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Dropbox aren’t The Boogey Men of Internet Freedom

Mike Dolan, 24 May, 2011 0 Comments

We’re big fans of Dropbox here at The Blog Studio. Why? It does one thing, very, very well. Dropbox lets you store and share your files in the cloud. That’s it. It’s a simple, single purpose application. It’s not bloated, it doesn’t try to be everything to everyone and it doesn’t have loads of unnecessary features.

The last two weeks have seen Dropbox taking some heat in the public eye for two perceived missteps. First, there was a pretty big uproar over the Dropbox terms of service. Specifically, Dropbox said that they would un-encrypt users data if law enforcement agencies requested them to do so. Privacy advocates are understandably pissed. While this is an interesting topic, it’s not the one we’re talking about here today. We wrote an article about the TOS a few days ago if you’d like to read about that here.

A second Dropbox related kerfuffle erupted over Dropship, a Python script that lets users send and store encrypted, anonymous files through the service. The coder who wrote Dropship, Wladimir van der Laan, positioned it as a way to use Dropbox as a replacement for sharing files via torrents, even though the logistics of the way the two share files are totally different. When the team at Dropbox got wind of this script, they asked the author to remove it from his site, because it breaks the Dropbox terms of service. They also sent DMCA take-down notices to mirror sites that were hosting Dropship. One of these mirrors happened to be hosted on Dropbox itself! Since Dropship has all but disappeared from the web, there has been a pretty big uproar from the hacker community,

The hackers are claiming that Dropbox is censoring their work, and impinging on their freedom by trying to stomp out Dropship. In some ways they’re correct. Dropship is an open source script, so it theoretically belongs to everybody. Dropbox really has no right to squash any open source code.

Here is where things get sticky. Dropbox is a service, and at its’ heart is a business. They’re a company, with a product, who provide a service and are trying to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that; we’re all trying to carve out a living in our corner of the wild, wild web. While Dropship is an open source add-on to Dropbox, it essentially lets people turn Dropbox into an anonymous file-sharing network. Since it’s launch, Dropbox has made it clear that they don’t want to see the service turn into the next Rapidshare, and they don’t want Dropbox associated with piracy. They don’t want to get caught up in a situation where they’re held responsible for people sharing illegal files. That’s smart business.

Coming from the pre-web, 300 baud BBS days myself, my sympathies always lie with the side that supports a free web. In this case, I find myself supporting the steps that Dropbox has taken. Simply, they are protecting the business they’ve built. If you’ve put your blood, sweat and tears into building a product and launching a start up, wouldn’t you protect it as well? Preventing people from using your network to illegally share pirated files doesn’t make you an “Enemy of Freedom”. On the surface, using a DMCA notice to kill an open source project does seem like an ugly thing to do. However, I think many people who are commenting the loudest in this situation are using open source as as an excuse to justify small time piracy. That’s bad for the open source movement.

I have to applaud Dropbox in this case. They are taking reasonable steps to protect their network from people who might otherwise jeopardize what they built. As a dedicated Dropbox user myself, I’m OK with this. I would really hate to see the app disappear because of a few selfish people with their own narrow agenda. I realize that using the DMCA to smack an open source project can be a very slippery slope. In a theoretical sense, it might be wholly wrong. Still, I’m willing to err on the side of Dropbox being right in this case. If it were my creation that was in jeopardy, I would do the same thing. It’s a very complicated situation, but what do you think?

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