Reactionary Progress – Amateur Scholars and Open Source

A list of the half dozen most important figures in the early history of economics would have to include David Ricardo; it might well include Thomas Malthus and John Stuart Mill. A similar list for geology would include William Smith and James Hutton. For biology it would surely include Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel, for physics Isaac Newton.

Who were they? Malthus and Darwin were clergymen, Mendel a monk, Smith a mining engineer, Hutton a gentleman farmer, Mill a clerk and writer, Ricardo a retired stock market prodigy. Of the names I have listed, only Newton was a university professor – and by the time he became a professor he had already come up with both calculus and the theory of gravitation.

There were important intellectual figures in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries who were professional academics – Adam Smith, for example. But a large number, probably a majority, were amateurs. In the twentieth century, on the other hand, most of the major figures in all branches of scholarship have been professional academics. Most started their careers with a conventional course of university education, typically leading to a PhD degree.

Why did things change? One possible answer is the enormous increase in knowledge. When fields were new, most scholars did not need access to vast libraries.1 There were not many people in the field, the rate of progress was not very rapid, so letters and occasional meetings provided adequate communication. As fields developed and specialization increased, the advantages of the professional – libraries, laboratories, colleagues down the hall – became increasingly important.

Email is as easy as walking down the hall. The web, while not a complete substitute for a library, makes enormous amounts of information readily available to a very large number of people. In my field and many others it is becoming common for the authors of scholarly articles to make their datasets available on the web so that other scholars can check that they really say what the article claims they say.

An alternative explanation for the shift from amateur to professional scholarship is that it was due to the downward spread of education. In the eighteenth century, someone sufficiently well educated to invent a new science was likely to be a member of the upper class, hence had a good chance of not needing to work for a living. In the twentieth century, the correlation between education and wealth was a good deal weaker.

We are not likely to return to the class society of eighteenth-century England. But by the standards of that society, most educated people today are rich – rich enough to make a tolerable living and still have time and effort left to devote to their hobbies. For a large and increasing fraction of the population, amateur scholarship, like amateur sports, amateur music, amateur dramatics, and much else, is a real option. These arguments suggest that, having shifted from a world of amateur scholars to a world of professionals, we may now be shifting back. That conjecture is based in large part on my own experiences. Two examples:

Robin Hanson is currently a professor of economics at George Mason University. When I first came into (virtual) contact with him, he was a NASA scientist with an odd hobby. His hobby was inventing institutions. His ideas – in particular an ingenious proposal to design markets to generate information – were sufficiently novel and well thought out to make corresponding with him more interesting than corresponding with most of my fellow economists. They were sufficiently interesting to other people to get published. Eventually he decided that his hobby was more fun than his profession and went back to school for a PhD in economics.

One of my hobbies for the past thirty years has been cooking from very early cookbooks; my earliest source is a letter written in the sixth century by a Byzantine physician named Anthimus to Theoderic, king of the Franks. When I started, one had to pretty much reinvent the wheel. There were no translations of early cookbooks in print and very few in libraries. Almost the only available sources in English, other than a small number of unreliable books about the history of cooking, were a few early English cookbooks – in particular a collection that had been published by the Early English Text Society in 1888. I managed to get one seventeenth-century source by finding a rare book collection that had a copy of the original and paying to have it microfilmed.

The situation has changed enormously over the past thirty years. The changes include the publication of several reliable secondary sources, additional English sources, and a few translations – all of which could have happened without the internet. But the biggest change is that there are now at least seven English translations of early cookbooks on the web,2 freely available to anyone interested, as well as several early English cookbooks. Most of the translations were done by amateurs for the fun of it. There are hundreds of worked out early recipes (the originals usually omit inessential details such as quantities, times, and temperatures) webbed. There is an email list that puts anyone interested in touch with lots of experienced enthusiasts. Some of the people on that list are professional cooks, some are professional scholars. So far as I know, none is a professional scholar of cooking history.

Similar things are happening in other areas. I am told that amateur astronomers have long played a significant role because skilled labor is an important input to star watching. There seems to be an increasing amount of interaction between historians and groups that do amateur historical recreation – sometimes prickly, when hobbyists claim expertise they don’t have, sometimes cordial. The professionals, on average, know much more than the amateurs do, but there are a lot more amateurs and some of them know quite a lot. And the best of the amateurs have access not only to information but to each other, as well as to any professional more interested in the ability of the people he corresponds with than their credentials.


