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#### #### #### | BRUCE STERLING ON
######## ######## ######## | PRINCIPLES, ETHICS, AND MORALITY
######## ######## ######## | IN CYBERSPACE
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EFFector Online September 30, 1992 Issue 3.06
A Publication of the Electronic Frontier Foundation
A STATEMENT OF PRINCIPLE
Reprinted from SCIENCE FICTION EYE #10
with permission of the author.
LAW AND DISORDER ON THE ELECTRONIC FRONTIER. Writing this book has
llegal, what's right and wrong, what's decent and what's despicable,
My various informants were knowledgeable people who cared passionately
about these issues, and most of them seemed well- intentioned.
Considered as a whole, however, their opinions were a baffling mess of
When I started this project, my ignorance of the issues involved was
underground. I'd never logged-on to an underground bulletin-board or
about the issue of freedom of expression, I knew sadly little about the
freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of association. My
Service, acting under the guidance of federal attorneys from Chicago,
came to my home town of Austin on March 1, 1990, and confiscated the
computers of a local science fiction gaming publisher. Steve Jackson
Games, Inc., of Austin, was about to publish a gaming- book called GURPS
When the federal law-enforcement agents discovered the electronic
manuscript of CYBERPUNK on the computers they had seized from Mr.
Jackson's offices, they expressed grave shock and alarm. They declared
that CYBERPUNK was "a manual for computer crime."
column. I've done that to the best of my ability in THE HACKER
CRACKDOWN; and in any case the ramifications of March 1 are far from
over. Mr. Jackson was never charged with any crime. His civil suit
against the raiders is still in federal court as I write this.
believe, or what some civil libertarians believe. Instead, I want to
are. As an SF writer, I want to attempt a personal statement of
that anyone called a "cyberpunk" must be, almost by definition, entirely
BloomBecker's 1990 book, SPECTACULAR COMPUTER CRIMES. On page 53, in a
chapter titled "Who Are The Computer Criminals?", Mr. BloomBecker
ntroduces the formal classification of "cyberpunk" criminality.
"In the last few years, a new genre of science fiction has arisen under
the evocative name of 'cyberpunk.' Introduced in the work of William
Gibson, particularly in his prize-winning novel NEUROMANCER, cyberpunk
takes an apocalyptic view of the technological future. In NEUROMANCER,
the protagonist is a futuristic hacker who must use the most
His life is one of cynical despair, fueled by the desire to avoid death.
Though none of the virus cases actually seen so far have been so
understand the motivations behind them.
"The New York Times's John Markoff, one of the more perceptive and
accomplished writers in the field, has written than a number of computer
criminals demonstrate new levels of meanness. He characterizes them, as
Those of us who have read Gibson's NEUROMANCER closely will be aware of
certain factual inaccuracies in Mr. BloomBecker's brief review.
NEUROMANCER is not "apocalyptic." The chief conspirator in NEUROMANCER
forces Case's loyalty, not by buying his services, but by planting
"biological creations," or even by the cynical "desire to avoid death,"
but rather by his burning desire to hack cyberspace. And so forth.
However, I don't think this misreading of NEUROMANCER is based on
carelessness or malice. The rest of Mr. BloomBecker's book generally is
nformative, well-organized, and thoughtful. Instead, I feel that Mr.
BloomBecker manfully absorbed as much of NEUROMANCER as he could without
actually *saw* when reading the novel.
NEUROMANCER has won quite a following in the world of computer crime
nvestigation. A prominent law enforcement official once told me that
computer and a copy of NEUROMANCER. When I declared that I too was a
"cyberpunk" writer, she asked me if I would print the recipe for a
me as bizarre rhetorical excess at the time. That was before I had
actually examined bulletin-boards in the computer underground, which I
found to be chock-a-block with recipes for pipe-bombs, and worse. (I
Jon Williams had once written and published an SF story closely
Cyberpunk SF (along with SF in general) has, in fact, permeated the
computer underground. I have met young underground hackers who use the
aliases "Neuromancer," "Wintermute" and "Count Zero." The Legion of
Doom, the absolute bete noire of computer law-enforcement, used to
congregate on a bulletin-board called "Black Ice."
they certainly knew about me. Since that time, I've had people express
brag to me about breaking into hospital computers to chortle over
confidential medical reports about herpes victims.
