95 Theses of Geek Activism

by Devanshu Mehta

Geek activism has not taken off yet, but it should. With the gamers recognizing the need for a louder voice, EFF gaining momentum and Linux taking on the mainstream on the one hand and recent severe losses in privacy, freedom of speech and intellectual property rights on the other, now seems to be the best time to rally around the cause.

Geeks are not known to be political or highly vocal (outside of our own circles)- this must change if we want things to improve. So here is my list of things people of all shapes, sizes and sides of the debate need to know. Some of these are obvious, others may not be meant for you. But hopefully, some of these will inspire you to do the right thing and others will help you frame the next discussion, debate or argument you have on these topics.

# *Reclaim the term ‘hacker’*. If you tinker with electronics, you are a hacker. If you use things in more ways than intended by the manufacturer, you are a hacker. If you build things out of strange, unexpected parts, you are a hacker. Reclaim the term.
# Violating a license agreement is not theft.
# All corporations are not on your side.
# Keep in touch with everyone you can vote for and make sure you know where they stand on the issues you care about.
# More importantly, make sure they know where you stand on the issues you care about.
# Everything will enter the *public domain* some day- even Mickey Mouse.
# Read the original 95 theses. Yes, they are irrelevant to these causes. Yes, they are religious- and not even close to my religion. And yes, they are 500 years old. But they do demonstrate how stating your beliefs clearly, effectively and publicly to *challenge the status quo* can change the world. Of course, I have no delusions of grandeur!
# Use TOR for privacy and anonymity.
# Trusted computers must not be trusted.
# Democrats may seem to be on your side, but keep an eye on them. They may only be the lesser of two evils.
# Republicans may seem to be the enemy, but that is only because they are in power now. The true enemy is a lack of accountability.
# Read Eric Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar.
# Why do I have to jump through hoops just to get video off my own home movie DVDs?
# Know the DMCA so you know what you are up against.
# The true enemy is the line: “If you haven’t done anything wrong, what do you fear?” The problem with that line, as Schneier has said, is that it assumes that the desire for privacy implies wrong-doing.
# Proprietary data formats must never store public information.
# Some corporations are on your side- find them and reward them.
# No one has ever told me where I could play my 45 RPMs. Why are my MP3s any different?
# The _analog hole_ is not a hole. The world is analog.
# If you are in the US, let your Senator know what you feel.
# Treating your customers like criminals- or potential criminals- will turn customers away.
# This bears repeating, treating paying customers as potential criminals is a losing strategy.
# Some corporations may seem to be on your side, but are not.
# Fair use is a good thing.
# *Use multiple operating systems* regularly so you truly understand interoperability.
# Write to your local newspaper- they can shape the opinions of the people do not understand the issues we care about.
# Do not follow the Electronic Frontier Foundation, *participate in it*.
# Read of Thoreau’s words on civil disobedience.
# Data mining will not stop terror.
# *Express your opinion in public*.
# Blog.
# The GPL is not gospel, but it comes close.
# Use multiple MP3/music players so you truly understand interoperability.
# If you are in the US, let your house representative know how you feel.
# Those in favor of suspending some liberties for security, answer this: “Who watches the watchers?”
# Except for extreme cases, the *government* should not be in the business of *parenting our children*.
# When arguing with people who disagree, *be polite*, but not condescending.
# RFID is just a technology- its existence does not make us more secure.
# Now and in the future, presence of encryption implies *nothing*. In fact, whatever it does imply is *none of your business*. Without any other probable cause, the user must not bear the burden of explaining reasons for use of encryption.
# Flame wars help the other side.
# New technologies to promote and develop media will prosper because of computers and the Internet, *not inspite of it*.
# Security is a trade-off- what are you willing to give up?
# Calling Microsoft evil buys you nothing- it only polarizes the argument.
# Holding Google to its “Don’t do evil” mantra buys us a lot.
# Read of Gandhi’s actions in civil disobedience. Discover Satyagraha.
# Use Creative Commons.
# Understand the difference between civil disobedience and breaking the law.
# Can’t find anything to watch on network TV? Watch Democracy TV.
# Frame the argument in terms of the average person, not the edge-case geek. These problems affect geeks first, but *will affect everyone in the future*.
# Privacy, civil liberties and civil rights are a slippery slope. The reason we continuously fight for them is not that we all seek a utopian society where doves fly free- in fact, I seek a perpetual ‘tug-of-war’ where the rope gradually slips in the direction of my beliefs.
# Users do not want the permission to use digital media; they want to *own* digital media. This means using them as they choose, where they choose, in the device of their choice without fear of litigation or sudden inactivity. These users are customers- treat them with respect.
# Support the free, public domain archives of information.
# *Undermine censorship* by publishing information censored in oppressive countries.
# And then, there is the 12-step plan for the games industry.
