Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Hollywood Vs. the Hacker

ShareThis

"So far, the courts have stood firm against any kind of intrusion on the copyright law and the DMCA," says Valenti, who calls Judge Lewis Kaplan's decision "unadorned and shorn of all ambiguity. The core blood and bone of all these cases -- the Napster case, the one we've filed against ScourNet -- all has to do with a word that is harsh to use but is appropriate: stealing."

Late last month, Garbus and Goldstein filed an appeal based on two central ideas: that software code is a language like any other and deserves First Amendment protection, and that the fair-use doctrine of copyright law, which allows you to tape a TV show at home or quote part of a book in an essay, must apply to digital technology the same way it applies to traditional media. By encrypting content in a way that can prevent DVD viewers from grabbing "stills" and, potentially, fast-forwarding through previews, CSS, Garbus will say, violates that standard. "This is the first case under the DMCA," says Garbus. "It can decide whether or not you can ban fair use in this country. I think this will be very significant for the future of the Internet."

"We could have dropped out, I suppose," Goldstein muses, "but I think it would be kind of hypocritical, because we spent all these years talking about freedom of speech, talking about the importance of standing up for what you believe in. How much is it worth if you say you stand for these things and then as soon as the first storm cloud comes, you go running? It's not a choice we have, as far as I'm concerned."

"He won't compromise," says Jarecki, who first met Goldstein at a 2600 meeting eight years ago, after which the two supposedly trailed a Secret Service agent who'd been there undercover. "And that can be his friend. It's his friend now. But it can also be his enemy." Jarecki points out that Goldstein almost never backs down, which makes his involvement in a lawsuit like this all but inevitable. And, says Jarecki, "he usually doesn't lose."

If he does, he stands to lose 2600 -- "his life," according to Shana Skaletsky, a law student and a rare female member of the 2600 scene. "It's not something that he publishes on the weekends," she says. "He doesn't have another job. If the magazine were to die, I think it would be kind of scary. I don't know what he would do."

Goldstein founded 2600 in 1984 as a way for hackers to share information then only available on the hundreds of separate electronic bulletin boards that predated the Internet. In 1987, he began a series of monthly meetings in New York where programmers could show off and swap their booty, from code they had written to long-distance access numbers they had pilfered. Those "meets," as they're called, still draw crowds (and the occasional Secret Service agent) in cities from Chicago to Moscow on the first Friday of each month. But the 2600 brand -- the meets, the magazine, and the Website -- has come to stand for much more. Goldstein has made 2600 the voice of the hacker world's activist strain, whose members share an ideology known as "hacktivism."

In 1996, Goldstein broadcast a phone interview with jailed hacker Bernie S. from the hospital bed where Bernie was recovering from a prison attack. Two years later, he staged a demonstration outside the New York offices of Miramax to protest Takedown, a film about Kevin Mitnick, a hacker who spent five years in prison for computer and wire fraud. That case divided the hacker world: Some saw Mitnick as the victim of a witch hunt, others as a criminal who stole information and gave hackers a bad name. One of Mitnick's most vocal advocates, Goldstein believes the film -- based on the book by computer-security consultant Tsutomu Shimomura and New York Times reporter John Markoff -- was slanderous, and he's finishing his own film about Mitnick and other hackers, Freedom Downtime.

The term hacktivism is used loosely to refer to the politicization of the geek world -- the underground counterpart to the increasing political involvement of tech CEOs. But it also refers to politically motivated computer pranks, like hacking into government or corporate Websites to add messages about social causes. If such a vaguely defined movement can have a charismatic leader, Goldstein is it. "He's got this sort of magnetism to him," says Skaletsky. "Something about it excites people."

Indeed, Goldstein's followers sometimes sound like they're talking about a cult leader. "He's an icon," says Jarecki. "He's like the Alan Dershowitz of hacking." Goldstein still regularly attends the New York meets in the lower lobby of the Citicorp building, bringing bundles of the newest issue four times a year.

