Of Free Flow Information and Exchange: A look at 2600 Hacker Quarterly: smacking corporate lip and ensuring the future of proliferation

The year 1984 gets a red-letter write up in technology lore not for delivering on George Orwell’s prophesized Big Brother, but for the arrival of the small, underground ‘zine, 2600. Seventeen years since it began, 2600 remains a focal point of a subculture hated and feared by Microsoft, the military and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Although there have been other publications catering to hackers—most notably the more aggressive and arguably more technical online zine, Phrack—2600 stands as the only print publication openly and unapologetically catering to hackers. ‘- A brief look and expose` on the famed hacker quarterly . . . continued within.


The year 1984 gets a red-letter write up in technology lore not for delivering on George Orwell’s prophesized Big Brother, but for the arrival of the small, underground ‘zine, 2600. Seventeen years since it began, 2600 remains a focal point of a subculture hated and feared by Microsoft, the military and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Although there have been other publications catering to hackers—most notably the more aggressive and arguably more technical online zine, Phrack—2600 stands as the only print publication openly and unapologetically catering to hackers.

2600, the Hacker Quarterly, is named after a prize once distributed in Captain Crunch cereal—a whistle which chimed a 2600-hertz tone. What piqued the interest of phreakers (phone hackers) was discovering that over a long distance connection, the cheap plastic whistle’s pitch granted “operator mode”—carte blanche to the telephone system.

2600’s founding editor, Eric Corley, goes by the alias “Emmanuel Goldstein,” after the leader of the underground in George Orwell’s classic. Goldstein explains 2600 very simply: “What we’ve been doing since 1984: publishing information and expressing ourselves.” The motivations are equally straightforward. “We’re not only living in interesting times, we’re living in what may be the most interesting of all times. Technology and the ‘net, used creatively, can bring people together in ways that have never been done before. Artificial barriers and controls are on the brink of extinction, thanks to innovative and intelligent applications of technology. With a populace that is informed, enthusiastic, and open to new ideas, old-style oppression will be exposed almost as soon as it’s applied.”

During one of their many campaigns defending the rights of hackers, the 2600 team produced the feature-length film, Freedom Downtime, which documents the Free Kevin [Mitnik] movement along with the hacker world in general. Currently showing at independent film festivals, its aim is to gain some leverage against the barrage of unfair media portrayals of hackers generally and Kevin Mitnick, specifically.

To strengthen community among technophiles, 2600 serves as a meeting post for local monthly gatherings. Every first Friday of the month, the Pentagon City Mall food court in Washington DC, the Piazza Loreto in Italy and the Priya Cinema Complex in India turn into stomping grounds for the technoliterate. The hundred-plus regular meeting points span 21 countries and are invariably situated across from a bank of payphones.

So Who ARE These People?
Of Hackers, Crackers & Script Kiddies

True to form, popular media swings wildly between romanticizing and condemning hackers. From Psychopathic Enemy of the State (Takedown) to Computer Geek Conspiracy Theorist (Lone Gunmen) to Heroic Rebel Leader (The Matrix), wildly cartoonish images run rampant. Hollywood hype seldom depicts the less sensational rank-and-file, and the parade of caricatures steamrolls over important distinctions within the subculture.

Eric S. Raymond, who sits on the Board of Directors of VA Linux Systems, has written and spoken extensively on topics like “What the Internet Teaches us about Ethics and Politics.” Raymond claims one of the more harmful misconceptions involves using “hacker” as a blanket term, when there are important distinctions to be drawn. “Being able to break security doesn’t make you a hacker anymore than being able to hotwire cars makes you an automotive engineer,” says Raymond. “Unfortunately, many journalists and writers have been fooled into using the word ‘hacker’ to describe anyone who is deeply invested in the way computers work…This irritates hackers to no end.”

Lewis Koch, a journalist who has covered hackers and hacker culture for years in his Cyberwire Dispatch and Inter@ctive Week columns, elaborates on the distinctions, explaining that people who deface web pages are most often referred to as “script kiddies,” or “lamers” by most hackers because their attempts to manipulate systems use other people’s computer exploits. Tales and documentation of such techniques can easily be found online, so the criticism is that such vandals display no originality. “Crackers, on the other hand, are thieves who steal money or credit cards—professional computer thieves,” Koch explains.

Reading the Hacker Quarterly

To flip through 2600 is to discover a trade journal like any other. A majority of the zine’s content is straight technical information, compelling only to serious computer jockeys. Security flaws in computer systems occupy center-stage, with enough news of general developments in the technology world to interest newcomers. Regardless of a reader’s expertise levels, the zine offers strong incentives to learn more. Every issue is filled with tales of hacking exploits, tips on how to tweak and maximize virtually every electronic medium, and the dirty secrets of the many institutions that govern us. The word “free” makes regular appearances.

Of course, the material can—and undoubtedly is—applied to activities that vary wildly in degrees of legality. 2600 acknowledges this and categorically discourages unethical conduct. Testifying before Congress in 1993, Emmanuel Goldstein responded to concerns of computer intrusion by saying, “when a hacker is violating a law, they should be charged with violating a particular law.”