Amateur scholarship is one example of the way in which rising incomes and improved communication technology make it easier to produce things for fun. Another is open source software.

The best-known example is Linux,3 a computer operating system. The original version was created by a Finnish graduate student named Linus Torvalds. Having done a first draft himself, he invited everyone else in the world to help improve it. A lot of them accepted – with the result that Linux is now a sophisticated operating system, widely used for a variety of different tasks. Another open source project, the Apache web server, is the software on which a majority of world wide web pages run.

When you buy a copy of Microsoft Word you get the object code, the version of the program that the computer runs. With an open source program, you get the source code, the human readable version that the original programmer wrote and that other programmers need if they want to modify the program. You can compile it into object code to run it, but you can also modify it and then compile and run your new version of the program.

The mechanics of open source are simple. Someone comes up with a first version of the software. He publishes the source code. Other people interested in the program modify it – which they are able to do because they have the source code – and send their modifications to him. Modifications that he accepts go into the code base, the current standard version that other programmers will work from. At the peak of Linux development, Torvalds was updating the code base daily.

There are lots of programmers, each working on the parts of the code that interest him, so when someone reports a problem there is likely to be someone else to whom its source and solution are obvious. “With enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.”4 And with the source code open, bugs can be found and improvements suggested by anyone interested.

Eric Raymond, a prominent spokesman for the movement and the author of a book about it, has pointed out that open source has its own set of norms and property rights. There is nobody who can forbid you from copying or modifying an open source program. But there is ownership in two other and important senses.

Linus Torvalds owns Linux. Eric Raymond owns Fetchmail. A committee owns Apache. Under an open source license anyone is free to modify the code any way he likes, provided that he makes the source code to his modified version public, thus keeping it open source. But programmers want to all work on the same code base so that each can take advantage of improvements made by the others. If Torvalds rejects your improvements to Linux, you are still free to use them – but don’t expect any help. Everyone else will be working on his version. Thus ownership of a project – the ability to decide what goes into the code base – is a property right enforced entirely by private action.

As Eric Raymond has pointed out, such ownership is controlled by rules similar to the common law rules for owning land. Ownership of a project goes to the person who creates it, homesteads that particular programming opportunity by creating the first rough draft of the program. If he loses interest he can transfer ownership to someone else. If he abandons the program, someone else can claim it – publicly check to be sure nobody else is currently in charge of it and then publicly take charge of it himself. The equivalent in property law is adverse possession, the legal rule under which, if you openly treat property as yours for long enough and nobody objects, it is yours.

There is a second form of ownership in open source – credit for your work. Each project is accompanied by a file identifying the authors. Meddle with that file – substitute in your name, thus claiming to be the author of code someone else wrote – and your name in the open source community is Mud. The same is true in the scholarly community. From the standpoint of a professional scholar, copyright violation is a peccadillo, theft someone else’s problem, plagiarism the ultimate sin.

As this example suggests, the open source movement is simply a new variation on the system under which most of modern science was created. Programmers create software; scholars create ideas. Ideas, like open source programs, can be used by anyone. The source code, the evidence and arguments on which the ideas are based, is public information. An article that starts out “The following theory is true, but I won’t tell you why” is unlikely to persuade many readers.

Scientific theories do not have owners in quite the sense that open source projects do, but at any given time in most fields there is considerable agreement as to what the orthodox body of theory is. Scholars can choose to ignore that consensus, but if they do, their work is unlikely to be taken seriously. Apache’s owner is a committee. Arguably neoclassical economics belongs to a somewhat larger committee. A scholar can defy the orthodoxy to strike out on his own; some do. Similarly, if you don’t like Linux, you are free to start your own open source operating system project based on your variant of it. Heretical ideas sometimes succeed and open source projects are sometime successfully forked but, in both cases, the odds are against it.


Few projects seem less suited to the open source approach than writing an encyclopedia. For it to be a success readers must rely on it, so a mistake in one article casts doubt on others. The structure is interdependent; an article on one subject may frequently need to refer to articles on related subjects. Clearly the only way to do it is with a central editorial board coordinating the whole thing and hiring experts in various fields to write the articles. Indeed, I have seen it argued that the reason for the decline of the Encyclopedia Britannica from its high point early in the twentieth century – the eleventh edition is widely regarded as a classic – was the shift away from paying substantial sums for articles, on the theory that the prestige of being published in the Britannica was itself sufficient reward. That meant that they were offering the smallest reward to the most qualified writers, the experts whose prestige was unlikely to be raised by one more encyclopedia article. If a little bit of reliance on volunteers, status, nonpecuniary payments could weaken the market leader, surely a complete reliance on such would be fatal to a new startup.

