Saturday, July 30, 2005

Gun Control and Software Control - Will the Law Converge?

The US Senate has recently approved a bill called the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act. A copy of the act itself can be found here, with a summary from the BBC here. In a nutshell, the bill prohibits legal action that holds a gun manufacturer or distributor liable for the damages caused by a weapon they produced or sold.

Immediately, one is very tempted to compare this legislation with the recent decision made by the Supreme Court, which ruled on behalf of the media industry's claim that Grokster, a maker of peer-to-peer software (AKA "fileswapping technology") should be held liable in cases where its software is used to exchange copyrighted content. Summaries of the decision and the ensuing fallout can be found here and here.

So, software makers are liable if someone uses their software to exchange a copy of a recent pop-song. After all, this is damaging the economy. On the other hand, gun makers aren't liable if their weapons fire bullets that kill people. After all, it's the criminals who are at fault, not the gunmakers.

The cynic in me is bound to note that the apparent legal contradiction is swiftly resolved if you just rule in favour of the currently most powerful corporate lobby. It's also noticeable that action is being demanded of software makers because lawmakers suspect that it may be possible to detect and block copyrighted content. Trust me, lawmakers, some of us are spending late nights working on this, but to be honest, it may simply not be possible unless users cooperate with us fully. This is current research, it's not something we can just do. I would be happy if the gunmakers were held to the same standards - until they can make bullets that only harm bad guys and legal game animals, but which don't harm good guys and won't fire off-season unless in self-defence, then they shouldn't be allowed to sell guns, right?

However, taking a longer view, the gun lobby might well be doing the software industry a favour here. The ruling in the Grokster case was notably quiet on whether peer-to-peer technology should be allowed to prosper or be stamped out. Instead, the judges focussed on the intent of the software manufacturer, noting that much of Grokster's marketing and development had been directed towards the music-swapping market, without doing much if anything to discourage illegal use. For example (I quote):

Justice David Souter wrote: "We hold that one who distributes a device with the object of promoting its use to infringe copyright... is liable for the resulting acts of infringement by third parties."

So this would be like promoting a gun with the advertisement "Sick and tired of those protected species on your land? Hell, just shoot them!" Even if this was in the minds of a gun distributor, they would be scrupulously careful not to say any such thin, even after the current legislation.

Gun manufacturers may still be held liable in some instances, including the following:
(ii) an action brought against a seller for negligent entrustment or negligence per se;

(iii) an action in which a manufacturer or seller of a qualified product knowingly and willfully violated a State or Federal statute applicable to the sale or marketing of the product, and the violation was a proximate cause of the harm for which relief is sought;

It looks like both of these are potentially relevant to the software issue as well. Don't negligently put tools in the hands of the wrong people, and don't violate the law in the sale or marketing of products. It will take some years for these principles to play out in the software industry - we can probably do better than gunmakers in making sure our software will do some things and not others, but we are probably in a different situation in checking the backgrounds of people signing up to use our services. The abstraction of technology gives you a trade-off here, I think.

On a separate note, I'd like to quote recent research (OK, I do get an awful lot of my news from the BBC website) that demonstrates that people who do a lot of music downloading also spend about four and a half times as much on legal music than the average. Draw your own conclusions.

In the long term, it looks as though things are going to be good for the "good" software makers, i.e. those who don't just make good software, but those who make good software and are good people. If we do a good job of discouraging people from doing harm, it would be hard to claim legally that firing bullets is protected by the constitution but that firing off songs is destroying people's lives.

Friday, July 15, 2005

London Bombings and the US Media

Last week there were a total of 4 bomb explosions in London, and just over 50 people have been killed. I'm relieved to say that none of my friends were hurt. It's a terrible tragedy, and everyone (that is, every member of the civilized world) is pretty appalled. A couple of days ago, my father in Newcastle hosted a service that brought together the local leaders of 13 different faith communities, praying for peace and for the families of those killed, injured, and still missing.

By all accounts (in the news and from talking to people personally), the reaction amongst Londoners has been one of pulling together, getting on with life, insisting on business as usual even in the face of appalling tragedies. After all, there are an awful lot of ways to die, and London is no stranger to tough times and being a target.

By contrast, the news coverage in the United States has been extremely discouraging, alarmist, and rather pathetic. Headlines like "London Terror" do not help at all. There has been terrorism, and subsequently people are pretty apprehensive, but they're not terrified, and are not succumbing to the terrorist's agenda. Talk about "London Bombings", even "London Terrorism", but "London Terror" is a slap in the face of the brave civilians who got out of their tube trains in an orderly fashion and helped one another through the dark tunnels to safety.

In the days immediately following the bombings, 20,000 people were evacuated as a precaution in central Birmingham, as the police detonated another suspected bomb. The American news described this as "jittery nerves." A wise precaution, I would say. In the meantime, the main organization that did suffer from jittery nerves was the US military. American servicemen and women were banned from entering London for several days, though after millions of unarmed civilians had set the example of going about business as usual, the high command finally accepted that it was probably safe for their kickass personnel to follow. I should state very clearly that I don't doubt the bravery of American soldiery here, I dare say that they were dying to go into the City to enjoy themselves and help everyone to stick up for the good life. But I hold their commanders to be deeply mistaken and frankly chicken on this issue.

Even more alarmist has been the American news coverage on the home fromt, asking "Could this happen here?" in a million different predictable ways, almost always concluding that "yes it could, you are personally in terrible danger". By the time you've finished watching the news, you should be evacuating to the country, cancelling travel plans, buying armfulls of duck tape, and shitting your pants. That is, if you're a patriotic American, unlike those happy-go-lucky idiots in the rest of the world who haven't yet realised that 9/11 changed everything.

In conclusion: there are at least 2 ways to fight a "War on Terror". On the one hand, you can conduct business as usual, don't let the terrorists change your life, but be vigilant, and be prepared to evacuate your workplace as a necessary precaution in the face of a particular threat. On the other hand, you could give in to a media frenzy of panic, sign away your civil liberties including the right to trial, and allow any sucessful terrorist attack anywhere in the world threaten your confidence in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Let's stay vigilant, dignified, and (for goodness sake) cheerful, whatever happens. Then the terrorists cannot win.

If we allow ourselves to be terrified, then they have won already.

Come on, America - you've witnessed the way the people of New York have coped and, in the end, triumphed. Follow their example: the world knows that you are made of sterner stuff than your pampering TV stations would have you believe. Demonstrate it.