Tuesday, September 18, 2012


In computing, ethics seems to, almost, be a profanity. Us sandal wearing Free software hippies are sitting there talking about ethical computing while the world looks at us as if we're talking about something completely foreign.

But it's real! Take Flash for example. Loads of websites offer learning opportunities through educational games using Flash. The license for Flash is such that you can't redistribute it. So including it in an image for school computers, for example, is breaking the license.

But surely there's a higher ethic here. The learning of our kids is surely more important than some silly licensing agreement. But why are computer professionals asked to criminalise themselves? And if we're talking about higher ethics...

If the "Beast of Blenheim" was found dead - shot in the head, would anyone bat an eyelid? Sure, it'd end up on the news. Given the harm he's done, and the total lack of remorse he's shown, he's still considered a risk. But more importantly, I don't think many people would have an ethical dilemma with his death. Perhaps they'd feel differently if they were the ones doing it. It could be argued that it would be more ethical to do something about him than to leave him out there doing more harm.

But there's a conflict there. Killing another human being is unethical right? To today's standards at least ("Going to war for God and country" implies that it was not always considered unethical. Do we consider soldiers at war unethical?).

But do we ask someone to kill him?

But back to computing. Your average I.T. professional is asked to act in ways which may be considered unethical. This is a fact of the industry. Microsoft's online magazine site, Technet, says this about Windows licensing:
"If you're an admin in an enterprise with more than 25 desktops and/or five servers, if your organization takes advantage of a volume-license program such as an Enterprise Agreement or Select Agreement, and if you purchase Windows 7 Professional or Ultimate (or you upgrade to those versions as part of Software Assurance), you should do the following: Print out a short stack of Volume Activation documents from tinyurl.com/volact, pour yourself a few ounces of a bold Tuscan wine and start studying.
When you eventually declare yourself completely confused..."
Do a search on the internet for "Confusing Microsoft Licensing" and you'll find a skew of results. I can't find a citation but I remember a few years ago being an admission about Windows licensing being intentionally confusing.

The ethical dilemma/burden is a business practise!

Apple do the same sort of thing. Perhaps not by making their licenses ambiguous but with their licensing model for App Store. They're at odds with a lot of the developers who support their platform. That may seem an overly strong statement, but bear with me.

Firstly, Apple's (the conflict appears in multiple terms of use/conditions) terms of conditions is incompatible with the GPL. The App Store limits use and distribution of applications whereas the GPL, at it's very core, seeks to allow distribution and use (it's covered in the "Four Freedoms"). This means that a lot of developers wanting to support GPL applications on an iOS platform simply can not.

Secondly, there's the lack of any sort of deployment options. I've talked about this before. There's a lot of things that aren't said on the subject. When I say "aren't said", they're things that normally are said but are preceded by a "I'm not saying this but..." or "Completely off the record...". Sure, there are ways of doing it - but doing it without criminalising yourself?

While we're on the subject, with my laptop I got a Microsoft license. I know I can't move that license to another computer, but what if it's running on the very same laptop the license came with? Well... that depends. The OS very helpfully tells me I'm probably using a counterfeited copy of Windows. And before I'm inundated with a series of comments about me using Windows, I've got it installed on a virtual machine.

The argument can be made that given that it's being run on the same hardware that it's licensed for, it's completely ethical. On the other hand, a virtual machine presents as different hardware thus requiring it's own license.

The Information Technology field is fraught with all sorts of legal issues. Worst of all, we enable it to happen. We criminalise ourselves, play on ignorance, don't stand up and say "That's not fit for our purposes". Instead we justify it to ourselves. We do the things that we're told we can't do. What would happen if people started to pick their software based upon the terms of use? Would various companies then be made to evaluate those End User License Agreements? So when your geek starts to look uncomfortable about something, it's probably worth asking, how is that person criminalising themselves?

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