We’re All Children Now

I propose the following rule:

“Think of the children” rhetoric shall be reserved for those situations in which the author is not, in fact, thinking of everyone.

Ridiculous? I thought so too, until I read Tom Sydnor’s testimony to Congress on the dangers of file-sharing programs like KaZaA and LimeWire. “It is simply absurd,” he said, “for anyone to have urged children to recursively share the My Documents folder for their family computer.” (Italics from the original.)

Perhaps children aren’t competent to operate Limewire. If that was the extent of Mr. Sydnor’s argument, he could have a point. However, he doesn’t really think that educated adults are responsible enough either, and he invokes “the children” only to make his incredible lack of faith sound more plausible. He says as much in his choice of evidence: inadvertently shared tax returns and leaked flight plans for Marine One. Not exactly child’s play.

File sharing has its risks, just like email, wireless internet, and user-selected passwords. No one denies that. But Mr. Sydnor suggests that LimeWire and KaZaA are intentionally and unjustifiably risky, and in the process he tries to pass off well-established design practices as evidence of neglect or mischief. Here are just a few. (My. Sydnor’s writing in bold.)

  • “Why cram [an inadvertent sharing] warning into a little square when the entire screen was available? Why make the little square appear in the bottom-right hand corner of the screen?”
    Because message boxes are standard in user interface design. Occupying the entire screen with hypothetical warnings is hostile to the user, as Windows Vista customers are acutely aware.
  • “Obscure files stored in a hidden folder invisible to the average user can cause the newly-installed version to automatically begin sharing all files shared by the previously uninstalled version.”
    Modern software never stores settings in files that the average user will see. Retaining settings after reinstallation is a convenience to users, especially those who required help to configure the original installation.
  • “The folder-structure on an ordinary personal computer was never intended to segregate a subset of the user’s personal files that he or she might want to ‘share’ with anonymous strangers.”
    Folders have always been used to separate public and private data. Reading permissions have been around for decades, and modern operating systems often include a special folder for sharing files. Recursive operations on directory trees (which My. Sydnor also calls “outdated”) are standard for numerous familiar operations, including copy and delete.
  • One mistaken click on LimeWire 5.1’s dangerously ambiguous “share all” feature can publish all of the audio, video, image, and documents files in a user’s “Library.”
    It’s impossible to even count the catastrophes a user could cause with just a few clicks, like visiting a malicious web site, disabling a firewall, or saving a password on a public computer. If designers never sacrificed safety for convenience, modern software would be totally unusable.

Any program can sound dangerous and irresponsible if we take it out of context and paint it in alarmist language, but the reality of file sharing is nothing of the sort. As Mr. Sydnor describes himself, LimeWire and KaZaA explicitly ask the user which files should be shared. If the user changes his mind, he can easily adjust the settings later. Nothing is hidden, and the user is in complete control.

It takes a user competent enough to download and install file-sharing software, yet incompetent enough to affirm harmful settings, in order to cause inadvertent file-sharing. In other words, it’s only those users with knowledge and permission sufficient to install new programs–precisely those who need to know better–who are vulnerable.

Users who install software simply have to be responsible for its behavior. No other standard is possible on the open Internet, where users are often exposed to malicious software deliberately written to deceive them. The dangers of malware, or of child predation for that matter, demand personal responsibility on the part of users and parents. It’s that same responsibility that will solve the problem of inadvertent file-sharing.