It did not turn out that way. In 2001, Jimmy Wales created Wikipedia as an open-source, online encyclopedia. Not only was everyone in the world invited to contribute, everyone in the world got the last word – until someone else showed up. When Linus Torvalds invited the world to write Linux he retained control over the code base; changes he did not approve of did not get included. Nobody has a corresponding power over Wikipedia. With rare exceptions, any article can be edited anytime by anyone.

Amazingly enough, it works. Once in a while there is a minor flap when a group of true believers tries to edit an article to make it support their view of the world – only to discover that every time they make a change, some wicked outsider undoes it. More often than one might expect, the article evolves to a consensus, a statement of differing views that both sides can agree on. However it works – I have not entirely rejected the possibility of magic – the result six years later is a massive reference work that, if not perfect, is arguably as reliable as the encyclopedias produced by more conventional models,5 free for everyone to use and very widely used – almost certainly more widely, online, than any competitor.

Market and Hierarchy

One of the odd features of a capitalist system is how socialist it is. Firms interact with customers and other firms through the decentralized machinery of trade. But firms themselves are miniature socialist states, hierarchical organizations controlled, at least in theory, by orders from above.

There is one crucial difference between Microsoft and Stalin’s Russia. Microsoft’s interactions with the rest of us are voluntary. It can get people to work for it or buy its products only by offering them a deal they prefer to all alternatives. I do not have to use the Windows operating system unless I want to, and in fact I don’t and don’t. Stalin did not face that constraint.

One implication is that, however bad the public image of large corporations may be, they exist because they serve human purposes. Employees work for them because they find doing so a better life than working for themselves; customers buy from them because they prefer doing so to making things for themselves or buying from someone else. The disadvantages associated with taking orders, working on other people’s projects, depending for your reward on someone else’s evaluation of your work, are balanced by advantages sufficient, for many people, to outweigh them.6

The balance between the advantages and disadvantages of large hierarchical organizations depends in part on technologies associated with exchanging information, arranging transactions, enforcing agreements, and the like. As those technologies change, so does that balance. The easier it is for a dispersed group of individuals to coordinate their activities, the larger we would expect the role of decentralized coordination, market rather than hierarchy, in the overall mix. This has implications for how goods are likely to be produced in the future – open source is a striking example. It also has implications for political systems, social networks, and a wide range of other human activities.

One example occurred some years ago in connection with one of my hobbies, one at least nominally run by a nonprofit corporation controlled by a self-perpetuating board of directors. The board responded to problems of growth by hiring a professional executive director. Acting apparently on his advice, they announced, with no prior discussion, that they had decided to double dues and to implement a controversial proposal that had been previously dropped in response to an overwhelmingly negative response by the membership.

If it had happened ten years earlier there would have been grumbling but nothing more. The corporation, after all, controlled all of the official channels of communication. When its publication, included in the price of membership, commented on the changes, the comments were distinctly one-sided. Individual members, told by those in charge that the changes were necessary to the health of the hobby, would for the most part have put up with them.

That is not what happened. The hobby in question had long had an active Usenet newsgroup associated with it. Members included individuals with professional qualifications, in a wide range of relevant areas, arguably superior to those of the board members, the executive director, or the corporation’s officers. Every time an argument was raised in defense of the corporation’s policies, it was answered – and at least some of the answers were persuasive. Only a minority of those involved in the hobby read the newsgroup, but it was a large enough minority to get the relevant arguments widely dispersed. And email provided an easy way for dispersed members unhappy with the changes to communicate, coordinate, act. The corporation’s board of directors was self-perpetuating – membership in the organization did not include a vote – but it was made up of volunteers, people active in the hobby who were doing what they thought was right. They discovered that quite a lot of others, including those they respected, disagreed and were prepared to support their disagreement with facts and arguments. By the time the dust cleared, every member of the board of directors that made the decision, save those whose terms had ended during the controversy, had resigned; their replacements reversed the most unpopular of the decisions. It struck me as an interesting example of the way in which the existence of the internet had shifted the balance between center and periphery.7

