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    04.17.12 BLIP’s Legal Hackathon: An Experiment in Collaborative Work and Thought

    On April 15, nearly 300 law students, faculty, lawyers, technologists, and entrepreneurs attended the day-long inaugural Legal Hackathon at Brooklyn Law School. The event, sponsored by the Brooklyn Law Incubator & Policy (BLIP) Clinic, was designed to engage lawyers and technologists in the process of creating innovative regulations and applications.

    New media often depicts hackers as rogue computer whizkids, using their skills to illegally crack technological networks, but in actuality, most hackers are simply people skilled at pushing technological boundaries and taking risks to make technological systems perform as they were not originally designed. Professor Jonathan Askin, the founding director of BLIP, clarified this distinction with his welcoming remarks, observing that for lawyers, “hacking’ means abandoning the fax machines and risk-averse naysaying for mastering new online tools and considering the policy issues hackers raise. “We’re 'yes, but' lawyers in a 'why not?' world,” said Askin. “Our goal today is to draw lawyers and law students into the cooperative “hacker ethos”, and into the community and mindset of innovators and entrepreneurs, to collectively resolve legal, societal, and technological issues.”

    Prof. Jonathan Askin & BLIP

    The Hackathon was structured in two sections, with the morning setting the tone for the collaborative spirit of the afternoon. Academic panel discussions addressed the importance of SOPA/PIPA, crowdsource policymaking and civic engagement through technology. “Hacking in the legal sense is probably a lot like hacking in the computer sense,” said panelist Matt Wood, a Free Press policy director. Hacking he explained, is “about building things, getting around restrictions, and finding creative solutions.”

    Morning keynote speakers inspired the audience’s creativity. Andrew Rasiej, a social entrepreneur and strategist who has counseled senators, members of Congress, governors and senior government officials, talked about civic empowerment. “Gov 2.0 should be banned,” asserted Rasiej. “We don't need e-government, we need we-government. We-gov is about people using data and the power of knowledge. Technology helps data become information.” Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu, and author of The MasterSwitch, spoke about how naïveté, and not fully understanding effects and current thought in a given field, can lead to invention and innovation. “Hackers move in a slightly different direction, following not what everyone else is doing, but what nature is telling them can be done,” said Wu. But he warned against the belief that law should keep pace with innovation. “It's not law's job to keep pace with technology. Law should be slow; it should restrain power.”

    The afternoon workshops encouraged participants to lend their legal and technical knowledge to finding creative solutions to existing roadblocks to working together. Topics covered creative rights education, crowdsourcing legal knowledge, and hacking a model privacy policy for ISPs and software as a service.

    Common tools and incentives were also introduced. Matt Hall, co-founder of Docracy, demonstrated how lawyers could use his site to post legal documents that entrepreneurs or individuals could download, use and trust. Warren Allen ’12 presented #HackTheAct, the week-long open competition component of the event. “We want to see if people could do more than just stop SOPA/PIPA, and create something new through hacking the code of law,” said Allen.

    To date, six teams are competing in #HackTheAct. Each team is working to explore solutions to dilemmas such as enforcing trademarks on the anonymized Web, identifying alternatives to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act Notice, and fair use in the digital age. Prizes will be awarded to the most innovative proposals submitted. “What I’m hoping to figure out is how lawyers can stop being roadblocks and instead participate in a world moving rapidly around us,” Askin said. “This is an experiment in collaborative work and thought. It will be interesting to learn how projects born today progress,” he concluded.

    Read more about the Hackathon in the Huffington Post and New York County Lawyer.