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David Knell
8 August 2001

Thoughts on Dnet


Background:



As far as I understand it, neither David McOwen nor the school he worked for has yet confirmed that he installed the RC5 program from Distributed Net (Dnet) without permission. Nevertheless, it does seem likely that he did. If so, that was an unwise thing to do and flew in the face of repeated warnings from Dnet. But should his misjudgement merit the degree of punishment that Georgia is proposing? I think not. Over half a million dollars at least (compensation + legal fees) together with the threat of a long jail sentence (possibly 30 years) is way out of all proportion to his alleged crime. It can very easily destroy not only him but also the lives of his wife and children.

I was initially infuriated by David McNett's comments on the case. I never expected him to openly support McOwen - McOwen had apparently flagrantly ignored Dnet's warnings - but I was dismayed to see him castigate the Internet community's concern for McOwen's ridiculously disproportionate punishment as an "unreasoned response". I think everyone in the "Internet community" would readily agree that McOwen should never have installed the client without permission. That was not the issue. The issue was that the punishment proposed by Georgia was horrendously out of proportion. I think the reaction of the community in trying to help McOwen against this bureaucratic hell is extremely admirable, not "unreasoned". It is the State of Georgia that is being unreasonable.

Now I've cooled down, I can see McNett's predicament in a clearer light. The USA certainly is a litigious society and McNett is clearly at risk of being sued. Whether any litigation is successful or not, he could still stand to lose a great deal of money in legal costs. I think he tried a bit too hard to cover his backside - why mention the Internet community at all? why not simply remain silent on that aspect? - but he may have been legally advised to distance himself and I can understand his worry even if I cannot condone his comments.

McNett's lack of support for McOwen against Georgia's horrific demands may also seem selfish and callous but he has little reason to like McOwen. He could be justified in regarding McOwen's alleged misjudgement as causing his worst nightmare - jeopardising the whole project by making it appear an irresponsible and harmful illegality in the eyes of the general public (and the law). Legality is obviously a highly important issue for Dnet and they have emphasised time and time again that anyone using their program must ensure that it is done responsibly. Let's face it, if he did install without permission, McOwen has not enhanced any chance that Dnet may ever have had for public respectability and general acceptance as a worthwhile cause. Dnet's image is likely to be severely damaged (and their entire project put in peril) through no fault of their own but because someone appears to have chosen to ignore their advice.

McNett has now succeeded in placing himself in a lose/lose situation. If he openly supports McOwen's cause, his comments may be warped by the law and interpreted as supporting illegal activities. In trying to distance himself from the whole affair by adversely commenting on the support of others in the Internet community, he has alienated them and precipitated a mass exodus from his project.

Perhaps silence would have been golden, even if slightly more litigiously risky.

Meanwhile, McOwen faces absurd penalties for what any rational mind would classify as a minor misdemeanour. And of course, if he did have permission, it's a whole new ballgame . . .
 
 

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