Monday, February 25, 2013

Why non-technologists shouldn't be in the business of dreaming up technical solutions

So recently I had one of my regular Internet comment wars in the copyright debate with a fella named "Zoran" at the The Cynical Musician. Zoran had a foolproof idea for copyright enforcement that involved "searching for metadata" [in packets], this metadata would prove that the data in question is copyrighted or being used in copyright infringement. Metadata is one of those words that in my professional experience, non-technical people like to throw around a lot but have no real idea what it means or how it can be used.

This reminded of a similar Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) Internet protocol proposal, RFC 3514. This proposal procribes adding a field to an unused area of the IPv4 packet header (ie. "metadata") to signal that the packet contains evil content; that is something that is in some way harmful, malicious or otherwise undesirable. Since copyright infringement is obviously malicious and undesirable, Zoran's idea would fit nicely to this standard. It felt to me that Zoran was indeed reinventing RFC 3514, which I suppose could be quite brilliant. Perhaps he has a great future as an Internet Engineer.

Or not. You see, the people of the IETF have a wicked sense of humor, and every now and again, they create a joke RFC (usually on April 1st, ie. April Fools Day). To the most most basic trained Computer Scientists, these proposals are usually immediately noticeable for what they are, because they contain impossibilities or very obvious flaws. In the case of the evil bit, since headers are created at the sending endpoint, the sender has to decide to set or unset the evil bit. The standard has the obvious implication that a hacker or copyright infringer would simply "play nice" and mark their bad deeds as "evil", so that receivers and intermediaries can take appropriate action (some of their suggestions on what actions to take are themselves amusing, like immediately crash).

The problem should be obvious. Maybe this scheme would work in a world like in the hit Hollywood movie "The Invention of Lying", but not in the real world.

Yet when I asked Zoran to look at this RFC, he took it really seriously, and even criticized the authors for having a limited vision; obviously they forgot to address the nefarious case of copyright infringement in their proposal.

I can't make this up. Go here and read the thread.

So what did I learn from the expirence? Something that I didn't realize. A lot of these people have no utter clue what they are talking about when it comes to technology. They might be a nice people and cool to hang with. Maybe they know how to put together a song. But that does not them Internet Engineers.

It doesn't even make them the Geek Squad at Best Buy. They are simply totally unqualified to talk about these things at all. Taking technological countermeasure ideas from ordinary musicians is batshit insane. It's like having a waitress piloting your jumbo jet. Do you want that? Why the fuck is it acceptable for people who have no clue what they are talking about to dictate technological regulations?

While a lot of technology and Computer Science is obvious to me, I forgot to realize that because I'm a fucking trained Computer Scientist with a specialization in networking. I spent lots and lots of nights with no sleep at all, huddled in front of a computer screen to get where I am today. So this should be obvious to me, but I forget it's like gibberish to most people. And that's important to remember.

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