The Parable Of The Wheel

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Reality asserts itself. Like the nursery rhyme lady who swallows a spider to catch a fly, and has to swallow a bird to catch the spider, and a cat to catch the bird, so must these regulations, which have broad general appeal but are disastrous in their implementation. Each regulation begets a new one, aimed at shoring up its own failures.—Cory Doctorow, “Lockdown

There’s a war brewing against the Internet, and it’s not just SOPA (the bill in Congress that threatens to break the Internet in the name of fighting overseas content piracy). It is, in the words of Cory Doctorow, a “war on general-purpose computing.” (read his post on BoingBoing, if you haven’t already).

What he means is that in trying to clamp down on a very specific problem on the Internet (the wide availability of pirated movies, music, and other content on foreign servers beyond the reach of U.S. laws such as the DMCA), laws like SOPA start messing around with the inner workings of the Internet such as blocking DNS servers. Applying special-purpose rules to a general purpose technology messes it up for everyone. Doctorow explains the difference between general-purpose and special-purpose technologies with a parable of the wheel:

The important tests of whether or not a regulation is fit for a purpose are first whether it will work, and second whether or not it will, in the course of doing its work, have effects on everything else. If I wanted Congress, Parliament, or the E.U. to regulate a wheel, it’s unlikely I’d succeed. If I turned up, pointed out that bank robbers always make their escape on wheeled vehicles, and asked, “Can’t we do something about this?”, the answer would be “No”. This is because we don’t know how to make a wheel that is still generally useful for legitimate wheel applications, but useless to bad guys. We can all see that the general benefits of wheels are so profound that we’d be foolish to risk changing them in a foolish errand to stop bank robberies. Even if there were an epidemic of bank robberies—even if society were on the verge of collapse thanks to bank robberies—no-one would think that wheels were the right place to start solving our problems.

The same is true of the Internet and computers. The Internet is designed to transmit information to anyone who connects to it. If regulators try to prevent certain types of information from reaching its destination by disabling part of the Internet, all sorts of unintended consequences will arise. First, legitimate parts of the Internet may also be disabled as a result. And second, the information they are trying to block or suppress will find its way to the people who want to find it one way or another because the Internet routes around roadblocks. That is what it was designed to do—find alternate paths for information to get to its destination.

Attacking the general underpinnings of the Internet to prevent a specific problem on the Internet is a recipe for disaster. It is like taking the spokes out of all wheels to stop bank robbers from making getaways.

Photo credit: Snowcat