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The first thing I ever stole online was the voice of Homer Simpson. No sooner had I heard a friend’s computer replace the system beep with a “D’oh!” then I knew I had to have Homer on my machine. Using the office intranet I snagged the sound file and installed in on my own computer’s sound manager. D’oh! I was now a thief.
If that seems like a trivial online transgression in the era of Bittorrent, then you can thank Steve Wozniak, who blazed a trail for me twenty years before I discovered Homer’s voice. In 1973, Wozniak and his business partner Steve Jobs had just started selling “blue boxes”: devices that Wozniak had developed two years earlier for the purpose of making long-distance telephone calls for free. (Note to The Kidz: Back in the day, you had to pay for a telephone call based on the distance between you and the person you were calling. I knew, them were some crazy times.)
Phreaking, which is the term for hacking on a telephone system, has a proud place in the history of Internet and technology subculture. But what interests me most about that moment in 1973 is not what it portended for the telephone industry (hola, Skype!) but what it portended for the culture of evasion. Not just the evasion of fee-for-service, though goodness knows, a lot of people use the Internet to get stuff for free that they’d otherwise have to pay for.
I’m talking about something more fundamental: the evasion of rules. “Pay for what you’re going to use” (read, listen to, watch) is one kind of rule that Internet users spend a lot of time getting around. But we also do a nice job of evading rules like age limitations (greetings, 11-year-olds on Facebook!), publication bans on court proceedings and even social norms (how many of the people who will tell someone to fuck themselves online would say the same thing face-to-face?) Sometimes it feels like the Internet’s slogan might as well be, “Oh yeah? Well c’mon over here and make me.”
As you can see from these examples, there are huge variations in the moral and social legitimacy of the rules we evade online. Most of us would probably feel OK about people using technical wizardry to evade China’s “Great Firewall” in order to provide or get access to uncensored information. Many of us seem to feel OK about using the Internet to get music and movies without paying for them. Most of us feel extremely uncomfortable if those movies include child pornography.
And yet all of those examples rest on the same technical and social underpinnings. Technically, they are supported by the Internet’s facility at routing around any kind of bottleneck (and what is censorship or a paywall, except a bottleneck?) as well as by the speed at which the Net disseminates advice on how to evade anything remotely evade-able. Socially, they rely on the normalization of evasion, tracing all the way back to Woz’s 1973 phreak show. The Internet was made by rule-breakers, and rule-breaking has emerged as one if its most widespread products.
The irony is that while the Internet hates rules, it loves standards. Pretty much every fundamental aspect of how the Internet works, from which characters you can type to the way an online calendar entry is structured, is determined by an agreed-upon set of standards. Standards are what make the Internet work.
And while Internet users may be notoriously uncompliant when it comes to following human rules, we’re docile little sheep when it comes to following a rule laid down by a machine: the W3C is king. The machine rules, and we obey. No wonder developers will sometimes say “that’s not technically possible” as shorthand for “that’s a really bad idea, and I don’t want to build it that way”. (Developers, I know you’re going to want to jump in here and point out the difference between rules we impose and rules that are required for interoperability, so I’ve made you a handy little hashtag that will aggregate in the text box on the right. Just tweet your objection as #stdsNOTrules.)
If you live online, you will find yourself making choices about when to obey and when to evade. Of course, you make choices like that offline too, but both our social training and our legal system conspire to make us relatively compliant in our offline lives. Online it’s a different story, particularly if you have the modest level of technical skill required to get up and running with something like Bittorrent or (more ambitiously) Hacktivismo. The more skilled you are, the more opportunities you have to choose evasion, and the more often you will find yourself making a conscious choice about whether to defy or comply.
What worries me is that all too often, it isn’t a conscious choice. We break rules online when it’s easy, when we know how, when our friends are doing it. We follow rules when we are scared about getting caught, when it feels like too much trouble to defy them, when we don’t know a way around them.