The single most stinging example of this syndrome is "Pengo," a member
of the German hacker-group that broke into Internet computers while in
the pay of the KGB. He told German police, and the judge at the trial of
Brunner's SHOCKWAVE RIDER.
offered many purportedly helpful comments. I praised the book publicly
and repeatedly and at length. I've done everything I can to get people
to read this book.
that gave the world the Lubyanka and the Gulag Archipelago. I don't
think I could have issued any such caution, even if I'd felt the danger
of such a possibility, which I didn't. I still don't know in what
fashion Gibson might have changed his book to avoid inciting evildoers,
about the book that makes it compelling and worthwhile.
This leads me to my first statements of moral principle.
As a "cyberpunk" SF writer, I am not responsible for every act committed
by a Bohemian with a computer. I don't own the word "cyberpunk" and
cannot help where it is bestowed, or who uses it, or to what ends.
As a science fiction writer, it is not my business to make people
behave. It is my business to make people imagine. I cannot control other
committed that use my ideas or my rhetoric, however distantly, as a
condemnation and punishment. They were clever, but treacherously clever.
They were imaginative, but it was imagination in a bad cause. They were
technically accomplished, but they abused their expertise for illicit
many, they may deserve that title far more than I do -- but they're no
friends of mine.
What is "crime"? What is a moral offense? What actions are evil and
no special status that should allow me to speak with authority on such
literature and a self-professed eccentric Bohemian, I have next to no
authority of any kind. I'm not a moralist, philosopher, or prophet.
court jester -- a person sometimes allowed to speak the unspeakable, to
explore ideas and issues in a format where they can be treated as games,
thought-experiments, or metaphors, not as prescriptions, laws, or
an infallible moral bedrock. I'm not seeking political responsibilities
or the power of public office. I habitually question any pronouncement
of authority, and entertain the liveliest skepticism about the processes
of law and justice. I feel no urge to conform to the behavior of the
majority of my fellow citizens. I'm a pain in the neck.
My behavior is far from flawless. I lived and thrived in Austin, Texas
n the 1970s and 1980s, in a festering milieu of arty crypto-
ntellectual hippies. I've committed countless "crimes," like millions
of other people in my generation. These crimes were of the glamorous
"victimless" variety, but they would surely have served to put me in
Had I lived a hundred years ago as I live today, I would probably have
been lynched by outraged fellow Texans as a moral abomination. If I
lived in Iran today and wrote and thought as I do, I would probably be
tried and executed.
As far as I can tell, moral relativism is a fact of life. I think it
might be possible to outwardly conform to every jot and tittle of the
taboos of one's society, while feeling no emotional or intellectual
commitment to them. I understand that certain philosophers have argued
that this is morally proper behavior for a good citizen. But I can't
live that life. I feel, sincerely, that my society is engaged in many
actions which are foolish and shortsighted and likely to lead to our
n a process that will cause great damage to our present system of
values. This doesn't excuse my own failings, which I regret, but it does
explain, I hope, why my lifestyle and my actions are not likely to make
authority feel entirely comfortable.
Knowledge is power. The rise of computer networking, of the Information
Society, is doing strange and disruptive things to the processes by
nformation, supplied through these new conduits, are highly corrosive
to the status quo. People living in the midst of technological
to break laws, but because the laws are vague, obsolete, overbroad,
and some have been punished unduly for relatively minor infractions not
motivated by malice. Even computer police, seeking earnestly to
apprehend and punish wrongdoers, have been accused of abuse of their
offices, and of violation of the Constitution and the civil statutes.
These police may indeed have committed these "crimes." Some officials
all the time convinced that they were morally in the right; and, like
the hackers they pursued, never feeling any genuine sense of shame,
of values. Counterculture -- Bohemia -- is never far from criminality.
"To live outside the law you must be honest" was Bob Dylan's classic
are dirty but his hands are clean." But there's danger in setting aside
the strictures of the law to linchpin one's honor on one's personal
ntegrity. If you throw away the rulebook to rely on your individual
conscience you will be put in the way of temptation.
And temptation is a burden. It hurts. It is grotesquely easy to justify,
to rationalize, an action of which one should properly be ashamed. In
nvestigating the milieu of computer-crime I have come into contact with
a world of temptation formerly closed to me. Nowadays, it would take no
telephone service, to ingratiate myself with people who would merrily
build pipe-bombs. I haven't done these things, and disapprove of them;
n fact, having come to know these practices better than I cared to, I
feel sincere revulsion for them now. But this knowledge is a kind of
mind like a series of small but nagging weights. Carrying these weights
may make you stronger. Or they may drag you down.
"His clothes are dirty but his hands are clean." It's a fine ideal, when
you can live up to it. Like a lot of Bohemians, I've gazed with a fine
me on the back, whose clothes were dirty and their hands as well.
They're not pleasant company.
Somehow one must draw a line. I'm not very good at drawing lines. When
other people have drawn me a line, I've generally been quite anxious to
confidence in my ability to draw these lines. But I feel that I should.
The world won't wait. It only took a few guys with pool cues and
once full of people who could trust anyone they'd smoked grass with and
love anyone they'd dropped acid with -- for about six months. Soon the
they didn't look just like the love-bead dudes from the League of
Spiritual Discovery. Corruption exists, temptation exists. Some people
fall. And the temptation is there for all of us, all the time.
llegal or quasi-legal, but they might perhaps be justified by an honest
making a commercial living from breaking the law, you're beyond the
you're grinning and pocketing the cash, compadre.
and dying to explore the new world of the networks. I don't approve of
this, but I can understand it. I scorn to do this myself, and I never
you've made yourself a miniature phone company and you're pimping off
the energy of others just to line your own pockets -- you're a thief.
When the heat comes to put you away, don't come crying "brother" to me.
being. If you're writing software and letting other people copy it and
try it out as shareware, I appreciate your sense of trust, and if I like
your work, I'll pay you. If you're copying other people's software and
ashamed, even if you're posing as a glamorous info- liberating
t, you're a crook and I despise you.
Writing and spreading viruses is a vile, hurtful, and shameful activity
that I unreservedly condemn.
There's something wrong with the Information Society. There's something
chair. There's something wrong with patenting software algorithms.
There's something direly mean spirited and ungenerous about inventing a
language and then renting it out to other people to speak. There's
commodification of data and knowledge. A computer is something too close
to the human brain for me to rest entirely content with someone
forth such a vast black market. I don't think democracy will thrive in a
milieu where vast empires of data are encrypted, restricted,
tries to stop a real-world tide with royal commands.
Whole societies can fall. In Eastern Europe we have seen whole nations
collapse in a slough of corruption. In pursuit of their unworkable
economic doctrine, the Marxists doubled and redoubled their efforts at
the last remaining shred of moral integrity could only be found in
Bohemia: in dissidents and dramatists and their illegal samizdat
underground fanzines. Their clothes were dirty but their hands were
clean. The only agitprop poster Vaclav Havel needed was a sign saying
*Vaclav Havel Guarantees Free Elections.* He'd never held power, but
and deserved to inspire, that level of trust. I wish there were people
n the Electronic Frontier whose moral integrity unquestionably matched
the unleashed power of those digital machines. A society is in dire
come, it can even be the last best hope.
The issues that enmeshed me in 1990 are not going to go away. I became
nvolved as a writer and journalist, because I felt it was right.
Having made that decision, I intend to stand by my commitment. I expect
to stay involved in these issues, in this debate, for the rest of my
life. These are timeless issues: civil rights, knowledge, power, freedom
and privacy, the necessary steps that a civilized society must take to
creates itself anew, it must be dealt with every day.
The future is a dark road and our speed is headlong. I didn't ask for
benefit I myself can contribute to society would likely be best employed
n writing better SF novels. I intend to write those better novels, if I
can. But in the meantime I seem to have accumulated a few odd shreds of
nfluence. It's a very minor kind of power, and doubtless more than I
to understand what I'm seeing. The best I can do, it seems to me, is to
try to approach the situation as an open-minded person of goodwill. I
therefore offer the following final set of principles, which I hope will
actions, just as I reserve the right to change my own mind and actions.
me advantage. I won't assume that the way I live today is the natural
order of the universe, just because I happen to be benefiting from it at
And while I don't plan to give up making money from my ethically dubious
cyberpunk activities, I hope to temper my impropriety by giving more
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