While this remains the magazine’s stance, it is balanced with warnings against the suppression of intellectual inquiry. In the 2000 Winter issue, Goldstein explains, “There is no such thing as security through lack of information. All that accomplishes is the creation of a false perception…People are curious. They want to know how things work and how systems can be defeated. We exist as a forum for theoretical and specific examples of this. If we start agonizing over what people might do with the info we print, we will very quickly run out of topics that won’t have some potentially adverse affect somewhere.”

In response to accusations that they promote and facilitate illicit behavior, 2600 points to the line separating that which is illegal from discussions of that which is illegal. Over their 17-year history, they’ve become adept at pointing out that one is criminal and the other constitutionally protected.

Does Information Want to Be Free?

2600 writers and editors are modern standard-bearers of the Enlightenment-era belief in the free dissemination of information. They reiterate again and again their reason for existing: to publicly post information and experiences to advance a communal conversation about the ever-changing dimensions of technology. The 2600 community is the kind of fruit forever borne and boasted by open societies.

John Perry Barlow, lyricist for the Grateful Dead and cofounder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), points out that this is every bit what the original Founders intended.

“…when Jefferson and his fellow creatures of the Enlightenment designed the system that became American copyright law, their primary objective was assuring the widespread distribution of thought, not profit. Profit was the fuel that would carry ideas into the libraries and minds of their new republic…there is a fundamental problem with a system that requires, through technology, payment for every access to a particular expression. It defeats the original Jeffersonian purpose of seeing that ideas were available to everyone regardless of their economic station. I am not comfortable with a model that will restrict inquiry to the wealthy.”

2600 is non-profit and accepts no commercial sponsorship. Supported exclusively by their readership, ads in 2600 are free and can only be taken out by subscribers. On this point they are unequivocal: “There is no amount of money we will take for a non-subscriber ad.” Often, proceeds from magazine subscriptions go to fund defense teams for hackers mired in litigation.

Rewriting the Bill of Rights

In the digital age, concepts like privacy, government surveillance, censorship, free speech and free press exist within entirely new parameters. These boundaries are established largely by the technologies we use to communicate, express ourselves and register personal information. To defend our constitutional rights without engaging the specific workings of these technologies is to speak without substance.

With this in mind, 2600 sits squarely at ground zero. They offer a comprehensive understanding of electronic mediums that most people find mentally taxing and tedious. These lifelong hackers can maneuver through specific technologies and relay to what degree our rights—to information, privacy, expression and association as well as our legally sanctioned right to something called Fair Use—have already been (and continue to be) betrayed.

The Utne Reader recently featured a Dissent article by Gina Neff in which she discounts “the euphoria about Internet-organized protests, progressive Web sites, and nonprofit uses of Internet publishing.” She cites “the merger of old and new media symbolized in the AOL-Time Warner deal (as) a better barometer for the future of the Web than activists plotting the Seattle WTO protests online.” Neff concludes by saying, “Now that the Internet is losing its claim to be a wide-open public space, now that it’s heavily capitalized with market thinking, all we have left to show for our dreams of a revolution is a handful of protest sites and the belief that somehow the medium is the message.”

Neff’s defeatism, however, is premature at best. Her analysis relies heavily on the misguided notion that it’s all over when in fact, the Internet is still anyone’s game. Crucial battles over national and international policy (and policing) as well as increasingly sophisticated encryption technology are being waged right now, as your eyes move across these words. Furthermore, this kind of superficial DOA pronouncement has a dangerous and dispiriting effect. Steering people away from current and emerging struggles over our civil liberties is probably the best way to secure triumph for commerce over individual privacy and freedom.

In an interview with the Boston Phoenix in 1999, Noam Chomsky offered a characteristically systematic analysis of the the struggle to define the Internet:

[The Internet] was paid for by the public. How undemocratic can you get? Here is a major instrument, developed by the public—first part of the Pentagon, and then universities and the National Science Foundation—handed over in some manner that nobody knows to private corporations who want to turn it into an instrument of control. They want to turn it into a home shopping center. You know, where it will help them convert you into the kind of person they want. Namely, someone who is passive, apathetic, and sees their life only as a matter of having more commodities that they don’t want. Why give them a powerful weapon to turn you into that kind of person? Especially after you paid for the weapon?

The obvious motives of capitalist profit structures are advanced by increasingly technical sleights of hand. The devil is in the dry, boring details that legislators, adjudicators, and the press don’t always fully comprehend until well after the fact. Washington lobbies that protect corporate interests are encroaching on long-held rights and freedoms in ways that are unprecedented. As the EFF puts it “Decisions are made before you even know that there are choices.” 2600 places itself directly in the line of fire, defending the public’s right to know.

