IRC: home to l33t haX0r pir4t3z

by Suw on May 6, 2004

Ross Mayfield blogs about the New York Times article that lays into IRC as the next big internet evil (registration required). Apparently IRC is a hotbed for illegal file swappers, hackers and child pornographers: It is “the place where people with something to hide go to do business”.
The angle taken by Seth Schiesel, author of the NYT piece, is just too tedious and predictable for words. What is it with some tech writers? Why can't they get their heads round the simple fact that the internet is a tool, IRC is a tool. The problem is not really with the tools themselves but in the way that people use those tools. And as soon as you realise that people are at the core of the problem you should then realise that the solution has to revolve around cultural and social issues as much, if not more, than around regulation of the internet or IRC.
The real discussion that we should be having is not 'ooh, IRC is evil', because IRC is obviously not evil at all – just visit #joiito to see how constructive a place it can be – but 'why are people distributing movies, music or software illegally in the first place?'.
Could it be something to do with the price of legitimate copies? With the fact that the more control the movie, music and software industries try to have over their product, the more bloody-minded people get as regards throwing off what they see as the unwanted yoke of corporate power? Could it be something to do with the fact that our society has a history of allowing redistribution of culture and that because people have been used to sharing freely in the past they simply generalise that experience to the present, doing so in the easiest way they can find?
And suddenly, here we are, back at the Lessig's doorstep, talking about Free Culture and how the problem is not with the technology of distribution at all, it's with the way that society views culture, property and rights and how corporates abuse culture, property and rights.
As for the issues around the ol' l33t haX0rz, again, I fail to see how controlling IRC would solve the problem. Instead of blaming IRC, why doesn't Schiesel ask the more fundamental questions: Why are our computer systems all so easy to hack? What responsibility lies with the software houses as regards releasing secure software first time round, instead of releasing what are effectively betas and then just patching up the holes later on as and when (but only if) people make a big enough fuss?
The majority of computers these days are like houses with no locks on the doors. Leave one unattended for a while, and you're likely to come back to find that someone has 'broken' in, although they probably didn't have to break anything at all to gain entry. Thinking about it, perhaps a better analogy is that a computer is like a house with great big gaping holes in the walls that the buyer doesn't even know are there.
Everyone talks about the necessity for virus scanners and firewalls and internet security, but the average punter is reliant on software to work and do the things it's supposed to do and half the time it doesn't. I just ran AdAware on my computer and found 102 nasties that my alleged internet security software had let through. How much extra security is the software that I have bought (note: this is legit, paid-for software, not a freebie) giving me and where are the holes? I don't know, and I will probably never find out.
I am not even going to start discussing the security vulnerabilities in Windows.
As regards the third branch of this triumvirate, child porn, I think that any decent minded person would agree that such activities and exploitation have no place in our society. However, I again question whether regulation of IRC would have that much of an impact. Surely the fight against child porn would be better served by more resources being brought to bear against the porn rings rather than any sort of global action against their methods of communication.
It's like moving the drunks on from a street corner – they'll only go find another street corner to loiter on. You have to actually find these people and bring them to court to face prosecution. It's not an easy solution, but we don't want 'easy' we want 'effective' and, preferably, 'long term'.
At the end of the day, there will always be a rebellious and/or immoral faction to our society. Always has been, always will be. Unfortunately, you can only go so far in terms of stamping it out before your efforts damage the lives and freedoms of the rest of the population.
Balance needs to be struck between the needs of the many to be free from actions perpetrated by a vindictive minority and the rights of the many to be free from oppressive regulation and control by the authorities. Note that the few don't get a look in in that equation – I'm talking about how the majority requires protection from the few without that protection turning into a smothering of freedoms. (And by 'few' I am not just talking about individual l33t haXorz, but also over-powerful industries and cartels.)
Firefighting techniques, such as closing down Napster or arguing against IRC, will always be ineffective. Partly this is because you are always chasing about after the minority, instead of pre-empting it, but also because if you squeeze the minority too hard, you end up damaging the rights and freedoms of the majority.
Instead of regulating the internet to the hilt – a tactic which would be at best ineffective and at worse catastrophic for economic, cultural and technological development – we should be looking at the fundamental issues that underpin hacking, piracy etc., and if necessary we should redefine not just the law, but the way that businesses work, in order to close the holes that the rebellious amongst us exploit. We need to ensure that the majority, society at large, benefits from the way that new technologies interact with existing culture rather than become the victims of misguided attempts at regulation or overzealous law enforcement.
As usual, Joi covers this same topic with far more brevity, simply saying “Give me a break. Are people running out of new technologies to bash?”
Well, obviously, yes.

Anonymous May 6, 2004 at 4:17 pm

You said what I was going to say, only better. Very nice.

Anonymous June 18, 2004 at 6:52 pm

The registration-free link to the NYT article is here.

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