12.02.2004 14:56 - Tidalwave Ethics
A while back, Paul Simpson put this link on his site. It\'s about Justin Frankel, who developed Gnutella, winamp and a number of other things. At first reading, you get the impression that he\'s a bit of a cheery rebel who just wouldn\'t conform to what the suits at AOL wanted him to do.
Fair enough. I have problems with relating to \"the Suits\" too.
But something in the article caught my eye, and that was that Frankel\'s latest development is a new file-sharing system that is by invitation only. This means that instead of setting up your copy of Kazaa/Winmx/Gnutella or whatever, and letting any Tom, Dick or Harry suck stuff off your hard disk, you can control who gains entry.
So, you could, for example, copy all your Grateful Dead bootlegs into a directory, set up your sharing software, and invite all your friends to join up and trade boots. All well and good, and all above board, as the band in question encourage live boots.
All in all, a nice idea, and a good use of the internet, right?
Ok. Take that last paragraph and replace \"Grateful Dead\" with \"Child Pornography\". Suddenly things don\'t sound so good.
Please don\'t get me wrong. I am not painting all file-sharers with the same brush. Doubtless the subject of child porn never even entered Justin Frankel\'s mind when he wrote the software, and I imagine that if anyone pointed out that the software could be used for such purposes he\'d be genuinely upset that his idea could be used in that manner. But the problem I see is that suddenly it\'s going to become very difficult to police such file-sharing, and that will probably attract people who want to share stuff which isn\'t legal, and that will lead to big crackdowns on the rest of us.
It seems to me that Inventors rarely ever consider the potential for evil in their work, only the potential for good. When the potential for evil is exploited, then the inventors are often outraged and feel their work has been twisted and mis-used. We are now in an age where technology is expanding exponentially, and we have no time to consider the ethical implications of such advances, or, for that matter, the uses to which such innovations are put. How could the designers of the IRC protocol, for example, predict that use of their software could result in the trial of a man for Cannibalism, even though his victim consented to be killed and eaten?
As for the internet and file-sharing, this is only the beginning. It doesn\'t take a lot of forethought to see that soon file-sharing will go even further underground. The password-protection is only a start. Public-key cryptography could easily be built into file-sharing programs which means that detecting actually what is being copied through these programs will become next to impossible for third parties wishing to eavesdrop. This will make it impossible for ISPs to police their own networks, and so they will have the option to either allow use of such sharing, but with the caveat that users indemnify the ISP against improper usage, or to ban file-sharing programs from their network altogether.
One thing is for sure. Inventions and discoveries will continue to be made, and they will continue to eat away at the philosophical, moral and ethical basis of modern civilisation. We can either ride the tidal wave or be swept away by it.