For a more commercial example, consider the announcement some years ago that Eli Lilly had decided to subcontract part of its chemical research to the world at large. Lilly created a subsidiary, InnoCentive LLC, to maintain a web page listing chemistry problems that Lilly wanted solved and the prices, up to $100,000, that they were offering for the solutions. InnoCentive has invited other companies to use their services to get their problems solved too. By late 2001, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal, they had gotten “about 1,000 scientists from India, China, and elsewhere in the world” to work on their problems.8 A number of other projects along similarly decentralized lines, volunteer or commercial, either are in practice or have been proposed – including one for open source development of drugs to deal with third-world diseases.9

One problem InnoCentive raises is that the people who are solving Lilly’s problems may be doing so on someone else’s payroll. Consider a chemist hired to work in an area related to one of the problems on the list. He has an obvious temptation to slant the work in the direction of the $100,000 prize, even if the result is to slow the achievement of his employer’s objectives. A chemist paid by firm A while working for firm B is likely to be caught – and fired – if he does it in realspace. But if he combines a realspace job with cyberspace moonlighting – still more if parts of the realspace job are done by telecommuting from his home – the risks may be substantially less. So one possibility if InnoCentive’s approach catches on is a shift from paying for time to paying for results, at least for some categories of skilled labor. In the limiting case, employment vanishes and everyone becomes a subcontractor, selling output rather than time.

Information Warfare

So far we have been considering ways in which the internet supports decentralized forms of cooperation. It supports decentralized forms of conflict as well. A communication system can be used as a weapon, a way of misleading other people, creating forged evidence, accomplishing your objectives at the expense of your opponents. Consider two academic examples.

Case 1: The Tale of the Four Little Pigs

The year is 1995, the place Cornell University. Four freshmen have compiled a collection of misogynist jokes entitled “75 Reasons Why Women (Bitches) Should Not Have Freedom of Speech” and sent copies to their friends. The collection reaches someone who finds it offensive and proceeds to distribute it to many other people who share that view, producing a firestorm of controversy inside and outside the university. The central question is whether creating such a list and using email to transmit it is an offense that ought to be punished or a protected exercise of free speech.

Eventually, Cornell announces its decision. The students have violated no university rules and so will be subject to no penalties. They have, however, recognized the error of their ways:

ext … in addition to the public letter of apology they wrote that was printed by the Cornell Daily Sun on November 3, 1995, the students have offered to do the following:

Each of them will attend the “Sex at 7:00” program sponsored by Cornell Advocates for Rape Education (CARE) and the Health Education Office at Gannett Health Center. This program deals with issues related to date and acquaintance rape, as well as more general issues such as gender roles, relationships, and communication.

Each of them has committed to perform 50 hours of community service. If possible, they will do the work at a nonprofit agency whose primary focus relates to sexual assault, rape crisis, or similar issues. Recognizing that such agencies may be reluctant to have these students work with them, the students will perform the community service elsewhere if the first option is not available.

The students will meet with a group of senior Cornell administrators to apologize in person and to express regret for their actions and for the embarrassment and disruption caused to the University.

public statement by Barbara L. Krause, Judicial Administrator

There are at least two ways to interpret that outcome. One is that Ms. Krause is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth – Cornell imposed no penalty on the students, they imposed an entirely voluntary penalty on themselves. It seems a bit strange – but then, Cornell is a rather unusual university.

The alternative interpretation starts with the observation that university administrators have a lot of ways of making life difficult for students. By publicly announcing that the students had broken no rules and were subject to no penalty, while privately making it clear to the students that if they planned to remain at Cornell they would be well advised to “voluntarily” penalize themselves, Cornell engaged in a successful act of hypocrisy. They publicly maintained their commitment to free speech while covertly punishing students for what they said.

Someone who preferred the second interpretation thought up a novel way of supporting it. An email went out during Thanksgiving break to thousands of Cornell students, staff, and faculty – 21,132 of them according to its authors.



I would like to extend my heartfelt thanks to the many faculty members who advised me regarding the unfortunate matter of the “75 Reasons” letter that was circulated via electronic mail. Your recommendations for dealing with the foul-mouthed “four little pigs” (as I think of them) who circulated this filth was both apposite and prudent.

Now that we have had time to evaluate the media response, I think we can congratulate ourselves on a strategy that was not only successful in defusing the scandal, but has actually enhanced the reputation of the university as a sanctuary for those who believe that “free speech” is a relative term that must be understood to imply acceptable limits of decency and restraint – with quick and severe punishment for those who go beyond those limits and disseminate socially unacceptable sexist slurs.

