EFF is working with the Center for Civic Media at MIT to organize the Freedom to Innovate Summit (F2i) at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts on October 10 and 11. The conference will bring together student innovators and researchers to discuss how to defend student tinkerers.
This gathering comes at a crucial time, as innovators confront mounting threats from copyright holders under a regime that often marginalizes fair use, as well as opportunistically aggressive government agencies and prosecutors.
On the one hand, students are encouraged to tinker: recent years have seen technology companies actively aiming to 'move fast and break things,' while security conferences like DEFCON and the Chaos Computer Congress have grown to record sizes. It should come as no surprise that high school students, college undergrads, and graduate researchers are tinkering with the software and hardware electronics that they use.
Unfortunately, overbroad and outdated laws can impose serious repercussions for these actions. Sometimes, legal threats emerge because local authorities are technologically illiterate, such as when one MIT student was arrested (and very nearly killed) for wearing lights on her shirt, and another was sued for making a Bitcoin app. More recently, even high school students have been impacted, with 14 year-old Ahmed Mohamed dragged out of school in handcuffs after a teacher mistook his homemade digital clock for an explosive.
Other times, hackers confront companies with a vested interest in keeping their security flaws secret, or preventing their customers from modifying the devices they buy. Just ask the MIT grad student who discovered how to improve his gaming console and then wrote a book about it, only to see the publisher back out to avoid a DMCA suit.
Some students are advised to avoid entire industries and fields of research due to incumbent companies' aggressive use of patents and copyrights that make it difficult to enter the market. Academic institutions encourage innovation, but when innovative students run into legal trouble, their institutions often don't support them. This is untenable.
We're thrilled to see MIT collaborate with Boston University to launch a legal clinic to support students who find themselves under fire for their research or innovative work. That kind of infrastructure is one model to protect student innovation that we'll cover at F2i.
We've convened a large group of activists and experts, including Alvaro Bedoya, Cory Doctorow, Joi Ito, Jeremy Rubin, Andy Sellars, Wendy Seltzer, Peter Suber, and Kit Walsh. Along with these speakers, we're also inviting current students to discuss issues they've encountered.
Together, we'll brainstorm and discuss ways to protect student hackers from future legal threats. We'll discuss how to reform laws like the CFAA, the DMCA, and other laws that are used to attack or silence researchers, as well as how current students might bring similar legal clinics or other initiatives to their own institutions.
Are you currently a student working on developing new technologies? If so, we'd love to see you at MIT in October and might be able to underwrite your travel expenses. If you'd like to join us, please express your interest here: https://eff.org/freedom2innovate.
Together, we can ensure that innovators and researchers are free to do their work without fear of unfair litigation or criminal charges.