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Microsoft vs. Slashdot

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- 2000.05.12 - Tip Jar

If you've been to any computer-related site or news site in the past 24 hours, you've heard about the squabble between Microsoft and Slashdot. You've probably read quotes from Microsoft claiming copyright violation and loss of trade secrets, Slashdot supporting free speech, the authors of Kerberos about what Microsoft did to their open source program, and legal commentary explaining that once trade secrets are posted to the Web, they lose their status as secret [Religious Technology Center v. Netcom, 923 F. Supp. 1231 (N.D., Cal. 1995)].

The comments and quoted Microsoft material are in an article Kerberos, PACs and Microsoft's Dirty Tricks, which was posted on Slashdot on May 2, 2000. If you can get in, I recommend you look through the discussion - but be warned, Slashdot has been overloaded by visitors and the subject of at least one denial of service attack. (Access to Slashdot has been spotty for the past day.)

What's Going On?

Microsoft, master of the "embrace and expand" policy, "adopted" the open source Kerberos security protocol* for use in Windows 2000, but not without "expanding" it to make the code proprietary and the software incompatible with the standard Kerberos implementation (an open source standard). This completely violates the intent of open source software, which is to allow peer review.

Due to backlash on the Web - especially strong among open source proponents - Microsoft elected to post their proprietary extensions on the Web in an Adobe Acrobat file that can be freely downloaded. (Mac users note that this is in the form of an self-extracting .exe file; you must have Windows to open it. The usual Mac unstuffers will not decompress the file. In short, Microsoft apparently doesn't want Mac, Linux, Unix, OS/2, BeOS, and other users to read the file.)

Now Microsoft is in the curious position of making their proprietary source freely available by posting what they claim is a trade secret on the Web. Anyone (well, anyone with Windows) can download and read the file; yet Microsoft wants it protected as a trade secret.

Sorry, Microsoft, but you can't have it both ways. Besides, the courts have already ruled that once something is posted publicly on the Internet, it loses trade secret status [Religious Technology Center v. Netcom, 923 F. Supp. 1231 (N.D., Cal. 1995)].

That's what happened on Slashdot - a few posters took the information Microsoft freely posted on the Internet and posted it to the forum on Kerberos, PACs and Microsoft's Dirty Tricks. The information was already freely published, since anyone with Windows and Internet access can download and read the file. Yet Microsoft gets upset and has their lawyers contact Slashdot because someone quoted their material.

Spooky reasoning, isn't it.

What Is Slashdot?

Slashdot bills itself as a news site (specifically News for Nerds), which means it should have the same First Amendment protection as ABC News, the New York Times, and MSNBC. But Slashdot is more than just a website; it's an interactive community of computer users who are free to post their thoughts. To my knowledge, Slashdot does not edit or delete postings. In that way, Slashdot is also very much like a Usenet group, but on the Web. And the courts (except in Britain) have held that carriers are not liable for such postings as long as they are part of a free, unmoderated exchange - which certainly describes Slashdot.

Slashdot further maintains that postings are owned by the poster, not Slashdot. This implies that any removal of postings would have to be done with the consent of the poster, since Slashdot would otherwise be seen as moderating forum content and would immediately become liable for all postings. (The issue of anonymous posters will come up. It's a sticky one. If Slashdot has no way of knowing who posted "Anonymous Coward" content, they have no way of contacting the owner of those comments. As I see it, this issue could well end up in court.)

So you can understand why Slashdot is doing everything it can to avoid removing the postings Microsoft objects to. Doing so would completely change the nature of Slashdot.

Cultures and Paradigms

It would be hard to find two organizations more diametrically opposite than Slashdot and Microsoft. Slashdot believes in open source, open dialogue, and personal accountability. Microsoft believes in proprietary solutions, limited dialogue, and corporate liability. It's Linux vs. Windows in a different forum.

Slashdot will do everything in its power to keep from complying with Microsoft's demands, which they view as censorship and a violation of the First Amendment. Microsoft will do everything in its power to eviscerate Slashdot, the most visible center of the open source movement. By forcing Slashdot to remove a single posting, Microsoft changes the entire nature of Slashdot and makes them liable for every posting.

Slashdot would have no choice but to close down should Microsoft legally define them as a publisher instead of a news site and common carrier. If that happens, any site with unmoderated forums will be at risk.

And that would be a greater loss to the computer using world than the Department of Justice declaring every bit of Microsoft code open source and shutting down the company.

* in Microsoft's own words, "Kerberos v5 is an industry-standard network authentication protocol."

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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