Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Rootkit of All Evil, by Bruce Sterling:

I'm not going to scold Sony BMG. The problem here is larger than one company's effort to own its customers' desktops and spy on their behavior. The real issue is the blurring of lines between blackhat hacking and legitimate business. It's one thing when Russian gangsters take over a few million computers to shake down online casinos. It's another when commercial enterprises adopt the same methods to protect their market. At that point, good corporate citizenship devolves into vigilantism and the implicit trust between supplier and customer unravels.

Imagine the mayhem if this kind of attitude were to become widespread: Coca-Cola would use your desktop to propagate spam about its latest bottle-cap sweepstakes. Vonage would keep Skype offers from reaching your inbox. Samsung would make sure that, when your browser tried to load, it reached a fake Sony site where nothing worked. Companies would compile vast archives of customer data merely because they could, hoping they'd stumble on a revenue model.

It's time for lawmakers, trade groups, and public-interest organizations to get down to the hard work of hammering out standards for what businesses can and can't do to customers' computers. Such an effort will need to be international, because the Net knows no bounds. It will need to come up with simple, understandable language for end-user licensing agreements. It will need to draw red lines around unacceptably invasive hacks and map gray areas between spying and market research.

I'm not holding my breath, though. After all, we asked for this. We didn't want to ruffle the feathers of the goose that laid the golden egg of technological progress, so we allowed manufacturers to claim more and more control over the ways we use their products and what they can do with our information. It should come as no surprise that they're using that power as a cover for bigger, possibly more lucrative schemes.

You may not be interested in the digital rights war, but that doesn't mean you'll have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines. Because the other side is very, very interested in you.

11:15 AM