Backspin: 2007: The year of being outraged?

Duplicitous vendors, and even the government, seemed to have got away with murder in 2006, argues Mark Gibbs

The dawn of a new year should be a time of reflection, of weighing what happened in the last year and planning to make the next 12 months better. I have reflected on the happenings of last year and I would sum up 2006 as The Year of Not Enough Outrage.

Sure, we were all suitably outraged by HP's boardroom foolishness and the government stepped in and took action, so score one for the forces of good. But that was one of a very few points of light in an otherwise dark, gloomy cavern of misbehavior.

We started 2006 with the Sony BMG Music Entertainment digital rights management (DRM) fiasco still going strong. In late 2005 it was discovered Sony had intentionally installed rootkit software on PCs when users tried to play certain Sony-produced CDs under Windows.

By the start of 2006 we knew that more than 500,000 networks had been infected, including a number of U.S. military networks. We also knew hackers had created malware that could exploit the naive and poorly written Sony rootkit code. Sony had made a huge problem for us.

The obvious conclusion was that the Sony DRM fiasco was extremely serious - more so than most people realized considering that Sony compromised the integrity of tens of thousands of PCs and thousands of networks. But did the government get involved? No. This was a big company with big lawyers and who in the civil service wants to represent the people when they'll probably just get their head handed back to them.

The burden of prosecution rested on civil suits, several of which have resulted in fines of a scant few million dollars while others won't be settled until 2008.

Did or will any Sony executives go to jail? Will any of these people -- particularly Thomas Hesse, Sony BMG's CEO, who argued that "Most people ... don't even know what a rootkit is, so why should they care about it?" -- be held accountable in any meaningful way? No. Are we outraged? The answer for many seems to be no.

But I am. I've written about this case before and I'm still amazed that most people don't really care that a major company ignored their rights and broke the law and their government wasn't really interested. What is the matter with you people? Why aren't you outraged? Why aren't you rioting in the streets?

Then Sony ended the year with another fiasco as laptop batteries exploded or melted down. The faulty batteries were simply recalled (you have to wonder how long until laptops and other lithium-ion battery-powered devices are banned from air travel) and you have to admire Sony for skillfully avoiding repercussions that would kill off most other vendors. But were we outraged? What do you think?

Although I have highlighted two cases involving Sony I'd hate to have you think it's the only company that got away with bad deeds. Bad behavior and actions, the kind that should provoke outrage, is endemic in our industry.

Are we outraged over the recent Microsoft/Novell deal? Not nearly enough. The repercussions of this arrangement are potentially profound for the open source movement, but only a handful of people care.

Are we outraged at the Recording Industry Association of America's continuing bullying and extortion of consumers they accuse of piracy while admitting that it may be wrong? Hardly at all.

Are we outraged that the US Congressional Joint Economic Committee, which sets policy for the Internal Revenue Service, had nothing better to do than consider, in public, whether virtual income in online games should be taxed? Most people laughed at this but outrage was needed.

I suggest we prepare to be outraged. 2007 is underway and the arrogances, intransigencies, bad behavior, unpunished or poorly punished illegal acts, self-serving spin, and manipulations that we saw in 2006 aren't going to stop unless we show we aren't going to take it any more.

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Mark Gibbs

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