The Dangers of Being Uneducated

This post is dedicated to Rachel Baker, who donated to help me get to WCSF. In lieu of Coke (and a sincere promise of no heckling), thank you, Rachel.

Like many of these posts, it started with a tweet.

Just six months ago, a WordPress plugin named RePress, hosted by all4xs,┬ácame on the scene. This is hosted at WordPress.org, see WordPress Plugin – RePress, and at the time it showed up, I was seriously worried about it.

The plugin itself is made of awesome. It’s a proxy service, so if you happen to live in a place where freedom of speech is an unknown quality, you can use your site to serve up pages from other domains and read them, even if they’re blocked. Essentially, instead of going directly to wikipedia.org, you go to yourdomain.com/wikipedia.org, and the content from Wikipedia is requested by your server, not your local IP, so if your ISP is blocking the content, you can still see it. If you’re visual, it’s like this:

How RePress Works

This relies on two important pieces to work, however. First, whereever your site is hosted has to have access to where you’re trying to get (that is, if my webhost blocked Wikipedia, this won’t work). Second, you need to know what you’re doing.

It’s that second point that worries me to no end.

Look, I firmly believe in freedom of information. Once something has been invented, people are going to figure it out, so giving it to the world to improve upon it is sensible. Patents are just a weird concept to me. To say ‘I invented a thing, and no one else can invent the same thing, and you can only use the thing as I’ve made it!’ just blows my mind. We need to crowdsource our intelligence, share, and improve. It’s the only way to evolve.

But that’s besides the point. The point is I worry like you don’t know about people being uneducated as to what this plugin does. Regardless of if it’s a good idea or not, it’s a dangerous thing because it has a great deal of power.

The Pirate BayI have a slightly selfish reason for worrying about it. I work for a company where using a proxy to get to websites they’ve blocked is grounds for being fired. I’m not the only person who has this concern. The worst part about this is if I went to a site that used a proxy, without telling me, I could get ‘caught’ and fired. Oh sure, I could argue ‘I didn’t know!’ but the fact remains that my job is in jeopardy. This is part of why I hate short-links I can’t trace back. A proxy being ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ doesn’t matter, what matters is the contract I signed that says I will not circumvent the office firewall knowingly. Now I have to be even more careful with every link I click, but the uneducated who don’t know anything about this are at a huge risk.

As Otto would say, we worry about the evil people, the ones who use this proxy to send you to virus infected sites, or places they could hack you. I really don’t worry about them very much. Evil is evil, and people are always going to be malicious. They know what these plugins do and how to use them, so again, my fear is for the uneducated who don’t understand. The people who still open those attachments from usps.com are the people who will be hurt by this. The rest of us will just deal with ‘You work on computers? Mine’s acting funny, can you look at it?’

My main fear is for the people who don’t really understand how the plugin is dangerous to have on their own site. RePress, in order to prove that their plugin worked, hosted a proxy to The Pirate Bay, a popular torrent site. Near the end of June, BREIN told them to remove the proxy to The Pirate Bay. BREIN, to those of you who are wondering who they are, is the RIAA of the Netherlands. Essentially they’re a Dutch anti-piracy group, and they think that the proxy service to Pirate Bay is breaking the law. It may be. Greenhost, the hosting company behind RePress, and their webhost, is in the Netherlands, and it does fall under that law. 1 As of July 9th, all4xs/Greenhost lost the argument. A court order came in and now there is no more hosting on their site.

It’s important to understand this Court order only impacts the proxies at Greenhost. There is no action against the plugin itself, and none at any other website using it.

So why does it worry me?

Screaming UserI do a lot of forum support, and I can easily envision people getting cease-and-desist orders from the Courts, telling them to remove their proxies. I can see webhosts shutting down sites because they don’t want to deal with the hassle, or because their servers happen to be located in a country where the site being proxied is blocked. And without any effort at all, I can see the users, who don’t understand the risk they’re getting into by running this proxy, screaming their heads off and blaming WordPress because they are uneducated. They’re not stupid, and they’re not evil, they just don’t see the big picture.

It’s like when I had little sympathy for Blogetery, when it was shut down in June of 2010. They were running an open, unchecked, Multisite, and allowed anyone in the world to make a site, and didn’t monitor their users. Thus, after multiple copyvio issues, and now a terrorism claim, Blogetery’s webhost decided enough was enough and shut them down, impacting around 14,000 people (give or take, I wasn’t able to get the number of splogs on that site sorted out). The point there is that Blogetery screwed up by not taking care of their site. It’s your responsibility to do that, and the less people know about what they’re doing, the more likely they are to screw up.

I’d be a lot happier if RePress’s plugin page explained the risks. Until they do, I give you my own:

RePress will let your server to act as a proxy to any website you chose, allowing visitors who would be otherwise blocked by their country or ISP to visit those sites. Please investigate the laws of your country, as well as those of your webhosting company, to ensure you are not violating them. Also remember to review the terms of use for your webhost, and do not provide proxy service to any site (or type of site) that you aren’t permitted to host yourself. If your hosting company doesn’t permit porn, don’t proxy a porn site. While this plugin makes every effort to prevent cross-site scripting, you are expected to monitor the sites you proxy and be aware of their intention. Remember: If you put it on your server, you are responsible for what it does.

(If RePress wants to copy that and use it as is, or edit it, they have my permission to do so. And they don’t even need to credit me if they don’t want to.)

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Notes:

  1. It’s nearly impossible to keep up with all this, but Wikipedia has a nice list of everyone who’s blocking The Pirate Bay, and their status. That’s a real Wikipedia link. In the US, so far only Facebook and Microsoft will edit your links to The Pirate Bay, and only on their services.
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