February 22, 2011 | Category: Uncategorized

Hardware Access

If you buy a drill, you can can do whatever you like with that drill. Well, not whatever you like: you can’t use that drill as a weapon against someone, or using it on objects that you don’t own. You’d be arrested, beaten or feel other negative effects from society.

What you can do, though, is take it apart to see how it works. You can look at how they managed to fit a powerful motor into such a small space. You can see how the batteries are arranged for charging and replace them with something that holds much more power. You can replace any part with a part of your own choosing; putting together a simple set of instructions to give your drill twice as much torque, for example. You’ll likely void your warranty (as is fair) but, in short, you own that drill and it’s yours to play with.

That’s why I find it pretty ridiculous that George Hotz is being sued for doing the same thing with his PlayStation 3. He decided that he wanted to be able to run whatever he wanted to do on his own device (a computer that he paid for, just like a standard desktop) and set about figuring out how to do that. That’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. I know not many people have the time, inclination or ability to do so but, just like the drill, it should be entirely up to the owner of a piece of property to decide what modifications they want to make to it.

Sony decided, instead, to sue him.

You see, a side-effect of being able to run anything on your own computer (in this case the PS3) is that you can run pirated software, if you choose to. George did not choose to do this. He merely put the instructions out there about how to run your own software on your own computer. It was other people who then misused these instructions.

That’s right: he didn’t break the law himself, but his modification made it easier for others to do so. He didn’t incite them to do so, he didn’t suggest that they should, he merely produced that side-effect. This is akin to blaming the drill modifier for someone else using a modified drill in in an illegal manner: unless they said “go attack someone with this modified drill”, it’s really got nothing to do with them.

The saddest part of this is that it could all probably be avoided. Rather than get involved in the fool’s errand of securing hardware against personal use (the determined will always find a way), manufacturers could open up their platform’s for such use in a reasonably controlled manner.

Hardware hackers wouldn’t need to resort to cryptographic attacks with bad side-effects, if the platform owner let them play with it to their heart’s content. Sony actually did this for a while with the OtherOs feature but cut it in a firmware revision — which ultimately caused these issues.

This is important. Sony are essentially arguing that we cannot change the things we buy; that features that we pay for can be removed and we can’t reinstate them to one degree or another; that computing commodities are rented and not bought; and that changes others make and misuse could potentially be our fault. None of this has been true in the past, and we mustn’t let it be true in the future.

free culture allows modification, remixing and derivation; particularly when we’re not infringing copyright. We should not lose sight of this as we enter an age of EULAs and commodities that we buy but, bizarrely, do not own.