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One Plus One Equals Jail

Today, Andrew Auernheimer was found guilty for adding one to an integer in a URL and seeing what happened. There's more to the story, of course: after he discovered that it returned private information, he automated the process with a script, collected a bunch of the returned data, and provided it to the media.

You can do the same thing with my blog. This post is node 603. The legal case is arguing that if you subtract one from the URL and go to 602 when the developer didn't intend you to, you could be sentenced to years of prison. That's what this court decision implies.

Years ago, I was often horrified by the shocking ignorance of the courts and politicians regarding basic technical facts about computer technology. Frequently, you'd see howlers like when Alaska Senator Ted Stevens famously described the Internet as a series of tubes. You can listen to the recording right there on the wikipedia page.

For a long time, I expected a new generation of more technically sophisticated people to come along and fix the broken legislation and court decisions made in the early history of the internet. Unfortunately, I've come to recognize that the problem is getting worse, not better.

A lot of the revolutionary transformation that happened with the early internet was due to the use of simple, open protocols (like http and html) that could be easily inspected and remixed by anyone. A commercial entity would never have built it that way.

People often talk about how markets are efficient, but they're efficient like the old joke that goes "I don't need to run faster than the bear -- I just need to run faster than you." To which you might add, "And if I break your leg, I won't even have to run." Corporations are willing to invest huge amounts of money and make their products much less attractive and less useful to consumers if they think it will curtail competition and help their bottom line more.

As technology is increasingly commoditized and packaged for non-technical users, the underlying data structures and protocols are concealed. People using an "app" on an iPhone have no idea what's actually behind the scenes. If you're a mere consumer of technology, you don't have access to any of the really empowering features -- it makes it difficult or impossible to adapt the technology to your own uses.

Several years ago, I wrote a little script to transform data from CSV into a file written in "dot" that could be plotted by graphviz. It was cool because you could pipe the output of the script to graphviz and then to ps2pdf to go straight from csv to a PDF file. Or you could get the dot file and edit it by hand to add colors or make some things bold. When I had students use it, I found that they'd essentially never run a program at the command line before.

It doesn't bode well for the future that the next generation is being turned into consumers of technology. We need a commitment to open technologies and protocols that encourage remixing and reuse. We can't leave the market to the control of the corporations -- they won't build it that way unless we give them no other choice.