Sunday, January 1, 2012

Intentions versus Capabilities

In the last few weeks, one of the most prominent technology stories has been about one of the most divisive legislative proposals in recent memory, called Sopa (Stop Online Piracy Act).  This proposed bill makes for strange bedfellows, bringing together organizations that have probably never agreed on anything in the past.  For example, the AFL-CIO and the Chamber of Commerce are supporting the legislation, while the Tea Party and The Huffington Post find themselves united in opposition.

Part of the reason for the opposition to the bill is the sweeping powers it provides.  It is possible, for example, to interpret the legislation as allowing a judge to shut down Google if any of Google's search results end up aiding pirates (which is virtually inevitable, given the sweeping nature of Googles services).  Proponents of the bill dismiss this concern, saying that's not the intention of the legislation.  This dismissal soothes the critics not at all.

It's worth noting that critics of the bill include a large number of programmers and other people with technical backgrounds.  Programmers have deep experience with a problem that was perhaps best illustrated in the story The Sorcerer's Apprentice (of which Disney's 1940 Fantasia cartoon is one of the most accessible and popular versions).  In this story, we see the young apprentice, eager to use his new-found skills to lighten his load, enchanting a broom to carry the water.  Everything goes fine until the apprentice realizes he doesn't know how to make it stop.  His attempts to do so makes things infinitely worse, and he nearly drowns before the Sorcerer returns to the scene to save the day.

The moral of the story is that having access to power (or technology) does not convey understanding of or control over it, which can lead to unexpected and very unpleasant results.  Any programmer who has done even basic debugging has come to realize that it doesn't matter in the slightest what they intended their code to do.  What matters is what it actually does.  Discovering and correcting the difference between the two can be fiendishly difficult.

This is why programmers are not soothed by reassurances of what the legislation is intended to do.  It doesn't matter that somebody says "give me these sweeping powers, and I promise not to abuse them".  The world doesn't work that way.  Once the genie has been let out of the bottle, it can't be stuffed back in.  Power that can be abused, will be.  Even if you trust the current person in charge, what about the next one?

I don't support piracy.  But even less do I support sweeping reform that is poorly understood, with concerns swept under the rug because the architects say "That's not what we meant."

Spend some time learning to debug C, then we can talk.

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