Of Rights and Wrongs on the Internet

The web reflects a diversity of opinions and beliefs. One such area where this is evident is what we think of content distributed on a number of sites.

I am thinking not just of religious beliefs, nor is this a matter of culture wars. Instead, it is about the role of technology in enforcing certain ethics.

The Problem

From time to time, we read of sites taken offline or court orders issued to block certain sites for issuing incendiary messages, child pornography and of course, pirated software.

Recently, one of the popular websites frequented by blind and visually impaired people from around the world, BlindHelp had its mailing list terminated on Groups.io on the grounds that it was promoting distribution of cracked programs. You can find out more about this here.

You can learn more of these types of discussions and controversies on Torrent Freak where news of site take-downs are announced from time to time.

The debate

The debate on the face of it may sound to be about rights and wrongs: is this group justified or not?

It is no secret that the world is divided into haves and have-nots: those who can afford and those who cannot. When it comes to software, various movements to promote the rights of every user to access information, such as the Free Software Foundation, had introduced a political tone to this debate. However, their approach had been to consider boycotting proprietary programs and develop free and opensource alternatives.

Though this division between free and proprietary software – in particular, the companies behind them – had been divisive, in recent years this had toned down. We are now seeing a collaborative effort between big software corporations and opensource movement.

They complement each other, and help productivity to the end user.

But the question that isn’t resolved yet, and one that promises to never resolve, has to do with unauthorised use of someone’s software, even on “moral grounds.” Thus,

  • What do we think of software that is critical for one’s productivity which is unaffordable because one lives in a developing economy? Cannot raise the money to buy the program?
  • Isn’t it the same discussion that is threatening the WTO now about intellectual property, with big drug firms in the West insisting on enforcement of their patents even in developing economies?
  • If we explore the arguments further, aren’t we finding ourselves back where we started – not yesterday but in the ancient times, the question of right and wrong? Can some evil be tolerated for its effect on the society?

This last point is worth consideration: Can we say that one action has to be right when we look at its cause? If we allow this line of reasoning to prevail, it will result in every action being allowed on the basis of its cause.

  • Someone steals because they want to take care of a starving family.
  • Some civilians have to die in war as a collateral damage.
  • The end justifies the means.

The Moral Claim of Developers

Turning to the issue of software piracy, it can be argued that those who insist on their rights as developers are not unjust as such. With almost all programs, including the operating system itself, having alternatives that are free, it may not be justifiable for one to crack other people’s programs.

In fact, some developers may be just one-man or one-woman band struggling to earn a living out of a sale of their products. Cracking their programs may be tantamount to robbing them of a livelihood.

But wait! What about accessibility of programs?

This brings us to the issue that trigered this debate on the closing of the BlindHelp mailing list. I know of a number of people who go to it for every software need they might have.

Their argument is that most of the programs that are proprietary are of high-quality: they are accessible and perform better than their opensource counterparts. I am not sure about this claim though. But that is the logic anyway.

Many accessibility or other blindness-specific hardware and software are expensive. For people in developing countries like Zimbabwe where there are no assistance programmes to help students and professionals procure these, then they may live to never use them at all. At the same time, they have to battle against other forces of discrimination at their workplaces or learning centres.

Getting these programs may be their salvation and a way to find a footing in a competitive jungle of employment. From this angle, it is understandable why a site like BlindHelp.net is Godsent to them.

They posit that even if they were not to find a way to get a cracked program, this would not make them buy the software even if they liked it: the reason being that it is unaffordable. So it is not like they would have bought the program in the first place. Of course, If they could afford, they would prefer getting an authorised program rather than a crack, which compromises their system security anyway.

Conclusion

As this post closes, I think you will agree with me that questions that raise much controversy are not about the dark side of the web such as selling arms, distributing child pornography, selling drugs or human trafficking. Those cases are clear: they go against all traits of humanity that they should be roundly condemned.

Issues that cause a storm are these ones where both sides have a morally justifiable action. In future posts, I will explore some of these controversies in depth. However, if you like this kind of debate, make sure to visit this site where op-eds are written on it.

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