Fair Use on Trial

Fifteen years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld, on First Amendment grounds, The Progressive magazine’s right to print instructions on how to make a hydrogen bomb. Today, the inclusion of a computer program that they were reporting on on the 2600 website brought on a successful lawsuit from the MPAA. The objection was not that the program, DeCSS (Decryption Content Scramble System), was copyrighted, because it wasn’t. A 15-year-old kid in Norway, Jon Johansen, who wasn’t looking to get paid created it. Nor can it be used to do anything previously considered illegal. A person can use DeCSS to do only one thing—access the content on an encrypted DVD.

To control the use of their product, the MPAA encrypts their DVDs and then sells the decryption code to the manufacturers of DVD players. So if you wanted to build your own DVD player to play the DVDs you owned, you couldn’t without first paying them a licensing fee and being somebody they want to contract with.

What’s more, if you wanted to use a clip for a presentation, to copy for a friend or for research purposes—all of which are legally sanctioned uses of copyrighted material—you categorically cannot do these things with DVD’s because of their encryption. The DeCSS code enabled uses otherwise not possible. And that’s exactly why Johansen invented it—to play DVDs on a Linux system so he didn’t have to go out and buy a DVD player when his computer already had the capacity to play DVDs.

Does decoding the encryption on a DVD make it easier for DVD pirates of the world to copy a movie, mass produce it, and sell it on the black market? Yes, it has the capacity to be used in this way. But the U.S. legal system is not based on the potential or the presumption of guilt. And besides, there are much simpler ways of copying a DVD than using DeCSS, which wasn’t constructed for that purpose.

The press coverage of encryption issues and the DeCSS case in particular has been contaminated with misleading analogies about houses, guns and locks. The Department of Justice even went so far as to call it “terrorware.” But what is obscured by all the hype and hysteria is the small, unimpressive nature of this piece of electronic source code. The encryption it deciphered was weak, breaking it no serious feat.

The fact that DVD encryption limits your control over something you own—something you have purchased the viewing-listening-fast-forwarding-and-rewinding rights to—has also been obscured. No one is disputing copyright-holders’ rights over what’s called “first level access controls”—how you acquire their product (did you buy it, steal it, copy it). The dispute is what the law considers “second-level access control”—how you use the product. So how and when did corporations start dictating how we are to enjoy their products? And why should they be allowed to dictate how such issues should be discussed in the media?

The Digital Millenium Copyright Act
& Corporate Wet Dreams

Not so long ago, October of 1998, the balance between Fair Use and distributors of copyrighted material shifted radically. The enactment of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA), a piece of legislation passed by every Democrat and Republican and backed by the World Intellectual Property Organization and the World Trade Organization, granted unprecedented legal authority to corporate distributors. Among pages and pages of vague legislation, Section 1201(a)(2) reads as follows:

“No person shall…offer to the public, provide or otherwise traffic in any technology…that is primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under [the Copyright Act]”.

This section has raised concerns from the ACLU, journalist associations, leading experts in the cryptography field as well as the academic heads of computer science departments, all of whom have filed Friends-of the-Court briefs in the 2600 lawsuit. This section is also key to the appeal that has been filed in the 2600 case by a team headed by Stanford Law School Dean, Kathleen Sullivan, who is arguing that the DMCA isn’t even constitutional.

Regardless of the outcome of the appeal, granting this kind of authority to corporate distributors certainly seems to inch us that much closer to what cyberspace writer for The Village Voice Julian Dibbel calls “the corporate wet dream of a pay-as-you-go telecom turnpike, owned by the same megabusinesses that own our phone and cable systems today and off-limits to anyone with a slender wallet or a bad credit rating.”

In the pages of a recent issue, 2600 declared that: “They are utterly terrified of what independently thinking individuals can do if they are left alone. Call it guilt, call it paranoia, what we need to call it is opportunity.” And truly, they rarely miss an opportunity. They haven’t heard back from the appeals court yet and already they are entrenched in another legal battle. After they put up the critique site, fuckgeneralmotors.com, pointing to Ford, Ford filed a lawsuit. 2600’s response was to register another site—fordreallysucks.com. And so they step up to bat one more time.

Unlike for-profit high-tech rags like Wired, 2600’s sole affiliation is to their constituency. There are no corporate parents or advertisement dollars to rein them in. “We’re a magazine,” says Emmanuel Goldstein. “We look for things, we uncover things, and we publicize things. Information is our blood. And we’re not in the habit of ducking. If you don’t like that, you might feel safer watching television.”

Further Readings:

Thinking Democracy: Inside the Politics of Journalism and Scholarship

http://theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1294

Against Intellectual Property


http://theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=575

The Tangled Web: Data, Bits, Waves, MPEG, Good Ideas, And The Future Of Proliferation

http://theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=465

An Informational Flow – Connectivity Weekend: Of Ideas & Exchange: Ten Years of the World Wide Web: A Retrospective Special

http://theexperiment.org/articles.php?news_id=1139

Source Material Provider: A Brief Bio

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It is their explicit belief that the corporate media are inherently unable to discuss fundamental social change, and that it is necessary to increase the influence of independent and oppositional media. To that end, they are as dedicated to supporting other progressive, independent media as they are to developing their own voice.

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