To blame Brilliant or Kazaa?

Whose fault is it when software sneaks onto your computer piggybacked on another download? Brilliant, Kazaa or you?

commentary A recent column by my colleague David Coursey gave peer-to-peer networking the "60 Minutes" treatment.

Coursey allowed Brilliant Digital Entertainment CEO Kevin Bermeister to field a round of tough questions about the company's business practices, licensing, and security.

While steadfast in his defense of Brilliant's strategy, the executive's comments swayed the opinion of a scant few.

"We have no intention of accessing computers without the users' knowledge," the company top dog said when pressed by Coursey. "In actual fact, Altnet is a user-initiated system where the end user has, and retains, FULL control over the access to and use of their computing resource, and therefore the aggregate of all computing resources in the Altnet distributed computer community."

BERMEISTER ALSO defended the company's licensing and distribution method, saying it was similar to methods used by big names such as AOL, Microsoft, and RealNetworks. (For those of you who missed the first act of this soap opera, Brilliant's Altnet peer-to-peer networking software was piggybacked with Kazaa's file-sharing software.) Many of you pooh-poohed his assertions.

"Downloading other software hidden in the downloads of others may be 'standard practice' in the industry, but it doesn't make it right," observed Martin Fregeau. "This type of thinking in the industry has got to stop. Because we download your software, or install it, or use it, [does that mean] that we want other stuff from you or your partners? If I want a media player, I don't want photo-editing software or a peer-to-peer network. I just want to listen to media. Period."

"Comparing the piggyback installation of the Brilliant Trojan to RealPlayer [with Netscape] is ludicrous," Steve Bradshaw wrote, calling the latter completely aboveboard and visible. "The installation program even lists [RealPlayer] as an option to not install. AIM gives you no choice but to install, BUT IS STILL VISIBLE. If Brilliant was an honest company, it would have bundled with Kazaa and put a big label on it saying: 'Use Kazaa and become a part of the Brilliant network and earn extra cash!'"

"There have been no ads, before all of this, touting their new network and its rewards for users. It was found by a diligent researcher for a securities filing," Thomas Erpelding agreed. "If Brilliant wanted you to know what software you were really installing, they would explain it to you during the Kazaa install, not just with a one-line extension to the end-user licensing agreement. Furthermore, a conscientious software development company would make it easy to uninstall if someone DIDN'T want it. But getting rid of this Trojan takes at least three steps."

HOWEVER, A FEW OF YOU took exception to Brilliant's drubbing, or perhaps a part of it. Some of you defenders made some interesting comparisons to other outrages in the news.

"I hate to be practically the only dissenting voice here (especially after having posted an anti-Brilliant message a few days ago). But after reading Mr. Bermeister's replies to your questions, I can't help but think that we all might have been a little too quick jumping on the 'righteous indignation' bandwagon," Tim Cook wrote in a long post. He dissected most of the arguments against Brilliant, especially around personal responsibility to read (and understand) the fine print in end-user licensing agreements.

"I just don't see why everyone is jumping all over Brilliant for this idea. After all, it is Kazaa that had to agree to this: to put the line in their EULA, and include [Brilliant's] software in with theirs," Kit Kimes pointed out. "Kazaa should be taking a big hit for this--after all, Arthur Andersen is taking a big hit for the Enron disaster, even though all it did was act dumb and hide evidence. Enron was the villain. Why is Kazaa getting off scot-free?"

However, Tek-know savvy raised alarms about the effect P2P networking could have on the performance, and even the price, of broadband services.

He remarked that the current price is based on "the probability of statistical multiplexing, or...the fact that not everyone uses their Internet connection at full load and at exactly the same time. If you put a constant background load on the network, all sorts of contention will kick in, and the service will die at an exponential rate. Then consumers will end up paying for network capacity upgrades to cope with this."

Brilliant's Bermeister acknowledged this issue. "Right now, the end user is paying for their ISP services, therefore they have a right to use them. If the ISPs in the future feel the need to increase the rates they charge to consumers, they have every right to make that decision."

Thanks a lot.

THIS LAST POINT focuses a harsh spotlight on the vulnerable underbelly of peer-to-peer technology. Products and services such as file swapping and Webcams put an extra load on the network (as well as the host computer that is doing double-duty as a file server). At some sites, this load has dropped throughput to a crawl.

Before the Internet bubble burst, we all looked for someone else to pick up the tab for broadband improvements. No longer. Who then will shoulder the extra costs? ISPs? Peer-to-peer vendors? Their customers? Or everyone?

Who do you think we should blame for Brilliant's software sneaking onto your PC? Brilliant or Kazaa? Why? TalkBack to me below.

David Morgenstern, past editor of eMediaweekly and MacWEEK, is a freelance editor and branding consultant based in San Francisco.

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