E-beast on the rampage
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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Sat, 20 May 100 03:02:19 -0700
Subject: E-beast on the rampage
X-Lib-of-Cong-ISSN: 1098-7649 -=[ Fun_People ]=-
From: The Globe and Mail, Wednesday, May 17, 2000
E-beast on the rampage
A certain corporate behemoth can't help throwing its weight around, and
the nerds are getting trampled, says Spider Robinson
By Spider Robinson
Robert A. Heinlein said the way to assess the intelligence of a committee
is to divide the IQ of its stupidest member by the number of members.
There's a rather large software concern whose recent corporate behaviour
has been so transcendently stupid as to suggest that an IQ no higher than
that of its own rather notorious operating system has been divided by the
number of installed copies worldwide, then given a negative exponent equal
to its founders' personal wealth expressed in Canadian pennies. If a
corporation is an imaginary person, this one makes Homer Simpson look like
Unfortunately I can't name it. Doh!
I dare not. Its lawyers -- as if they don't have enough to do -- just
began attempts to censor people who are saying critical things about it
in what amounts to a techies' coffeehouse in cyberspace. Imagine what they
might do to someone who dissed it in a national journal of record.
But to get the full beauty of this, you need a bit of
historical/technical context. This corporation -- let's arbitrarily honour
comic Phil Silvers and call it BillCo, shall we? -- BillCo has had a spot
of legal trouble lately, in one of the larger adjacent nations. Less said
the better, of course, but in essence a large-ish number of folks there
feel Billco is (a) too big, (b) less than competent, and (c) a bit of a
There's even been loose talk lately, at the higher levels of that
nation's justice system, about crippling or dismantling BillCo by
government fiat. In the business world, this sort of thing is considered
undesirable. It wakes up the stockholders.
It was at this cusp in BillCo's corporate history that an unfortunate
occurrence unfortunately occurred. One of the most popular of its many
products contains an innovative feature -- ironically, one of the few
genuinely original features ever offered by BillCo -- called "scripting,"
which unfortunately is really not a feature but a bug. A gaping security
flaw, in fact, begging to be exploited: a backdoor big enough to admit a
Visigoth horde in full kit without waking the watchdog.
Get this: BillCo's e-mail agent -- let's call it LookOut! -- was
deliberately designed to let strangers send you e-mail that can issue
commands to your computer without consulting you. No, really! If you use
BillCo's operating system -- let's call it OpenWindow -- and run LookOut!,
your computer's no longer merely user-friendly: It's now a user-slut; one
too dumb to carry condoms, or even take names.
Perhaps the thinking -- if any -- was that somehow only corporations as
big and respectable as BillCo would ever take advantage of this wide-open
back window. But last week the worldwide Pea-brained Vandal community,
after months of inexplicable restraint, finally decided the time to party
had come, and things quickly got ugly. Dismayed LookOut! users soon found
their promiscuous program had given them not just viruses, but worms,
which is as horrid as it sounds.
Turns out quite a few people use LookOut! and some version of OpenWindow.
Collectively they lost a fair amount of time and data -- and money -- and
it's safe to say many are unhappy. It's only a matter of time before they
all wise up, and figure out out how the vandals got in. When they do,
they'll have things to say, and some may decide to say it with subpoenas.
If I were a BillCo lawyer, already sweating a momentous verdict, I'd
have spent the last week restocking the bunker with supplies against yet
another long siege. And if I were (shudder!) a BillCo PR flack, I'd have
spent the week racking my brains for some way to make BillCo come across
warm and likeable and beleaguered by bureaucrats. Hearken to what they
There's another operating system I can call by its right name here,
because nobody owns it. Linux is open-source: Anybody can get under the
hood and suggest or demonstrate improvements; good ones get adopted by
the community. This makes for superb, cutting-edge software -- free! A
few years ago, for instance, volunteers developed Kerberos: an
open-standard security system that authenticates the identity of users
who log into Unix networks. Theodore Ts'o and others worked on it together
until it was Way Cool, inviting others to use and/or improve it. Then
BillCo showed up at the barn-raising, eager to help.
Next thing you know, OpenWindow 2K has a version of Kerberos built in.
Only theirs is copyright. Proprietary rather than free. And funny thing:
It doesn't interact effectively with Unix or Linux computers . . .
A few programmers have been discussing this lately at a website called
Slashdot http://www.slashdot.org . It bills itself as "news for nerds,"
and that's exactly what it is: a big public bulletin board on which nerds
rap with each other. No matter how heated the discussion might have become,
there was no possibility of any tangible consequence in the real world.
Until BillCo decided to try and censor it.
I'm not joking: BillCo last week asked Slashdot to delete the Kerberos
discussion-thread. No specific "or-else" was named . . . but it was lawyers
who did the asking (it's alleged that some miscreant revealed secrets of
BillCo's proprietary software).
Say again: The sergeants of BillCo -- which is seriously threatened with
the corporate equivalent of lobotomy and castration, and which just this
month damaged millions of its customers through apparent gross
internet-security incompetence -- decided in their corporate wisdom that
this is the moment to make sure not only Linux weenies, but everyone who
is literate, thinks of them as creeps and bullies.
Wish I could help. But so far my lawyer and I have never met, and I like
it that way. So please don't ask which OS I'm talking about. Apropos of
nothing, by the way, my neighbor Homer hates black birds -- so my crows
oft win. Doh!
B.C. science-fiction writer Spider Robinson has been a Mac user since
1984. Bantam will publish his new novel Callahan's Key in July.
Copyright 2000 | The Globe and Mail
© 2000 Peter Langston