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Harvard-MIT-Yale Cyberscholar Working Group

Harvard-MIT-Yale Cyberscholar Working Group

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Yale Law School
Room 129
6:00 – 8:45 pm
Food Provided: RSVP to


Gabriella Coleman: These are the Best of Times and these are the Worst of Times: Free Software and the Global Politics of Intellectual Property Law

This talk interrogates the broader historical rise of free software in relationship to the massive changes that have transpired in intellectual property law in the last twenty five years. To do so, I present what were initially two independent historical trajectories concerning intellectual property that over the last decade have become intimately intertwined. The first trajectory pertains to free software's maturity into a global techno-social and legal movement and the second turns to the globalization of intellectual property provisions pushed by trade associations, such as the Business Software Alliance, and administered through global institutional bodies, like the World Trade Organization.  In this story, I emphasize a string of ironies (and briefly theorize the importance of historical irony), but the main irony that frames the narrative is the following: many hackers want to hack without being political but the broader result is not only quite political, F/OSS development has even politicized (though in very particular ways) a crop of hackers. While many free software hackers simply want to ensure their productive freedom and are driven by the pleasures of hacking (as opposed to explicit political resistance), the social element of this movement unintentionally acted like informal law education. Participation in free software inadvertently trained a generation of hackers to become an army of amateur legal scholars who have built a rival legal morality; these hackers now represent the largest pool of amateur intellectual property and free speech scholars in the world. Armed with this legal consciousness, many developers have come to question and some to intentionally fight the “global harmonization” of intellectual property principles. This narrative structure allows me to demonstrate how and when these partially independent trajectories intersected, to become inseparable histories locked in a battle over the future of the very technologies—notably the personal computer and the Internet—that have enabled and facilitated the existence of both proprietary software firms and the free software movement.

Thomas Streeter: The History of the Internet in the History of the Internet

The embrace, use, and continued development of the internet has been shaped by the collective experience of how it emerged. Popular culture, everyday practice, and the U.S. Supreme Court assume the internet to be a uniquely open and democratic communication technology. This is not necessitated by technology itself. The openness of the internet, rather, is to a significant degree a product of the peculiar historical circumstances in which it developed. I will discuss how several historical contingencies contributed to the construction of the internet as open: the in the 1970s cultivation by advocates of "personal" computing of romantic expressive tropes against a backdrop of instrumental reasoning, the way engineers quietly guided the growing internet into a space between the differentially charged force fields of military, corporate, university, and NSF funding in the 1980s, and the connected rise of open source computing in the 1990s.

As a result of this historical experience, the internet's history has been inscribed in its practical character and use. The internet has served as a socially evocative object for millions, and created a context in which an ongoing exploration of the meaning of core principles like rights, property, freedom, capitalism, and the social have been made vivid and debated in ways that go well beyond the usual elite modes of discussion. It has played a key role in casting into doubt the certainties of both market policies and
corporate liberal ones, and widened the range of possibility for democratic debate and action, bringing to the surface political issues that have been dormant since the progressive era in the U.S. But this efflorescence of openness is not the result of underlying truths about technology (or about progress or humanity) breaking through the crusts of tradition and inequality. It is the result of peculiarities of history and culture. The role of romanticism in particular reveals, not a universal truth, but the historical contingencies at work in the creation of both technology and democracy. As a practical matter, a new politics of internet policy making in the U.S. would be wise to take that history into account, and start from the widely felt tensions between romantic and utilitarian individualism and move towards a richer, more mature approach towards democratic decision-making. But the larger moral of this story is that democracy is an historical accident worth cultivating.

David Thaw: Understanding How Law and Regulation Drive Corporate Information Security Practices

My research seeks to develop an understanding of the relationship between regulation and corporate information security practices.  I seek to understand whether specific forms of regulation yield information practices that have been identified as essential by experts in computer and information security, and through a comparative assessment whether certain forms of regulation are better aligned than others with these practices. Integrally related, I seek to understand the manner in which various forms of regulation alter the role of domain experts—specifically alter their power, independence and access to resources—within the regulated institution. Finally, through an analysis grounded in behavioral economics I seek to understand the ways in which specific forms of regulation affect firms information security investment strategies, both independently and within sectors.


Gabriella Coleman is an Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU. Her work examines the role of the law and new media technologies in extending and critiquing liberal values and sustaining new forms of political activism. She received her Ph.D. in Socio-Cultural Anthropology from the University of Chicago and her B.A. from Columbia University.

Thomas Streeter is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Vermont, where he studies the role of cultural beliefs in shaping things like institutions, property, legal regulation, and technology. His books include Selling the Air: A Critique of the Policy of Commercial Broadcasting in the United States (1996) and a forthcoming book tentatively titled The Net Effect: Reflections on the Cultural Politics of Internet Structure.

David Thaw is a Visiting Fellow at Yale Law School's Information Society Project.  He is currently finishing his dissertation at UC Berkeley's School of Information.  David received his J.D. from Berkeley Law in 2008, his M.A. in Political Science from Berkeley in 2004, and his B.S. in Computer Science and B.A. in Government from the University of Maryland in 2003.

Past Event
Thursday, March 26, 2009 - Friday, March 27, 2009
6:00 PM - 8:45 PM