1.1. The hacker ethos

This last statement may seem bold, in that it could be asked what greater legitimacy the IGF could require than its affiliation with the United Nations. But the United Nations is composed of states. The Internet, on one construction, owes nothing to and indeed is antithetical to the “old” state system—which is why it was so important for the IGF to be constituted as a multi-stakeholder rather than an intergovernmental body. John Perry Barlow, in his Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace—note the metaphor—wrote with characteristic hubris over a decade ago:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. ...

You claim there are problems among us that you need to solve. You use this claim as an excuse to invade our precincts. Many of these problems don’t exist. Where there are real conflicts, where there are wrongs, we will identify them and address them by our means. We are forming our own Social Contract. This governance will arise according to the conditions of our world, not yours. Our world is different.[1]

But why is it so different, and how? On one view, the distinctive culture of the Internet is an historical artifact arising from its development amongst engineers and enthusiasts—colloquially, hackers. Much has been written about the psychology of hackers, but they have been self-described in an Internet standards document identified as RFC 1983, the “Internet Users’ Glossary,”[2] as:

Hacker

A person who delights in having an intimate understanding of the internal workings of a system, computers and computer networks in particular. The term is often misused in a pejorative context, where “cracker” would be the correct term. See also: cracker.

This definition alone however does not convey a full understanding of the ethos of a hacker and of the culture of his community.[3] A hacker’s delight in tinkering with the internal workings of computer systems is realised most fully in an environment where access to computing resources and information is unrestricted. Thus, most hackers believe “that information-sharing is a powerful positive good, and that it is an ethical duty of hackers to share their expertise by writing open-source code and facilitating access to information and to computing resources wherever possible”: this is the first principle of one formulation of the so-called Hacker Ethic.[4] (The reference to “open-source code” refers to software for which the source code is made freely available, and which can be distributed and modified without limitation;[5] modern-day hacker culture is in fact largely coincident with open source culture.[6])

Some of the early hackers who were fortunate enough to work in environments that fostered (wittingly or otherwise) such open use of computing resources are now amongst the folk heroes of hacker culture. These include Ken Thompson and Dennis Ritchie, who began development of the operating system Unix at AT&T Bell Labs in 1969, originally because they wanted a faster system on which to run their computer game, “Space Travel,”[7] and Richard M Stallman, President of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Hackers who were not as fortunate as Thompson, Ritchie or Stallman had two choices: to gain access to third party computer systems or data by stealth, or to create communities of their own such as ham radio, phreaking (telephone hacking), model railroad or amateur rocket groups, in which their freedom to hack would be unimpeded.[8]

Notes

[1]

Barlow, John P, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace (1996); however compare Jayakar, Roshni, What Stops Free Flow of Information is Dangerous (2000) .

[2]

IETF, Internet Users’ Glossary (1996)

[3]

In this instance, the use of the male pronoun is not simple sexism; anecdotal observation suggests that hackers are overwhelmingly male.

[4]

Raymond, Eric S, The Jargon File (2003)

[5]

For a fuller definition, see Perens, Bruce, The Open Source Definition (2005).

[6]

Engel, Christoph, Governing the Egalitarian Core of the Internet (2005), 10

[7]

Ritchie, Dennis M, The Evolution of the Unix Time-sharing System (1984)

[8]

See generally Levy, Steven, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution (2001).