07/11/2011 03:26 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2011

Killing Code Can Kill People

How do you effectively document human rights atrocities and not get caught? This is an extremely difficult problem, one that takes experience, ingenuity, and, often unfortunately, trial and error. The consequences can be devastating, but new technologies expand the options for creative people who are trying to make a difference in their societies to be able to do so and stay a few steps ahead of dictatorial regimes.

Unfortunately, software companies often act as mini dictatorships in their own right. Their code and their products are closed and their users ruled and attacked if they use the technology in an unexpected way. On the other hand, there are open source projects that hold democracy as a central tenant. Having opened their code to the public, they are transparent, participatory, and accountable.

Companies like Livescribe pretend to exist in the middle. Here is a technology that goes from paper to computer seamlessly. Perfect in a human rights context where one must be discrete. A digital pen writes on pixelated paper, translating directly into a digital pdf. The paper (the evidence) can be destroyed, but an exact copy backed up secretly on the pen and offloaded to a safe space. They have a software development kit (SDK). They invite users to come in and build applications and have an app store where those users can download the apps and pay the developers a certain amount of money.

Suddenly, Livescribe killed the SDK program, which has rippling effects for the human rights workers I work with who deploy this tactic in the field. How will they keep safe? And how will we recoup the costs we invested into this system? And why offer SDK in the first place only to take it away?

Effective immediately, they're removing the ability for developers to create applications. Their forums are read-only and will be taken offline completely in about a week. And the ability to create and print customized printed paper, gone. Here's an example of what would have been possible to document torture, until this happened:

CISCO's popular Flip camera is facing the same issue of getting the axe. Human rights organization WITNESS has made this a central tool in its human rights work, as well as many other non-profits thanks to a buy 1 get 2 option opened up to those pursuing a good cause. Was this under false pretenses? Businesses should of course be able to close projects that are no longer viable or profitable, but why not contribute it to the greater good rather than have it collect dust on a shelf?

Why kill code? Why not open source it? Why not hand the entire tool over to the community to continue to work with and build upon your product? The consequences, in addition to alienating users, can be devastating.

I hope that the hacker community stands up for user rights and starts demanding open. Perhaps we'll see openScribe and openFlip soon.