Hacking for Freedom?

Georg in the Fellowship T-Shirt
Picture taken by Michael Gottschalk during FOSDEM 2005. If you need commercial reproduction rights, you’ll need to contact info@michaelgottschalk.com

It was our first-ever and soon-to-be-thoroughly-missed intern Matthias who came up with the idea of making "Hacking for Freedom" our first Fellowship t-shirt. When he dropped the idea, we all loved it immediately.

Then we started worrying.

People outside the information technology area seem to generally think of "hacking" as "breaking into someone else’s computer, usually with bad intentions." What if people misunderstood what we wanted to say? What if people came to think we wanted to advocate breaking into computer systems? We were suddenly not so sure anymore.

So why did we end up making "Hacking for Freedom" our first t-shirt?

The true meaning of the word "hacking" is to

find an elegant solution to a non-trivial problem.

More conservative souls might describe this as "leapfrogging innovation" or "solving relevant problems." Hackers call this hacking. To hack a system means to improve or fix it. A "quick hack" is a solution created under time pressure that is not quite up to the standards, but solves the problem.

Hacking is a constructive activity.

When computers were still young, there was generally little to no security because people did not consider it relevant. Security by principle always creates artificial obstacles. If they become more burdensome than people feel willing to accept, they will be bypassed. You can see this everywhere: People using the same password for all web sites, people writing their passwords on paper slips attached to the monitor, people bypassing the firewall to download the next new movie.

Similarly, when the first software developers and engineers were confronted with logins and passwords, some considered them an unacceptable burden and routed around them. When it later became more apparent that growing networks and spread of computers did indeed make security a necessity, a culture of "digital neighborhood watch" began: People would check out networked computers, which were very often not secured at all, and left notes for the system administrator to inform them how easy it would be to do harm and that they better close the door.

This could be what the press has misunderstood and then spread.

And indeed it should be pointed out that most of todays Hackers do not consider this kind of "digital neighborhood watch" such a good idea anymore. While it is still useful to email an administrator if you happen to accidentally stumble upon a problem, you should not go poking around for them on your own. Often, the poking can cause the problem and it is not clear whether the poking was done with friendly or hostile intentions. When locks were new, telling people to not leave the key sticking outside was clearly useful. These days, using a battering ram to open a door, only to prove that steel doors would be more secure, is clearly not.

But the Hackers — architects, teachers and builders of digital society — still exist.

To me, Hacking is a constructive and proud term.

It is a term and concept that also applies to ther areas — like politics and law.

This is our term and we want it back!

To me, "Hacking for Freedom" means working together, building and shaping a digital society that respects freedom and other fundamental human rights. It means that we consider ourselves a community of people where each person adds something. And it means to not wait for others to tell us what kind of society we should live in, but actively shape and build the society we want to live in.

And that is why I consider "Hacking for Freedom" the perfect fit for the first Fellowship t-shirt.

Keep on Hacking for Freedom!

About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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