If the URL exists, you must acquit: Part II

If the URL exists, you must acquit: Part II

Summary: In the first installment of If the URL exists, you must acquit, I made a case for why Jon Udell had done no wrong when  he essentially pointed to a URL from an XML file. I argued that this is really no different than pointing to a URL from an HTML file (aka: a standard Web page) which any Web site is essentially free to do.

TOPICS: Browser

In the first installment of If the URL exists, you must acquit, I made a case for why Jon Udell had done no wrong when  he essentially pointed to a URL from an XML file. I argued that this is really no different than pointing to a URL from an HTML file (aka: a standard Web page) which any Web site is essentially free to do. If the URL can be "seen" on a public-facing Web site, are there any conditions under which it cannot be accessed? In the case of what Udell had done, it might not have been that black and white since the intention of his XML file was to make it possible to subscribe, podcast-style, to MP3-based episodes of This American Life which are normally heard on National Public Radio.

While Udell's XML involved only a pointer (Udell never actually copied the audio files to his own servers or hosted them in anyway), subscribing, podcast-style, to a series of MP3 files does result in the downloading of those files directly from TAL's servers to end-users' systems. It's one of the fundamentals of podcasting, enabled by a special entry in the XML file known as an enclosure.  The problem was that, even though the files were freely accessible to anybody (not just Udell) who could find them, This American Life's Web site normally charges money for that privilege.  In some ways, its an honor system since the files are free for the taking anyway.

But, by taking the friction out of finding and downloading them for free, Udell, in the minds of some, was encouraging a violation of that honor system, resulting in what for all intents and purposes was theft from public radio. And stealing from public radio is like stealing from the Salvation Army Santa outside your grocery store at Christmas time.  But trust me.  If it was an organization that didn't rely on charitable contributions, no one would have said boo about it. In fact, public opinion would have swayed the other way and people would have said tough luck.

So, now in this Part II, the question is whether or not the non-surreptitious access of audio files from the Web site of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger constitutes unethical behavior on behalf of his Democratic rival Phil Angelides (actually, it was some people working on behalf of Angelides that took "the initiative").  The audio file in question contains a quote which has outraged many.  In a discussion with his chief of staff, Schwarzenegger can be heard saying:

...I mean, they (Cubans and Puerto Ricans) are all very hot...they have the, you know, part of the black blood in them and part of the Latino blood in them and together that makes it....

Schwarzenegger has apologized since the quote came to public light. But now, Katie Levinson who is the communications director for Californians for Schwarzenegger has denounced the move by the Angelides campaign as unethical.  Wrote Declan McCullagh of the news:

The Democratic rival to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged Tuesday that his aides were responsible for obtaining a controversial audio file in a move that has led to allegations of Web site hacking...."Sadly, the actions by the Angelides campaign come as no surprise and the treasurer should denounce the unethical actions taken on his behalf," Levinson said. "Phil Angelides has a long history of gutter politics, and it is clear this most recent example was a calculated effort to smear the governor's reputation."

I'm for great governance no matter who it comes from. I'm not for or against Schwarzenegger (or Republicans or Democrats). I'm not a Californian and therefore haven't paid much attention to his work. But I recall that this isn't the first time the public has been exposed to his unflattering words or actions. Again, I'm not judging Schwarzenegger's character one way or another. Many of us have been quoted out of context (which some argue is what's happening here).  We've all been caught saying something that we later regretted, believe not to be a true reflection of our character and beliefs, and hope won't become the basis of those who judge us. But character is relevant (and relative) in politics and every voter has different thresholds for morality, tolerance, and forgiveness. Likewise, I don't see those who denounce the non-surreptitious access and publication of information (that's relevant to some voters) as having a very solid argument. Like it or not, some voters will consider what Schwarzenegger said to be relevant to their decision come the next election. Shooting the messenger is not the solution.

Sure, just like with This American Life's MP3 files, the Schwarzenegger Web site in question was essentially practicing security through obscurity. The file in question was obscured from public view by virtue of the fact that nothing on the Web site alluded to its existence. But it was there and it was accessible to the public and, at the end of the day, if you don't want certain files accessed, they shouldn't be there in the first place, or they should be "gated" by means that would be criminal to surreptitiously circumvent. Otherwise, you're just asking for trouble. 

Topic: Browser

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  • Not so sure

    I think there are a lot of issues to consider with this case. It's certainly not black and white.

  • Legality versus Ethics

    There are really two questions concerning the Schwarzenegger release.

    First, was the data publicly available? On that note being able to reverse engineer a URL could be a decent defense but it also smacks on the "he left the door unlocked" claim.

    Second, is the ethics of the situation. Releasing that conversation when neither party provided permission is probably illegal in California and definitely wrong ethicly.
    Robert Crocker
    • Door unlocked?

      We probably have more URL's on our site that don't have links to them than I can count. Not because we're deliberately trying to obscure them. But just because they ended up that way. Does that mean we're leaving the door unlocked and we can go after anyone who accesses them. Is it up to the internet user to discern which files they can access, if they find them, and which they can't?

    • Door unlocked?

      The door was unlocked, he knocked, and was told to come in. The door just happened to be in the back alley.

      If you answer to a URL with HTTP code 200, you are making it public.

      If neither party provided permission, than it's the webmasters fault, or whomever provided the file to him.
  • Terms of use?

    What were the terms of use at the site in question? I haven't seen anybody mention that yet.