The Hacker Crackdown

by Bruce Sterling, read aloud by Cory Doctorow

Only the second audiobook I’ve bothered to listen to, and it seems to work very well, especially when commuting, since you can continue listening without interruption while leaving the tube and walking. (It’s taken me 36 years to figure this out? Genius.)

Cory does a fine job of reading, and I’m grateful to him for bringing this important book to my attention. When he describes reading it on it’s publication in 1994 as ‘life changing’, I can understand why. It describes the clash of cultures resulting from American law enforcement’s attempts to crack down on the hackers, crackers and phreaks of the nascent cyberpunk underworld of the early ’90s. Many of the underlying issues have even more relevance today. Can taking a copy of digital information be equated with stealing, given that the original owner still retains their original copy? Or is it more analogous to attempting to overhear a conversation which the speakers would rather wasn’t overheard? While some hackers have real criminal intent, there are a significant proportion with a very strong ethic to do no harm, who view their tinkering as merely the exploration of an online frontier, filled with challenges and puzzles, and rewards of rich hordes of information - the dispersal of which is not just a god-given right, but actually a moral responsibility.

When law enforcement agencies went after this crowd with a heavy-handed and indiscriminate approach, teenagers still living with their parents ended up in court facing years in prison, colossal fines and legal fees, in some instances simply for simply republishing a document that was already in widespread circulation. Innocents had tens of thousands of dollars worth of computers seized and never returned, even though no charges were ever filed against them. The resulting backlash formed the beginnings of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a philanthropic organization devoted to defending the rights of individuals in the online realm.

This whole tale is laced with many entertaining insights into the quirks and motives of the colorful individuals involved, and this makes the whole thing an enjoyable romp through a serious topic.

Rating: 8/10 - I only wish I’d read it ten years ago