I am especially pleased to report that the perpetrators of this disgusting screed have been suitably humiliated and silenced, without any outward indication that they were in fact disciplined by us. Clearly, it is to our advantage to place malefactors in a position where they must CENSOR THEMSELVES, rather than allow the impression that we are censoring them.

Yours sincerely

Barbara L. Krause Judicial Administrator


The letter was not, of course, actually written by Barbara Krause – as anyone attentive enough to check the email address could have figured out. It was written, and sent, by an anonymous group calling themselves OFFAL – Online Freedom Fighters Anarchist Liberation. The letter was a satire, and an effective one, giving a believable and unattractive picture of what its authors suspected Ms. Krause’s real views were. It was also a fraud – some readers would never realize that she was not the real author. In both forms it provided propaganda for its authors’ view of what had really happened.

But it did more than that. Email is not only easily distributed, it is easily answered. Some recipients not only believed the letter, they agreed with it and said so. Since OFFAL had used, not Ms. Krause’s email address, but an email address that they controlled, those answers went back to them. OFFAL produced a second email, containing the original forgery, an explanation of what they were doing, and a selection of responses.

I happen to support your actions and the resolution of this incident, but put into the wrong hands, this memo could perhaps be used against you.


Thank god you sent this memo – something with a little anger and fire – something that speaks to the emotion and not just the legalities. I hope you are right in stating that what went on behind the scenes was truly humiliating for “them.”


I agree with what your memo states about the “four little pigs” (students who embarrassed the entire Cornell community), but I don’t think I was one of the people really intended for your confidential memo. … Great Job in the handling of a most sensitive issue.


The authors of the list have received richly -deserved humiliation

Their summary:

We believe that ridicule is a more powerful weapon than bombs or death threats. And we believe that the Internet is the most powerful system ever invented for channeling grass-roots protests and public opinion in the face of petty tyrants who seek to impose their constipated values on everyday citizens who merely want to enjoy their constitutionally protected liberties.

It is hard not to have some sympathy for the perpetrators. They were making a defensible argument, although I am not certain it was a correct one, and making it in an ingenious and effective way. But at the same time they, like the purveyors of other sorts of propaganda, were combining a legitimate argument with a dishonest one, and it was the latter that depended on their ingenious use of modern communications technology.

The correct point was that Cornell’s actions could plausibly be interpreted as hypocritical – attacking free speech while pretending to support it. The dishonest argument was the implication that the responses they received provided support for that interpretation. The eight replies that OFFAL selected consisted of six supporting the original email, one criticizing it, one doing neither. If that were a random selection of responses, it would be impressive evidence for their view of what had happened – but we have no reason to think the selection was random. All it showed was that about half a dozen people out of more than 20,000 supported the idea of covert punishment, which tells us very little about whether that was what was really happening.

What I find interesting about the incident is that it demonstrates a form of information warfare made practical by the nature of the net – very low transaction costs, anonymity, no face-to-face contact. Considered as parody, it could have been done with old technology. As fraud, a way of tricking people into revealing their true beliefs by pretending that they were revealing them to someone who shared them, it could have been done with old technology, although not as easily. But as mass production fraud, a way of fooling thousands of people in order to get a few of them to reveal their true beliefs, it depended on the existence of email.

Some years ago on a Usenet group, I read the following message:

I believe that it is okay to have sex before marriage unlike some people. This way you can expirence different types of sex and find the right man or woman who satifies you in bed. If you wait until marriage then what if your mate can not satisfy you, then you are stuck with him. Please write me and give me your thoughts on this. You can also tell me about some of your ways to excite a woman because I have not yet found the right man to satisfy me.

It occurred to me that what I was observing might be a commercial variant of the OFFAL tactic. The message is read by thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of men. A hundred or so take up the implied offer and email responses. They get suitably enticing emails in response – the same emails for all of them, with only the names changed. They continue the correspondence. Eventually they receive a request for fifty dollars – and a threat to pass on the correspondence to the man’s wife if the money is not paid. The ones who are not married ignore it; some of the married ones pay. The responsible party has obtained $1,000 or so at a cost very close to zero. Mass production blackmail.10

One of my students suggested a simpler explanation. The name and email address attached to the message belonged not to the sender but to someone the sender disliked. Whether or not he was correct, that form of information warfare has been used frequently enough online to have acquired its own nickname: “A Joe job.” It is not a new technique – the classical version is a phone number on the wall of a men’s room. But the net greatly expands the audience.

A Sad Story

The following story is true; names and details have been changed to protect the innocent.

