Agreement Targets Censorship

Hacker group gives users authority to fight misuse of apps covered by pact.

A hacker group recently released a novel license agreement for its software that gives end users the power to enforce the pact and to sue governments and other entities that misuse it.

The organization, in Lubbock, Texas, said the Hacktivismo Enhanced-Source Software License Agreement, or HESSLA, is designed to prevent governments, corporations and other organizations from using Hacktivismos applications to censor Internet content or subvert human rights. The license is based on the open-source concept of transparency but includes unique legal provisions designed to make the applications user base a sort of volunteer enforcement army.

"[HESSLA] marks the first time technology transfer has been linked to protecting human rights," said Oxblood Ruffin, founder of Hacktivismo, an offshoot of the Cult of the Dead Cow hacker collective. "Our clients and end users arent building the firewalls to keep democracy out. Theyre locked inside trying to break free."

The agreement does not currently apply to Camera/Shy, the steganography application that Hacktivismo released last summer. However, the group might re-release that software jointly under HESSLA and another license, such as the GNU Public License, said attorney Eric Grimm, of CyberBrief plc., in Ann Arbor, Mich. Grimm has worked closely with Hacktivismo on drafting the license."Once youve released something, its awfully hard to go back and impose restrictions retroactively," Grimm said. "This is more for software that will be coming out in the future."

Hacktivismo is working on several projects right now, including Six/Four, a flexible peer-to-peer protocol framework designed to create secure, anonymous tunnels for Internet users. Its meant to help people in countries where Internet content is heavily censored get access to information they choose. The system can handle TCP- or User Datagram Protocol-based protocols.

Under HESSLA, users are free to change applications covered by the license and redistribute them, but the agreement gives them the right to sue if they find someone using the application for malicious purposes.

There is also a provision that dictates that if any government uses the software as part of a scheme that violates human rights, the government thereby waives its right to sovereign immunity from prosecution in foreign courts.

"In other words, if Myanmar or China wants to keep violating human rights, then they have no choice but to steer clear of Hacktivismos software," the group said in its release announcing the user agreement.

Key Points in Hacktivismos License

  • Users are free to modify and redistribute the software
  • Users have full power to help enforce the license by suing violators
  • Governments are prohibited from using the software to violate human rights
The concept of sovereign immunity protects governments from being sued without their consent.

Hacktivismo and Grimm have been working on the agreement for several months and cast a wide net in looking for comments and criticisms of the document. "Its gone through several revisions, and weve tried to solicit as much input from as many people as we could," Grimm said.

"We tried to create a licensing regime that balanced the transparency of open-source software with protecting the special needs of our end users, most of whom are living behind national firewalls," said Hacktivismos Ruffin. "Weve been accused of using the license as a publicity tool, but thats really a cheap shot. Granted, it will achieve a certain short-lived notoriety with the press, but weve got our eye focused on the endgame."