# Corporations and producers of digital media _must_ trust their own consumers. Sales will reward trust.
# Breaking the law because you disagree with the current law is not the way to solve the problem in a democratic society.
# *ID cards* do not make us more secure.
# Voicing your views in a Slashdot comment thread is good, in your own blog is better, but in places that non-geeks frequent is best.
# DRM does not work because the customer/user has the key, cipher and ciphertext in the player. (thanks Cory Doctorow)
# Bloggers have rights– be aware of them.
# Find out why electronic voting machines are regulated less than casino gaming machines.
# Find out about Spimes– they are in your future if things go well.
# Have a global perspective in ideas of geek civil liberties, intellectual property rights and so forth. Do you like your country’s policies in this respect? Can you help people from another country?
# Geek activism is not all about extreme positions. There is a gradient- find your position on it.
# Read the PATRIOT ACT– know what you are _really_ up against.
# In the US, put a few technologists in power in Washington. Abroad, do the same for your own seat of government.
# Write to mainstream media- they have more mindshare than they are given credit for.
# Read what your founding fathers said before taking someone’s word for it. Quote the founding fathers back at them- there were so many of them, and they said and wrote so much, that you will find a quote for each situation. Try this one for starters, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” – _Benjamin Franklin_. Read more Bejamin Franklin. Read “more cool quotes”:http://www.scienceaddiction.com/2006/04/25/outrage/
# Read more.
# Mixed tapes are legal. Time-shifting TV is legal. Regardless of the media.
# Decide what is offensive for yourself- don’t let the government decide it for you. If you do not, pretty soon, you may only see one side of every argument.
# Music purchases should not be governed by determining which seller has the most clout among the player manufacturers.
# We do not lock the door to our bedrooms or bathrooms because we have something to hide. We do not secure our networks, conversations, emails and files because we have something to hide.
# Make sure that if a vendor locks you in, you lock them out.
# 80% of games are *not rated M*.
# You may agree with Richard Stallman, but make sure you understand the opposing point of view.
# An email tax to certify that it is “legitimate” is an awful idea.
# Know your rights and be prepared to defend them.
# *Open source is not free*.
# *Free is open source*.
# The ESRB game rating system exists for a reason- so that parents can be parents and the government can get on with more important stuff.
# Do not allow corporations to get away with assisting oppressive regimes. Let your voice be heard.
# *Linux is no longer a philosophy*- it is a good piece of software. Use it if it fits your needs.
# There are reasons based in mathematics that establish the NSA wiretaps and other similar brute data mining ideas do not work.
# Multiple nag screens that warn us of possible insecurity do not make us more secure.
# More information available to the most number of people is a *good thing*.
# There are DRM free alternatives for music you can play anywhere.
# *Vote*.
# Free as in free lunch is good. Free as in a free people is even better. For software and for everything else.
# Quoting Schneier’s blog: Cardinal Richelieu understood the value of surveillance when he famously said, “If one would give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest man, I would find something in them to have him hanged.” Watch someone long enough, and you’ll find something to arrest — or just blackmail — with. Privacy is important because without it, surveillance information will be abused: to peep, to sell to marketers and to spy on political enemies — whoever they happen to be at the time.
# Read our modern geek philosophers- read Bruce Perens, Cory Doctorow, Bruce Sterling and even Richard Stallman. Read Schneier to find practical reasons why stupid security mechanisms are stupid. Read them even if you disagree with them- it will help frame your point of view.
# DRM only keeps *an honest user honest*.
# You have the right to anonymity on the internet.
# *Be proud of being a geek*, a gamer, a privacy advocate, promoter of free speech and an innovator without fear of litigation, of government or restrictions on liberties- a geek activist.
# Most of all- have fun.

If you disagree with any or all of what I have said- good for you. Let me know how. Let me know why. Let us argue, let us debate. But, in the end, let us get stuff done.

UPDATE: Thanks to BoingBoing and so many others for the inbound links. And keep the comments below coming.
UPDATE #2: And now digg-pwnd too (just discovered that word). The site is dying under the weight of a thousand blog links, but we shall overcome. Some day. Expect a follow-up on the numerous comments below (thanks!), the numerous comments on Digg and the many dozen blogs around the Internet who have commented on this story. So far I have been told that I have inspired people to start blogs, to revive their blogs, to donate to the EFF, to write open letters and much more. This is all fantastic news, but it cannot stop here. It will not- stick around and we will make things happen.
UPDATE #3: This story was later picked up by Wired Magazine for the December ’06 issue (the one with lonelygirl15 on the cover). It also made its way in to many online editions of offline publications as well. I am about to start (July ’07) a series expanding on many of the thoughts from this original article and clarifying/amending things that have been questioned since.