To his supporters, Goldstein is an idealist who sticks to his principles, living in relative isolation on Long Island while his peers cash in on the tech boom. To his critics, Goldstein is a Fagin figure of the digital underground -- or a fake. He's not technically a hacker, because he doesn't program or crack codes (interestingly, he doesn't even own a DVD player), and some resent that he's using 2600 as "his own private printed soapbox," in the words of a computer-security expert who asked to remain anonymous. "I really don't see the stuff he sticks in 2600 as having anything to do with hacking anyway."

But Goldstein defines hacker in considerably broader terms -- "somebody who just asks a lot of questions and keeps searching for the answers regardless of how many times you tell him to stop" -- and runs 2600 accordingly. In September, he donated 2600's seldom-used Manhattan office space, which most recently served as headquarters for July's H2K hacker conference, to the Independent Media Center, a collective of Web-based activist journalists. (H2K was a controversy in itself thanks to Goldstein's choice of keynote speaker: former Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra, a free-speech activist with no computer knowledge.) "We can either fight our battles by ourselves or join forces and link up and share some of the resources. These are people using the Net as well, people who need bandwidth and need to figure out things," Goldstein says of the IMC. "And we need to figure out things as well, and we can use each other to spread the word."

A few weeks after Judge Kaplan's ruling, Goldstein is in the studio at WBAI Pacifica Radio on Wall Street for his hacker radio show. Six others join him, including Phiber Optik, the infamous phone "phreaker" who served prison time for telecom fraud; Izaac, a 2600 staff member and a co-host of the show; a greasy-haired Columbia undergrad; and the systems administrator of a prominent advertising agency. "Hey, don't use the red mike," Goldstein instructs his motley crew. "It makes you sound like a nerd."

Goldstein begins the show by playing a recording of an acoustic tune called "The DeCSS Song," an MP3 file by a band called Don't Eat Pete, who have essentially set the DeCSS instructions to music. (During the trial, the MPAA added to the lawsuit a company that printed the DeCSS code on T-shirts.) The chorus of this catchy ditty goes, "I hate the DMCA. It makes this song illegal." As the band sings step 15 (of 21), one of the guys in the studio pretends to hold up a lighter. The first half of the show is dedicated to an ongoing discussion of the trial, after which Goldstein moves on to the increasing presence of corporations in university life, and 2600's "victory" over Verizon, which apologized to the magazine for its accusations of cybersquatting.

After the show, Goldstein leads his group up to the Village, where roughly a dozen hackers assemble at Caffe Pane e Cioccolato on the corner of Mercer Street and Waverly Place. Convening for dinner after "Off the Hook" is a weekly tradition -- a miniature version of the 2600 meets. Goldstein usually chooses the locale, careening through the city in his green Toyota adorned with a free kevin bumper sticker. This evening, he's drinking Pinot Grigio and scarfing down pasta e fagioli and a massive plate of chicken.

Goldstein tells a story about how, back in '86, the FBI allegedly tried to persuade him to help spy on Russian nationals, offering him $50 an hour to call and tempt them with products they weren't allowed to buy. What amuses Goldstein most about this story isn't that it actually happened, but that the FBI agent involved was named Walter -- also the name of Goldstein's dog. "When he came in, I said, 'Walter, sit!' " he recalls with unconcealed glee. "It was pretty funny."

Later, at about 2 a.m., as the group's last stragglers walk west on St. Marks Place, Goldstein pauses in front of the Gap, where a sidewalk projection advertises Gap.com. Like a kid making shadow puppets at a slide show, Goldstein locates the source of the projection and places his whole body in front of it, until just a trace of purple light outlines his shadow on the ground. The word kills becomes clearly visible, scrawled in chalk beneath where the Gap logo appeared a moment ago. Goldstein laughs. "It's good to know someone is fighting the fight."


Related:

Advertising
Current Issue
Subscribe to New York
Subscribe

Give a Gift

Advertising