Geek Chic, With Undertones

The hippest party in San Francisco last Thursday was the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s annual Pioneer Awards gala.  Not being too much of a hipster myself, and dressed completely inappropriately for the occasion (I actually was not wearing black or sneakers, but did wear a business dress and heels!) it was hard to make friends or even chit chat with the insider set. Still, it was a very educational experience.

The keynote was an interview between an EFF staffer and Matt Mullenweg, the founder of our wonderful WordPress, and an incredibly smart, humble and soft spoken man who has been one of the driving forces behind blogging and freeware.

The awardees included Andrew (bunnie) Huang, a “Hardware Hacker and Activist”,Jérémie Zimmermann, an “Anti-ACTA Activist and Co-Founder of La Quadrature du Net”, and a group called The Tor project, who make software that allows people to be completely anonymous on the internet. My thoughts immediately went to the ‘Anonymous’ group and to Wikileaks.

Now I am a very strong proponent of internet freedom, and I appreciate that the people at EFF devote themselves to defending this cause.  But, this event made me uncomfortable. It brought up some really difficult questions for me. I wholly support data privacy – in fact, I’m almost fanatic about protecting my own data – but readily available software that allows people to be completely untraceable online brings up some real challenges. Like not everyone is doing good.  EFF’s position on YouTube taking down the anti-Muslim video that was inciting riots around the world 2 weeks ago was that a dangerous precedent was being set. Well, I think it kinda made common sense – people were dying. And while I believe that ‘hacking’ a device that you bought and own is fine [Bunnie had hacked his iPhone to add stuff to it, against Apple’s claim that users were not allowed to do that), hacking other people’s devices or systems isn’t cool – it’s usually illegal.

The energy here felt quite different than one would find in DC, and especially among other lobbying or advocacy groups who are perhaps more inclined to play the Beltway game as a way to get things done. It pointed out the divide between what Washington sees as the left coast radicals and how Valley geeks view the online domain – as completely without limits.  There was a stark contrast between this event and last week’s launch of the Internet Association (self proclaimed ‘unified voice of the internet economy’). But whichever way you come at it, geekdom and governments are eyeing each other like never before.

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