Computers, Privacy & the Constitution

Shipbuilding 101

Wanting to Learn is Not Enough

Having cut my educator's teeth directing infants fingers to hold xylophone mallets and cover recorder holes, I wasn't quite sure at first what to make of Eben's recitation of Antoine de Saint-Exupery recommendation that "[i]f you want to build a ship, don't drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea." On one hand, the aspirational/motivational emphasis helped me to understand the thinking behind his course designs, his speech that launched a thousand Kickstarter donations the FreedomBox project, and more broadly, his vision of the liberating potential of giving every child access to the net. On the other, the implicit expectation of sufficient individual agency to overcome accompanying emotional or technical fears seemed overly ambitious based on my limited teaching experience and observation of my cohort's lacklustre response to his clarion call for the adoption of Free Software. At a personal level, I was, and remain, shocked at how much my response to realizing just how technically illiterate I was resembled the five classic stages of loss, and how emotionally ambivalent about privacy I remain, despite fully buying into its importance from an intellectual perspective.

I think Eben is correct to berate us for choosing comfort over freedom, and to emphasize that the responsibility is with us to do something about these issues before it is too late. On the other hand, I am unpersuaded that his approach is balanced by the requisite level of handholding and nurturing support to be effective, even at a graduate school level. To paraphrase an old banking joke, if one student fails to be inspired, it's the student's problem. If the entire class fails, it's the teacher's problem. How is it that finance, econometrics and statistics departments help thousands of bored, unwilling students become proficient with fairly complex software on a yearly basis, but our law school still fails to provide a basically accessible introduction to legally-significant free software? I know Eben can make a convincing case when he puts his mind to it, so I find it odd that the law school has orientation events and 10-page guides that spell out in triplicate how to connect a Mac to the school printers, but not one primer (exercise walkthroughs on this site not-withstanding) describing how an interested but largely computer-illiterate student could build a privacy-protecting/free software-based computer set-up before beginning their legal career.

Let Them Eat Low-Hanging Fruit

In addition to publishing the third privacy exercise that was going to be introduced throughout this class but for time constraints, I would suggest providing some other basic materials to students generally on free software and privacy, either through the IT department or student services, or even better, through collaboration with Legal Methods and/or Professional Responsibility teachers. I'd also suggest asking/paying someone to offer computer revamp assistance during orientation to accompany the rest of the CLS computer set-up process, along with a gentle description of the privacy-benefits for clients and legal practice more generally. Even something as basic as a sign like “Privatize Your Computer, Protect Your Clients” with someone sitting underneath it who can talk to interested students could be beneficial. Additionally, I think greater emphasis on the personal implications of privacy on one's legal careers during this course would be an effective rhetorical strategy. One may be ambivalent about “save the world” speeches, for example, but very interested to learn if they are being negligent to their clients. Finally, more on the personal impact of educational invasion of privacy at law school, and in particular linking the law-grade-to-big-law pipeline to the Orwellian educational future you discussed with respect to MOOCs may also be fruitful.

Change Begins at Home

Pedagogical speculation and pontification aside, I am soon to head off to London to cocoon myself for a year in preparation for beginning my career as a lawyer. Part of this process, I have decided, will be to learn how to walk the free software and privacy talk. This involves seeking out opportunities to get gain greater exposure and experience in using software and computers intelligently and in a privacy-protecting way. I've already started to do this, to an extent, with my project for Sue Sturm's class developing a web hub for the NY Reentry Education Network, my recent appointment as Digital Editor for the JLSP website. In addition to these, I plan on switching the Modern Money and Public Purpose website over to free software, adding a TWiki function in accordance with the series evolution into a learning network, and setting up a VPS and personal email address. I will also soon receive a copy of the new, cheap parallel computer that I invested in during the spring of 2012, which I intend to use to start learning basic programming.

There are limits this process, however - I'm not yet ready to give up the soapboxes I currently enjoy on Facebook and Twitter, which I find very valuable for sharing information publicly. Perhaps this will change, or perhaps they won't need to if a Diaspora-like project succeeds in providing a soft-transition option over to free and privacy-protecting alternative platforms. I will also continue to think about how I can contribute to the message-sharing of the movement, and how these issues are going to impact with my other interests. I am already on the way with this process with regards to children's privacy and the educational potential of free software, but still feel lost as to how these issues intersect with current debates and likely policy changes in the near future regarding monetary system reform. With regard to the second, I am undertaking a research project this summer on teh interaction of telecommunications and mobile payments systems in developing countries, so hopefully that will provide the impetus to dive into that literature. That said, any suggestions or thoughts, on any of these goals, would be greatly appreciated.

-- RohanGrey - 31 May 2013



Webs Webs

r4 - 14 Jan 2015 - 22:44:50 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM