The First Annual BLIP Legal Hackathon: A Meeting of Law and Politics at the Technological Frontier
A typical hackathon consists of coders convening for an intensive weekend of writing software, explained Brooklyn Law School professor Jonathan Askin as he opened the BLIP Clinic Legal Hackathon on Sunday, April 15th. The few lawyers who go to coding hackathons do nothing more than observe, as they don’t have a clear role to play. But this event, organized by students in the clinic, was the first of its kind. The day revolved around bringing a hacking ethos to the law, and about figuring out how lawyers can participate in that ethos. Most importantly, it was about building projects that would endure long after the event was over — just like any coding hackathon.
In his keynote speech, law professor, activist, and inventor of the term “net neutrality” Tim Wu explained how many profound technological innovations historically came about as a result of ignoring conventional wisdom and law, and stretching the limits of what was thought to be possible at the time – i.e. hacking. For example, Alexander Graham Bell “was not a great electrician,” said Wu. Bell was a teacher of the deaf who understood sound well. He believed you could carry voice over a wire, but the popular sentiment of the time said that it was impossible to use electricity to carry sound. Despite his poor understanding of electricity, or perhaps because of it, he was able to ignore naysayers and create the telephone.
Another example came out of the film industry. In the early days of film, the American film industry was dominated by the Edison Trust. “Under the rules of the Trust, the ideal length of a film was 10 minutes, and plots had to be simple and not controversial,” said Wu. “One film had a burglary and the Trust decided never to have a crime in a film again.” Hollywood as we know it today was built by Lower East Side immigrants, including William Fox of Fox Entertainment. Wanting to make feature films like the French were making, these ‘hackers’ moved west in order to avoid copyright and Trust rules.
Moving further down the timeline of innovation, Wu highlighted the example of modern cable television. “Cable TV companies started out as small local operations,” he said. “People in rural, mountainous Pennsylvania could not receive broadcast television, so they put up towers and got the signals. The broadcasters tried to sue them out of business.” But as time went on and the broadcasting industry became deregulated, cable TV flourished. “In the ultimate revenge,” said Wu, “Comcast just bought NBC.”
“Many inventions started with humble outsiders who broke the law (or were oblivious to it),” Wu explained. “Why do we get inventions from unlikely sources? Because it’s tough to think about what you’re not thinking about. Few things cloud the mind as much as bundles of cash.” Finally, in a statement that captured the tone of the day, Wu remarked: “The most powerful motivation for innovation is fun.”
Hacking our Government
With 57% of the eligible population voting in the last presidential election, less than 30% voting in the last NYC mayoral election, and a powerful lobbying system in place, many might debate whether we truly have a government of the people, by the people, for the people. The Hackathon’s message was consistent: we live in an Information Age. The Internet and social networking have made communication easier than ever. Lawyers and coders should be able to work together to exploit this ease of communication and to create a more democratic government.
It will take courage and ingenuity. Professor Askin emphasized that for lawyers and law students, the process requires realizing we live in a “why not” world. In the tech world, lawyers must evolve from being “yeah but lawyers” to being enablers of innovation. Today, many areas of the law remain unchanged by the Internet revolution, presenting an opportunity for young lawyers to wade into muddy waters and find ways to drive progress.
In a panel examining the recent demise of SOPA and PIPA, two proposed bills that would have drastically affected the way intellectual property rights are enforced online, panelists questioned how the Internet should respond in the face of controversial legislation. Some viewed this legislative battle as a traditional clash of moneyed interests, with the content industry on one side and the technology industry on the other. But the massive backlash from web users and content creators also played a significant role in shelving the bills. The challenge going forward, the panelists said, is enabling web users to have their say in legislation. Tech attorney and BLS alumnus Amyt Eckstein, ’01, noted that this is important now because the lobbyists currently influencing Congress are paid by the traditional content industry, not by web users and individual content creators. It is also important for the future, panelists warned, because Congress will certainly consider legislation similar to SOPA and PIPA again. In such future legislative battles, legislators may be able to co-opt the Internet industry, making it even more necessary for web users and content creators to be mobilized.
So how do we mobilize the citizens of the Internet? This question was addressed in a panel on “Government 2.0.” John Bergmayer, Senior Staff Attorney at Public Knowledge, noted that some members of Congress are already starting to use technology to engage with the public at large. The 2008 Obama campaign effectively harnessed social networking to generate awareness and get people to vote, said Benjamin Kallos of New Roosevelt. Obama’s 2012 campaign will rely on the Internet even more. Similarly, the anti-bullying movement has used the media’s interest in bullying to generate large public support and to influence the direction of anti-bullying legislation. Jed Alpert of Mobile Commons pointed to this as representative of “a move towards crowdsourced policy-making.”
Digital platforms that allow the public to actively participate in the creation of legislation would strengthen such a movement, said Bergmayer. Such platforms have a natural user base in the most tech-oriented junior members of Congress, who could promote their use in D.C. While it is unlikely that statutory language itself will be crowdsourced in the near future, said Matt Wood of Free Press, what matters most is having a loud voice in the political process. Art Chang of the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee and Tipping Point Partners noted that if we can use technology to reach out to enough people and to aggregate their voices in a way that resonates with the elected officials who represent them, we can influence the entire political process.
In his keynote speech, “From e-Gov to WeGov,” Andrew Rasiej, founder of TechPresident and chairman of the New York Tech Meetup, argued that technology has a fundamental role to play in fixing our broken political system that goes beyond making the public’s voice louder. He argued for the need to use technology to build WeGov – a government that not only listens to its constituents and takes their viewpoints into account when framing legislation – but actively partners with the public in improving the entire governmental process. Such a government would need to be highly transparent and must make data about what it does and how it does it publicly available. “Technology is getting robust enough that people are building tools better than any government agency could,” said Rasiej. Large amounts of publicly-available government data, coupled with the public’s ability to build effective government tools, would help ensure both a more democratic and more efficient government. Rasiej ultimately envisions a democracy based not on money or the influence of lobbyists, but on the ability of people to connect to each other and to oversee and build a better government together. The technological capabilities are there. Now, he argued, it’s up to us.
Hacking the Law
After the two keynotes, participants broke into separate workshops to “hack” new versions of laws and policies for the digital world.
A surprise guest, incoming BLS dean Nick Allard, gave an impromptu speech at lunch that described his vision for the twenty-first century law school, and suggested that events like the Hackathon indicate that the school is on the right path in that regard.
The day closed in Subotnick, with presentations from attendees about ideas they had worked on. These included a few proposals for the Hack the Act competition, which encouraged people to submit new proposals for intellectual property legislation. Finally, in a brief “secular benediction,” Tumblr General Counsel (and former Head of Global Public and Government Affairs for Google) Andrew McLaughlin exhorted the crowd to find new ways of doing good through law.
The “Hack the Act” contest continued for a week after the event. Winners were competing for a lunch with Bloomberg executives.
The BLIP Clinic livestreamed the event, and video from almost every part of the day is available here.
Disclosure: Julie Adler and Warren Allen, ’12, both edited this article and also played significant roles in producing the Hackathon.