SiliconTech is an institution of higher education where the students regard Cornell, OFFAL and all, as barely one step above the Stone Age. If they ever have a course in advanced computer intrusion – for all I know they do – there will be no problem finding qualified students.

Alpha, Beta, and Gamma were graduate students at ST. All three came from a third-world country that, in the spirit of this exercise, I will call Sparta. Alpha and Beta were a couple for most of a year, at one point planning to get married. That ended when Beta told Alpha that she no longer wanted to be his girlfriend. Over the following months Alpha attempted, unsuccessfully, to get her back.

Eventually the two met at a social event held by the Spartan Student Association; in the course of the event, Alpha learned that Beta was now living with
Gamma. This resulted in a heated discussion among the three of them; there were no outside witnesses and the participants later disagreed about what was said. Alpha’s version is that he threatened to tell other members of the Spartan community at ST things that would damage the reputation of Beta and her family. Sparta is a sexually conservative and politically oppressive society, so it is at least possible that spreading such information would have had serious consequences. Beta and Gamma’s version is that Alpha threatened to buy a gun and have a duel with Gamma.

Later that evening, someone used Alpha’s account on the computer he did his research on to log onto another university machine and from that machine forge an obscene email to Beta that purported to come from Gamma. During the process the same person made use of Alpha’s account on a university supercomputer. A day or so later, Beta and Gamma complained about the forged email to the ST computer organization, which traced it to Alpha’s machine, disabled his account on their machine, and left him a message. Alpha, believing (by his account) that Beta and Gamma had done something to get him in trouble with the university, sent an email to Gamma telling him that he would have to help Beta with her research, since Alpha would no longer be responsible for doing so.

The next day, a threatening email was sent from Alpha’s account on his research computer to Gamma. Beta and Gamma took the matter to the ST authorities. According to their account, Alpha had:

  1. Harassed Beta since they broke up, making her life miserable and keeping her from doing her research.

  2. Showed her a gun permit he had and told her he was buying a gun.

  3. Threatened to kill her.

  4. Threatened to have a duel with Gamma.

They presented the authorities with copies of four emails – the three described so far, plus an earlier one sent at the time of the original breakup. According to Alpha, two of them were altered versions of emails that he had sent, two he had never seen before.

Two days later, Beta and Gamma went to the local police with the same account plus an accusation that, back when Alpha and Beta were still a couple, he had attempted to rape her. Alpha was arrested on charges of felony harassment and terrorism, with bail set at more than $100,000. He spent the next five and half months in jail under quite unpleasant circumstances. The trial took two weeks; the jury then took three hours to find Alpha innocent of all charges. He was released. ST proceeded to have its own trial of Alpha on charges of sexual harassment. They found him guilty and expelled him.

When I first became interested in the case – because it involved issues of identity and email evidence in a population technologically a decade or two ahead of the rest of the world – I got in touch with the ST attorney involved. According to her account, the situation was clear. Computer evidence proved that the obscene and threatening emails had ultimately originated on Alpha’s account, to which only he had the password, having changed it after his breakup with Beta. While the jury may have acquitted him on the grounds that he did not actually have a gun, Alpha was clearly guilty of offenses against (at least) ST rules.

I then succeeded in reaching both Alpha’s attorney and a faculty member sympathetic to Alpha who had been involved in the controversy. From them I learned a few facts that the ST attorney had omitted.

  1. All of Alpha’s accounts used the same password. Prior to the breakup with Beta, the password had been “Beta.” Afterwards, it was Alpha’s mother’s maiden name.

  2. According to the other graduate students who worked with Alpha, and contrary to Beta’s sworn testimony, the two had remained friends after the breakup and Alpha had continued to help Beta do her research on his computer account. Hence it is almost certain that Beta knew the new password. Hence she, or Gamma, or Gamma’s older brother, a professional systems manager who happened to be in town when the incidents occurred, could have accessed the accounts and done all of the things that Alpha was accused of doing.

  3. The “attempted rape” was supposed to have happened early in their relationship. According to Beta’s own testimony at trial, she subsequently took a trip alone with him during which they shared a bed. According to other witnesses, they routinely spent weekends together for some months after the purported attempt.

  4. In the course of the trial there was evidence that many of the statements made by Beta and Gamma were false. In particular, Beta claimed never to have been in Alpha’s office during the two months after the breakup (relevant because of the password issue); other occupants of the office testified that she had been there repeatedly. Beta claimed to have been shown Alpha’s gun permit; the police testified that he did not have one.

