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Chuvo's Page, Malware, and Scalable Systems
Saturday, July 15 2006 @ 09:08 AM EDT

A reader sent me a link to Sun's corporate research home page, because it stood out to him as a good example of corporate internet policy. What belongs on a corporate website? When should companies take down a page as not getting enough visitors? Of course the context was SCO's rapidly disappearing site. Does a page like Chuvo's page belong? That dog is so cute, and I definitely like Sun better for having his page up there.

That led me to the page on Contrarian Minds at Sun, which is seriously impressive, and then to this page about Dr. David Yen, who heads up Sun's Scalable Systems Group. It got me thinking. I've been talking with a law professor about the future of the Internet, as it happens, because he's writing a paper and asked me my opinion. His view, essentially, is that security issues have become so dire, some regulatory response is inevitable, and he offers some suggestions. He feels that most users have more computer power than they can safely use, because they lack the skills. My view is that the problem isn't the users, it's the software. If Steve Ballmer can't do it, who can? Obviously, it can't be a matter of skill. It's more a question of choosing a different operating system.

I've never had a virus on my Mac or my GNU/Linux computers. Ever. Never, ever. I can open up attachments in email and click on stuff and nothing ever happens. Why is that? Because the operating systems are built for normal users to be able to use them relatively safely.

I'm not saying nothing can ever go wrong, just that nothing ever has and it's been a lot of years. He responds that once either operating system becomes popular, they'll have troubles too, which shows you that Microsoft PR is effective, but I don't believe either could ever be as unsafe as Microsoft Windows, because they are designed differently, but even if it were true, the immediate amelioration of the malware problem that would result from large groups switching is worth doing for the short term alone. I've been trying to express that the problem is the software monoculture, in a world where almost everyone uses Microsoft's software, and that it's a design issue, not a matter of software popularity, although that surely doesn't help. Just get a large segment of the population to switch to Macs or GNU/Linux and you'd find the problems shrinking, I think. If someone is itching to regulate, there are surely ways to encourage such a development.

And then there is the proposition that purists need to compromise because the Internet will not be able to handle the demands that are going to be made on it. Hollywood wants to use the Internet to sell movies and the article on Dr. Yen mentions WalMart wanting to use RFID, which clogs things up plenty too, I gather.

And while I stay away from politics, my logical mind asks this question: if folks want to use the Internet for things that put a strain on everything, essentially for their own business benefit, then shouldn't they be the ones to pay to build it out or build their own, instead of negatively affecting everyone else's experience on what is surely as much a public commons as a public park or a river or the air? Are movies important enough to alter the very functionality of the Internet?

When I read Dr. Yen's page, I wondered: is there something else we could try to scale? Is there really no tech solution? Anyway, it interested me enough to want to share it with you, because you know more than I do about the tech, and I wondered what you thought. Politics is off topic here, but just from a tech perspective, what solves the malware problem, short of such horrifying suggestions as I read in the paper, that governments require software writers to write to certain specifications? How do you answer his firmly held belief that the problem is a matter of popularity, not design? Do you have any papers I could share with him? What about scalability? His paper has me quite alarmed. How can folks regulate something they don't understand? How can we help them understand before they ruin everything?

The professor suggests having two Internets, one for business, which will be seriously locked down to keep it "safe" for business, where users have very few options, since in his view they don't have the tech skills to be safe (talk about blaming the victim), and the other a "quiet backwater" more or less the way the Internet used to be where folks can be as creative and experimental as they wish, free from regulations, to encourage innovation. If there were no degradation in the nonmarketers track, I'd say, fine. Do it.

Now, I view the movie track as being the quiet backwater, personally, but I'd say please do take all the marketers and "entertainment" sellers and give them their own corner ASAP. If they can persuade their customers that all they are allowed to use on the Internet is a purchasing appliance, go for it. They don't understand the Internet, so they want to remake the Internet in their own old-fashioned business model image, whereby they send consumers stuff on a one-way pipe, hobbled with DRM, and all consumers get to do is pay for it, sit there passively and watch it -- however many times they are allowed to before it turns the key and shuts them out. That isn't what the Internet was designed for. It's like their brains have been DRM'd to only allow them to think in old ways. That's fine, until they wish to impose their old ways on everyone else. And the rest of us, who do get what the Internet is for, would very much like them to go away and leave the Internet alone. Let them set up a mall for movie lovers, by all means, and I hope they make millions, trillions, whatever -- their wildest dreams come true. If the folks who can't live without Tom Cruise want to pay for that, let them, by all means. But the Internet is a public good, and the telcos' and the entertainment industry's bottom line isn't all that is at stake here.


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