From The Hacker Crackdown, by Bruce Sterling

See: The Hacker Crackdown: Preface to the electronic release for copying info

PART FOUR: THE CIVIL LIBERTARIANS

The story of the Hacker Crackdown, as we have followed it thus far, has been technological, subcultural, criminal and legal. The story of the Civil Libertarians, though it partakes of all those other aspects, is profoundly and thoroughly *political.*

In 1990, the obscure, long-simmering struggle over the ownership and nature of cyberspace became loudly and irretrievably public. People from some of the oddest corners of American society suddenly found themselves public figures. Some of these people found this situation much more than they had ever bargained for. They backpedalled, and tried to retreat back to the mandarin obscurity of their cozy subcultural niches. This was generally to prove a mistake.

But the civil libertarians seized the day in 1990. They found themselves organizing, propagandizing, podium-pounding, persuading, touring, negotiating, posing for publicity photos, submitting to interviews, squinting in the limelight as they tried a tentative, but growingly sophisticated, buck-and-wing upon the public stage.

It's not hard to see why the civil libertarians should have this competitive advantage.

The hackers of the digital underground are an hermetic elite. They find it hard to make any remotely convincing case for their actions in front of the general public. Actually, hackers roundly despise the "ignorant" public, and have never trusted the judgement of "the system." Hackers do propagandize, but only among themselves, mostly in giddy, badly spelled manifestos of class warfare, youth rebellion or naive techie utopianism. Hackers must strut and boast in order to establish and preserve their underground reputations. But if they speak out too loudly and publicly, they will break the fragile surface-tension of the underground, and they will be harrassed or arrested. Over the longer term, most hackers stumble, get busted, get betrayed, or simply give up. As a political force, the digital underground is hamstrung.

The telcos, for their part, are an ivory tower under protracted seige. They have plenty of money with which to push their calculated public image, but they waste much energy and goodwill attacking one another with slanderous and demeaning ad campaigns. The telcos have suffered at the hands of politicians, and, like hackers, they don't trust the public's judgement. And this distrust may be well-founded. Should the general public of the high-tech 1990s come to understand its own best interests in telecommunications, that might well pose a grave threat to the specialized technical power and authority that the telcos have relished for over a century. The telcos do have strong advantages: loyal employees, specialized expertise, influence in the halls of power, tactical allies in law enforcement, and unbelievably vast amounts of money. But politically speaking, they lack genuine grassroots support; they simply don't seem to have many friends.

Cops know a lot of things other people don't know. But cops willingly reveal only those aspects of their knowledge that they feel will meet their institutional purposes and further public order. Cops have respect, they have responsibilities, they have power in the streets and even power in the home, but cops don't do particularly well in limelight. When pressed, they will step out in the public gaze to threaten bad-guys, or to cajole prominent citizens, or perhaps to sternly lecture the naive and misguided. But then they go back within their time-honored fortress of the station-house, the courtroom and the rule-book.

The electronic civil libertarians, however, have proven to be born political animals. They seemed to grasp very early on the postmodern truism that communication is power. Publicity is power. Soundbites are power. The ability to shove one's issue onto the public agenda -- and *keep it there* -- is power. Fame is power. Simple personal fluency and eloquence can be power, if you can somehow catch the public's eye and ear.

The civil libertarians had no monopoly on "technical power" -- though they all owned computers, most were not particularly advanced computer experts. They had a good deal of money, but nowhere near the earthshaking wealth and the galaxy of resources possessed by telcos or federal agencies. They had no ability to arrest people. They carried out no phreak and hacker covert dirty-tricks.

But they really knew how to network.

Unlike the other groups in this book, the civil libertarians have operated very much in the open, more or less right in the public hurly-burly. They have lectured audiences galore and talked to countless journalists, and have learned to refine their spiels. They've kept the cameras clicking, kept those faxes humming, swapped that email, run those photocopiers on overtime, licked envelopes and spent small fortunes on airfare and long-distance. In an information society, this open, overt, obvious activity has proven to be a profound advantage.

In 1990, the civil libertarians of cyberspace assembled out of nowhere in particular, at warp speed. This "group" (actually, a networking gaggle of interested parties which scarcely deserves even that loose term) has almost nothing in the way of formal organization. Those formal civil libertarian organizations which did take an interest in cyberspace issues, mainly the Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility and the American Civil Liberties Union, were carried along by events in 1990, and acted mostly as adjuncts, underwriters or launching-pads.

The civil libertarians nevertheless enjoyed the greatest success of any of the groups in the Crackdown of 1990. At this writing, their future looks rosy and the political initiative is firmly in their hands. This should be kept in mind as we study the highly unlikely lives and lifestyles of the people who actually made this happen.

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