  5. One of the emails supposedly forged by Alpha had been created at a time when he not only had an alibi – he was in a meeting with two faculty members – but had an alibi he could not have anticipated having, hence could not have prepared for by somehow programming the computer to do things when he was not present.

  6. The ST hearing was conducted by a faculty member who had told various other people that Alpha was guilty and ST should get rid of him before he did something that they might be liable for. Under existing school policy, the defendant was entitled to veto suggested members of the committee. Alpha attempted to veto the chairman and was ignored. According to my informant, the hearing was heavily biased, with restrictions by the committee on the introduction of evidence and arguments favorable to Alpha.

  7. During the time Alpha was in jail awaiting trial, his friends tried to get bail lowered. Beta and Gamma energetically and successfully opposed the attempt, tried to pressure other members of the Spartan community at ST not to testify in Alpha’s favor, and even put together a booklet containing not only material about Alpha but stories from online sources about Spartan students killing lovers or professors.

Two different accounts of what actually happened are consistent with the evidence. One, the account pushed by Beta and Gamma and accepted by ST, makes Alpha the guilty party and explains the evidence that Beta and Gamma were lying about some of the details as a combination of exaggeration, innocent error, and perjury by witnesses friendly to Alpha. The other, the account accepted by at least some of Alpha’s supporters, makes Beta and Gamma the guilty parties and ST at the least culpably negligent. On that version, Beta and Gamma conspired to frame Alpha for offenses he had not committed, presumably as a preemptive strike against his threat to release true but damaging information about Beta – once he was in jail, who would believe him? They succeeded to the extent of getting him locked up for five and a half months, beaten in jail by fellow prisoners, costing him and his friends some $20,000 in legal expenses, and ultimately getting him expelled.

I favor the second account, in part because I think it is clear that the ST attorney I originally spoke with was deliberately trying to mislead me by concealing facts that not only were relevant but directly contradicted the arguments she was making. I am suspicious of people who lie to me. On the other hand, attorneys, even attorneys for academic institutions, are hired to serve the interest of their clients, not to reveal truth to curious academics, so even if she believed Alpha was guilty she might have preferred to conceal the evidence that he was not. For my present purposes what is interesting is not which side was guilty but the fact that either side could have been, and the problems that fact raises for the world that they were, and we will be, living in.


Women have simple tastes. They can take pleasure in the conversation of babes in arms and men in love.

H.L. Mencken, In Defense of Women

Online communication, in this case email, normally carries identification that, unlike one’s face, can readily be forged. The Cornell case demonstrated one way in which that fact could be used: to extract unguarded statements from somebody by masquerading as someone he has reason to trust. This case, on one interpretation, demonstrates another: to injure someone by persuading third parties that he said things he in fact did not say.

The obvious solution is some way of knowing who sent what message. The headers of an email are supposed to provide that information. As these cases both demonstrate, they do not do it very well. On the simplest interpretation of the events at ST, Alpha used a procedure known to practically everyone in that precocious community to send a message to Beta that purported to come from Gamma. On the alternative interpretation, Beta or Gamma masqueraded as Alpha (accessing his account with his password) in order to send a message to Beta that purported to come from Gamma – and thus get Alpha blamed for doing so.

ST provided a second level of protection – passwords. The passwords were chosen by the user, hence in many cases easy to guess; users tend to select passwords that they can remember. And even if they had been hard to guess, one user can always tell another his password. However elaborate the security protecting Alpha’s control over his own identification, up to and including the use of digital signatures, it could not protect him against betrayal by himself. Alpha was in love with Beta, and men in love are notoriously imprudent.

Or perhaps it could. One possible solution is the use of biometrics, identification linked to physical characteristics such as fingerprints or retinal patterns. If ST had been twenty years ahead of the rest of us instead of only ten, they might have equipped their computers with scanners that checked the users’ fingerprints and retinas before letting them sign on. Even a man in love is unlikely to give away his retinas. With that system, we would know which party was guilty. Provided, of course, that none of the students at SiliconTech, the cream of the world’s technologically precocious young minds, figured out how to trick the biometric scanners or hack the software controlling them.

Even if the system works, it has some obvious disadvantages. In order to prevent someone from editing a real email he has received and then presenting the edited version as the original – what Alpha claims that Beta and Gamma did – the system must keep records of all email that passes through it. Many users may find that objectionable on the grounds of privacy – although there are possible technological ways around that problem.11And the requirement of biometric identification eliminates not only forged identity but anonymity as well – which arguably could have a chilling effect on free speech.