In an online world that makes evasion a frequent option, we need to have guidance on how to make evasion a conscious choice. We need…rules. Here are mine:
- Check your impact. Before you break a rule, ask whether anyone will be directly affected by you breaking it. If someone will be affected by you breaking this rule, you need to get their consent, or you need to have a reason for imposing this effect on them without their consent. It’s beyond the scope of this blog to outline a full moral code but there are lots of moral codes around if you want to look for one.
- Test for universality. Ask yourself what the social, political and/or economic impact would be if everyone broke the rule you were about to break. In some cases, you may really like the impact: maybe it would be a better world if everyone just created music based on passion and didn’t expect to earn money from it, or if artists toured more regularly. In other cases, you may have second-thoughts about your rule-breaking: how much would it suck if Heroes got cancelled because people downloaded it instead of watching it. Wait, it did get cancelled? Oh, crap.
- Know the rules you are (not) following. When you’re clicking the “accept” button on a Terms of Service agreement, you are agreeing to a set of rules. Unless you want to make it a full-time job, or (worse yet) sign up for only a very small number of web applications and social networks, you’re going to click “accept” many many times without actually reading the rules you are agreeing to. So make a point of reading through a couple of Terms of Service just so you know the kind of rules that web apps often impose. (For example, most web sites that accept user-contributed content require you to share only content that belongs to you; no posting other people’s writing!) And if you use a lot of social media services, include at least one major social media news site in your regular online news consumption (e.g. ReadWriteWeb, Mashable or TechCrunch) since you can count on them covering any major surprises in a major web app’s terms of service.
- Find out who made the rules. Most rules reflect the interests of the people who made them, whether consciously or unconsciously. The rule that you should pay for your movies is good for movie producers. The rule that you shouldn’t say “fuck” is good for parents, who don’t want to have to tell their four-year-old to stop saying it (hypothetically speaking, of course). The rule that you should follow back anyone who follows you on Twitter is good for social media consultants who want to convince you that they know the rules. Know who’s behind a given rule, and you have some important clues about what’s at stake in following or defying it. That’s crucial information if you are considering whether to evade or comply.
- Be wary of privilege. The fewer the people who have the power to break a rule, the more cautious you should be about breaking it. Hackers — people with serious tech chops — have the power to break a lot of rules the rest of us have to follow. Some might break the rule that says no reading about Tiananmen Square from within China; others might break the rule that says my web site should contain the content I put there. The relatively small number with the greatest level of tech skill have the power to break rules that could affect a lot of people — like the power to shut down PayPal to protest its decision to stop processing donations to WikiLeaks. The effectiveness and legitimacy of civil disobedience (a very particular form of rule-breaking) has historically depended on mass participation, so if you are going to use your rule-breaking powers to engage in a more concentrated form of civil disobedience, you need to think carefully about how your rule-breaking potential empowers or undermines the efficacy of other social and political actors.
- Teach informed rule-breaking. Encourage your kids to think carefully about the rules they break. Helping your kid download her favorite TV show so that she won’t be exposed to endless junk food ads is a great opportunity to talk about consumerism, advertising and/or eating habits. Helping your 10-year-old sign up for Facebook is a good opportunity to talk about what kind of data we share online, and what we keep private (or falsify) in order to protect our safety or anonymity.
- Break at least one rule each month. This is one of those rules you’re probably already following. Unless you actually did quit your day job so that you could dedicate yourself to reading Terms of Service, you have probably violated someone’s TOS at some time. (If you’re anything like me, you violate a couple before breakfast.) But just in case you’re shy of your rule violation quota, start breaking rules deliberately and on a regular basis. For one thing, the pressure to find a breakage-worthy rule will force you to scrutinize all the rules you follow more carefully. For another, breaking rules is a discipline that helps you become more innovative by challenging the constraints on any situation or decision. And finally — as Steve Wozniak could have told you 36 years ago — breaking rules is fun.