July 20, 2005 | By Chris Palmer

EFF15: Grad Students and Garage Inventors

(As part of the EFF15 Blog-a-thon, some EFF staff and interns will be posting stories explaining their personal connection to online freedom. For more posts in this series, click here. )

I fight for online freedom because I believe that individual computer users ought to be able to tinker and to innovate. I went to graduate school in computer science. The bulk of my research was in distributed hash tables or DHTs, storage systems implemented (usually) through peer-to-peer networks. The potential for DHTs to provide scalable, robust, and efficient distributed storage is tremendous. Yet DHTs require computers to store information without necessarily knowing what it is. They provide mechanisms for file transfer without centralized monitoring and control.

I didn't fear that my personal work would be censored; I was a theory geek, I didn't even write any software, just proofs. But I sympathize with those whose work has been or could be challenged, and those who have been afraid to begin their research in the first place.

The computer science community was built by college dropouts and graduate students with ideas. They thought of something that they could do, they built the devices to do it, and they started companies based on them. But more and more legal regulations, such as the DMCA, are constraining the ability of individual tinkers and academics to study technology and to distribute the results of their work. These laws are creating an unprecedented level of responsibility for all conceivable ramifications of one's actions. That may well impede the next generation of innovative graduate students (like the Google founders) or inventors in the garage (like the Hewlett Packard founders).

I fear what we might lose in the future if people are afraid to tinker and innovate. I think that over the next 15 years, we will see more efforts to control the behavior of individual computer users, treating them like mere consumers rather than active participants capable of innovating in their own right. We will see more technological restrictions enforced by the DMCA and license agreements.

But this will only happen if we stand idly by. I, for my part, do not intend to do so.

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