That word, free. It means nothing, but everything. You’re “free,” politically, but if your fellow citizens do something stupid, you’ll die in a mushroom cloud with them. TV is “free” if you like watching commercials a third of the time. Air is “free” but it may be toxic.
And then along comes some glib hacker-type to say “information wants to be ‘free’.”
I think we can parse this statement in several ways:
The latter one really scares us — supposing that smart kid down the block does, indeed, figure out a way to make an atom bomb by carving up 10,000 old smoke detectors and scraping the glow-goo off an equal number of luminous dial watches?
Watch the sky for the flash, because it could happen. Science is like a train where one thought leads to the next. Learn enough physics and… well, making a nuke isn’t that complex of a task, is it? Guess you could do it.
The same thing goes for computers. A person motivated to learn enough about programming and operating systems can easily hack most operating systems. To know a system well is to know how to circumvent it.
All of these get filed under point #1 above: it’s hard to keep a secret. It’s difficult to conceal knowledge (except in places full of stupid people — they will destroy its manifestation but not exploit it). Truth — that which successfully describes reality — wants to escape.
So when I see a company that should know better wailing about how its products are no longer proprietary, I have to grin:
Apple’s copyright infringement claim starts with the observation that jailbroken iPhones depend on modified versions of Apple’s bootloader and operating system software. True enough — we said as much in our technical white paper describing the jailbreak process. But the courts have long recognized that copying software while reverse engineering is a fair use when done for purposes of fostering interoperability with independently created software, a body of law that Apple conveniently fails to mention.
As for the DMCA violation, Apple casts its lot with the likes of laser printer makers and garage door opener companies who argue that the DMCA entitles them to block interoperability with anything that hasn’t been approved in advance. Apple justifies this by claiming that opening the iPhone to independently created applications will compromise safety, security, reliability, and swing the doors wide for those who want to run pirated software.
If this sounds like FUD, that’s because it is. One need only transpose Apple’s arguments to the world of automobiles to recognize their absurdity. Sure, GM might tell us that, for our own safety, all servicing should be done by an authorized GM dealer using only genuine GM parts. Toyota might say that swapping your engine could reduce the reliability of your car. And Mazda could say that those who throw a supercharger on their Miatas frequently exceed the legal speed limit.
What Apple is trying to do is preserve brand image by disallowing questionable practices. From a business standpoint, it’s smart logic: you want people to believe that if they buy an iPhone it cannot be hacked, no matter what they do with it.
Of course, that’s also denying the hackers — and by this, I mean the old school definition of “hacker” — who want to use Apple products. Hell, hackers basically built Apple in the 1980s, when people wanted home computers they could just fire up and start screwing around with. Or push past their limits.
If I were Apple, I’d make a simple distinction: there would be a hobbyist license for the iPhone, and probably, the iPhone a hobbyist uses should be a different color or have a big white stripe on it. That way the customers know that people with those are free to get themselves destroyed by playing with “dangerous” information, and everyone else can have an iSheep which will do what they want it to without them having to think much about it — which is how most people want to use technology.