May 18, 2009

When code becomes a hammer

1. Site registration
Some sites require free registration to view their content. So Guy King came up with BugMeNot, which lets people share site credentials.

Result: readers need to go through the hassle of finding credentials and logging in, and some of these accounts are blocked by the sites. The sites gain nothing from the use of shared credentials. Everyone loses.

2. Geo-blocking
Some sites identify the country of users and only work in specific countries. The obvious technical solution: use a proxy located in the correct country.

Result: proxy servers are flooded with users and bandwidth demands they were never meant to support, due to streaming media. Many sites identify and block anyone connecting through a proxy. Proxies are slow and untrusted, making them a lot less useful for those that do need them. Everyone loses.

3. Hulu vs. Boxee
The content providers of Hulu ask Boxee not to show their content. Boxee chooses to work around this, and an ever escalating measure-counter measure race erupts.

Result: it becomes less convenient to get and use Hulu content on Boxee, and Boxee users never know whether Hulu would work tomorrow. Hulu expends resources on blocking Boxee instead of making their service better. Content creators are more reluctant to put content on Hulu and other sites because of the "Wild West" image. Everyone loses.

4. DRM
No explanation needed. Result: disaster.

Of course, many problems are indeed best solved by a technical solution. But it's important, whenever one thinks of how something can be solved technically, to take a step back and think whether that is the correct strategy at all, or whether a different approach is more fitting: direct communication (with a person or a company); a public awareness campaign; political action; purchase decisions; etc. The fact that a problem has an apparent technical solution doesn't mean that it is the best one, or that it is a good idea at all.

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