Noisebridge, back in the day. I try to whisper to M. to explain what's going on before he dives immediately into his talk about this official trip he's just gotten back from to Burma and all of his illegal antics while there; I say, "he's, like, a security guy who works for Wikileaks" and recognize that this is inadequate and kind of incorrect, but what else can I say?

Noisebridge, like many of these informal collectives, is architected to be open and welcoming. Once we navigate the old fashioned elevator (the kind with two gates that you have to open and close, the kind that I've only ever seen in movies and this is the first time that I've actually had to operate one), there is nothing at all holding us back from entering and we are only most casually asked for cash donations during the evening itself. People are loud and friendly and, while many of us are awkward, all are pretty willing to talk to strangers. But at the same time, it can be incredibly insular, with acronyms, handles and inside jokes thrown around without the slightest pause. I give up on the futility of whispering explanations to M. and many of the scifi jokes fly over my head too. (M. notes later how unnerving it is to be invited by strangers to join in on conversations when participating inevitably reveals your lack of the shared expertise.)

That level of mystery around his introduction is clearly indulged by Jake and enthralling to the Noisebridge crowd. "Oh, that's not supposed to be in there," he says, unconvincingly, about the very first photo in his set, which just happens to be a photo of the Dalai Lama from this official visit he's just come back from. And "indulgent" really seems like the right word at times: Jake enjoys cursing and insulting prominent figures and entire governments, and gets great appreciation from the audience whenever he cheekily disavows having conducted some illicit probe of a technical system he encountered. He does pause a bit on realizing that a young girl is among the audience (Noisebridge really does bring people of all ages and all types, a more diverse crowd than I'm accustomed to among technical groups) but ultimately doesn't self-censor much. She ends up asking some of the best questions after his talk and we are all simultaneously impressed by and proud of her.

Appelbaum's five minutes of fame go on for maybe 45 minutes, with no pretense of anyone trying to cut him off. The topic itself is fascinating: a report from Burma on the steps necessary for obtaining a cellphone and using one to access the Internet; results from attempts to penetrate Internet censorship and other insecure technical systems within the country; recounting conversations with activists (political or technical) about how they handle living under such a regime. His talk is half "look at the cool stuff I did" and half "isn't this unacceptable and horrifying"; Jake may be irreverent, but he's also deadly serious about human rights abuses and the murders and imprisonments connected to government surveillance. He ends by saying he has to leave straight for the airport to fly to another state ("fly to another state" he repeats again — are we meant to be impressed or to wonder which state it might be?).

M. asks me later what GSM is (just one piece of the alphabet soup), which has been the main topic of his talk, and I struggle to explain the technologies of our and other cellphones, a technical area that I find I really don't know much about. But the history of phones in this sort of technical community, what I would now call the Internet community, is so canonically well-known that I can recite stories about Captain Crunch and blue boxes just like anyone else can. And the way that @ioerror talks about Burmese cellphone restrictions, freedom of access to information and the conditions for hacking are really quite reminiscent of that irreverent mode of making free long-distance telephone calls to foreign countries, even when at many times it's unclear why they wanted to call Vatican City anyway.

I find myself listening to RadioLab a couple of days later, in my new mostly empty apartment without any Internet access (it gets to me; I honestly feel cut off from the world), to the story of a blind kid in Southern Florida who found he could whistle phone calls.* Was this the youth of Captain Crunch? No, I find, this is Joybubbles**, a part of this story that I haven't heard and apparently news coverage of Joe's getting caught phreaking at college is what reveals to phone phreakers around the country that they're not alone in doing this, and then whole communities spring up that find they can call in to certain broken telephone numbers that act as a kind of party line where they can talk to one another for free, an early chatroom/message board, I suppose.

I actually went to Noisebridge that night primarily because of a talk that was pre-listed, one from Schuyler Erle, a cartographer I know through some geo folks. (Neogeographers are that certain subset of the Internet community that loves doing cool stuff with maps and the latest often informal Web technologies. I would like to count myself among them at least to the extent that I've been going to WhereCamp, the geo unconference, for 4 years straight.) Schuyler doesn't actually talk about cartography at all really, but about science fiction, about strategy board games and about space travel. This talk (I won't try to repeat it, hey, the slides and notes — and this talk is more immaculately prepared than most — are online***) goes in to some detail about the challenges of future space travel (special relativity, cryogenesis, etc.) and colonization and war. And though it's late in the evening, this is the one moment of the night that surpasses even the enthusiasm of Jake Appelbaum giving a surprise talk at Noisebridge — Schuyler rhetorically asks, why, given all the challenges and hardships involved in near-speed-of-light space travel, would we ever bother to colonize and conquer the stars? Because they're there! Because we can!

And that moment of united enthusiasm (which, I imagine, includes M. and myself and all the Noisebridge regulars) explains, I think, a lot of what a hacker space is, what hacking is, why Jake Appelbaum is so revered here. Whether it's building your own X-ray machine, devising a one-meal-a-day diet, making free phone calls to a foreign embassy or circumventing Internet censorship in Burma — *because you can* is reason enough to do something.

* The last act of the episode "Escape!", February 20, 2012.

** Perhaps because of his own troubled childhood, Joe eventually changes his name to Joybubbles, declares himself to be five years old again and dedicates himself to this call-in service "Stories and Stuff" for kids to call and listen to. Children and phones! Another sort of connection to Steve Wozniak; when I saw him speak at Microsoft he was clearly most fascinated about the call-in joke line, or having a cellphone number that was all repeated digits so that kids would accidentally call him when they first played with a phone. How can there be so many of these internal connections?

*** Ha, and what a domain name, as I've just noticed. Having your Internet address be "Iconoclast" is an excellent micro-explanation of the ethic of Noisebridge.