by Danny O'Brien
December is always a tough month for us collectors of evil. Something else is out there, something bigger than us all. In the cold snow and the dark, it is stronger, swifter to find out who is naughty and who is ... not so naughty. They fear it, the humans. They work hard to hide their corruption from Father Christmas's all-seeing-eyes.
Of course, in the open source world, privacy-conscious evildoers conduct their naughtiness using anonymizing sneakiness proxies and onion-routed nastiness networks, and write angry letters to their local Privacy Czars about Santa's data-retention policies. Slim pickings remain for us amateur naughtiness-hunters.
So, for one month only, let's see whose been evil and not so evil down there in the chained world of proprietary software. That sorry place, where slipshod users cannot hide their sin, distracted as they are by demons only the unfree suffer: the draconian wiles of restrictively-licensed media companies, the constant hammer of pop-up ads and malware, and - most dread of all - closed-source software with hard-coded integer limits, running on AIX.
There was surely wickedness abroad this Christmas weekend in Cincinnati, where a custom-written flight crew management system crashed on the happiest day of the year. Over a thousand flights were cancelled on Christmas Day by Delta subsidiary Comair, and thirty thousand passengers were stranded across the United States.
The problem, it transpired, was a 16-bit signed integer in a proprietary application written fifteen years ago by SBS International.
Ah, the devilish temptation of premature memory optimization! Not something to which we in the free software world would *ever* fall victim. No, no, no. Well, maybe. Anyway, we'd certainly be able to manage a timely upgrade to cope with this problem. Well, maybe.
Well, that cruel mistress Mademoiselle 2^N+1 plagues us all. But is her whim all that the proprietary world suffer from?
Not when we move closer to the true bane of the closed. The lure of Mammon, and the temptation of strategic alliance.
Take Travis Kalanick, twenty-seven years of age. Before now, he was best known as a member of the P2P posse, creator of Scour, Inc, a P2P service that fell into bankruptcy after thirty-three media companies threatened to sue it for 250 Billion.
Last month, he appeared at the side of the MPAA, at the very press conference that they announced their intention to sue BitTorrent trackers, and eDonkey and Direct Connect site owners.
Had Kalanick been bought? Did he switch sides? Some spectators seemed to think so. You could certainly tell that story if you wishes. In March, Kalanick, who runs a proprietary competitor to BitTorrent, Red Swoosh, was far more conciliatory to the competing technology. Back then, offered Red Swoosh's relatively costly services for free to anyone using BitTorrent. "I don't want to fight BitTorrent," he said. "I want to have a relationship with that community. That's not just about cutting a deal; you have give to that community."
A few months on, and Kalanick's opinion has apparently modified very slightly. Choosing to speak on the MPAA's behest at the very event where they decided to take on BitTorrent, his new take appeared to be: I don't *want* to fight BitTorrent, but if publicizing my product involves cutting a deal with some guys who'd want to kill it, shave it, and parade it naked through the village - well okay then.
A little opportunistic? Maybe. But has Kalanick truly turned to evil? In fairness, Kalanick didn't say anything at the press conference that would offend anyone - on either side. He gave a fine tribute to the power of P2P, wailed on "malicious online activities" that could either be adware or copyright infringement, depending on your particular bugbear - and, of course, he plugged his own software. As he says, his words redeem him.
But who listened to words? Far be it from us to accuse anyone who recently stood for the prestigious office of Governor of California of being a politically naive publicity-hound, but: this was a Hollywood press conference. Nobody actually paid any attention to anyone's potted speech. The MPAA didn't have him there to celebrate the possibilities of P2P. They had him there to make them look fractionally less like "anti-technology" troglodytes.
It's a fine line between claiming to be standing your ground bravely in the lion's den, and galloping in to give your mates a laugh, and suddenly finding yourself the Gazelle Liaison Officer for the Carnivore Association of America. Not evil, then: just not so good intentions, setting out on a dangerous road.
A dangerous road whose destination some proprietary developers appear to be breaking land-speed records to reach. Overpeer is a company known to be paid by the MPAA and RIAA member companies to upload corrupted files onto the networks.
Now it appears to be setting up a side-line, generating ad revenue by tricking gullible users to download its faux warez.
The company's website describes the tack as converting "illicit transactions into legitimate sales". Its modus operandi these days, PC World found out, is stuffing unfilterable URLs into Microsoft's remarkably flexible (read: exploit-prone) WMA format. The files are then named after tracks by popular artists, and dropped into the P2Posphere. Play the WMA, and the URLs kick up a barrage of pop-up ads and adware.
It's kind of intriguing, isn't it, when the MPAA and RIAA is to scaring us into believing that the world of unauthorized copying is filled of dodgy-dealers stuffing the files with all kinds of polluted malware and pop-ups, that they're also paying the people who do the stuffing?
I'm really hoping that in their next batch of cinema adverts, the MPAA addresses this, and shows a grumbling adware developer instead of a Hollywood set-painter. "The piracy issue, it affects us all: the construction guy, the lighting guy. And me, the guy who installed all that crap on your mum's computer. And also an awful lot of Los Angeles-based cocaine dealers. Why doesn't anyone think of them?"
What is Overpeer's defense for these accusations? They rather revel in them. Marc Morgenstern, vice-president of Loudeye, former CEO of Overpeer, and former vice-president of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, Overpeer's parent company, said that it was all fair play: "Remember, the people who receive something like (the ad-laden media files), in some cases, were on P2P, and were trying to get illicit files." In other words, it's eye-for-eye for the P2P.
Well, that's the kind of Old Testament wisdom we appreciate at To Evil. And, as Overpeer damns their own customers - the advertisers who pay them, whose ads are now so horrific that Morgenstern is apparently targeting them at his enemies as a punishment - well, so we damn them.
To the temporary resting-hell of December's Most Evil, we consign thee!
Somebody done you wrong? Mail firstname.lastname@example.org with names and category of wrong-done-ing, and your assailant could win a valuable punishment gift.
Danny O'Brien is the co-editor of NTK incarnate.
To Evil! appears monthly.