So far I have implicitly assumed a single computer network with a single owner, like the one at Silicon Tech. With a decentralized network such as the Internet, creating a system of unforgeable identity becomes an even harder challenge. It can be done via digital signatures, but only if the potential victims are willing to take the necessary precautions to keep other people from getting access to their private keys. Biometric identification, even if it becomes entirely reliable, is still vulnerable to the user who inserts additional hardware or software between the scanner and the computer of his own system and uses it to lie to the computer about what the scanner saw.


A few years ago, a college student named Jason Eric Smith sold a Mac laptop and some accessories on eBay and sent it COD to the buyer. The buyer paid with a $2,900 cashier’s check that turned out to be forged. Jason, understandably upset, “posted my tale of woe and call for assistance on every Mac bulletin board I could think of” and received more than 100 responses offering help and/or oral support, one of which provided a pointer to an online private investigator who, from the buyer’s cell phone number, was able to get his real name and landline phone number. Attempts to interest the Chicago police department, the FBI, and the Secret Service were unsuccessful – “will call you back later” from the first, “not large enough to interest” us from the others.

Eventually Jason got an email response from another seller who had been the victim of the same buyer and knew of the existence of others. Unable to get law enforcement interested, he decided on a little private entrapment, set up an auction on eBay of the same computer under his girlfriend’s name, and within three hours received an offer – from the same buyer. Fellow Mac users in Chicago provided additional information about the neighborhood, which turned out to be not in the city at all but in the suburb of Markham. He called the Markham police and this time found an officer enthusiastically interested in catching crooks. The police officer, dressed in a FedEx uniform, made the delivery and arrested the criminal with more than $10,000 in bogus checks in his possession.

The story got a good deal of news coverage at the time, but I missed it. The reason I know about it is that, when looking for material for this part of the chapter, I put a post on my blog asking for examples of open source crime control. The next day I had responses with links to several stories,12 including Jason’s. I found his story the same way he found his criminal.

A similar pattern can be seen in a number of more recent cases. One involved stamp collectors swindled by someone who bought low-quality stamps, “improved them,” and then resold the altered versions for higher prices. The victims succeeded in persuading eBay to join with them and shut down those of the swindler’s accounts that could be identified. Total losses were apparently more than $1,000,000. One of the private investigators was a retired FBI agent and they succeeded in identifying the man responsible, but as of the most recent story I have seen on the case they have not yet succeeded in getting law enforcement to act; unfortunately, this swindler doesn’t live in Markham.

The existence of the internet facilitates open source law enforcement by victims in two ways. It makes it easier for a crime victim to get information just as it makes it easier for an amateur economist or historian to get information. And it makes it much easier for victims to find each other, pool their information, and work together to find the criminal. Only the final stage of the process requires the intervention of professionals paid to catch criminals.

Or perhaps not even the final stage. One recent news story described tactics organized online for harassing email scammers, using tactics rather like their own. And a decentralized approach can also be applied to the problem of identifying and filtering out spam, a form of enforcement entirely legal and entirely outside the legal system.

All of which raises the interesting question of whether there are opportunities for open source crime as well as open source crime control. If any occur to me I will keep them to myself.


1 For a counterexample, consider Adam Smith, who had clearly read an enormous amount before writing The Wealth of Nations.

2 Le Menagier de Paris

Du Fait de Cuisine

The Cookbook of Sabina Welsserin 

A 13th c. Andalusian Cookbook 

Das Buch von Guter Speise

Libre del Coch

Libro di cucina

3 The Linux kernel is usually used with utilities and libraries from the GNU operating system, so the combination is more precisely, but less conveniently, referred to as GNU/Linux. Readers may be interested in an essay on the difference between open software and free software by Richard Stallman, who originated the Free Software Foundation and the GNU project.

4 “Linus’s Law,” attributed to Linus Torvalds.

5 For cites to research on the subject see "The Reliability of Wikipedia."

6 For a much more extensive discussion of some of these issues, see Williamson, 1983.

7 For more information—not necessarily unbiased—on this particular controversy, see documents on my web page.

8 Wall Street Journal, 12/24/01, p. B4. The Innocentive web site

9 A description of the drug project.  Or consider Amazon.com’s Mechanical Turk, paying online workers to do things that AI is not yet quite up to.

10 For an old, but fictional, version, see Stout, 1948.

11 One could use a one-way hashing algorithm to produce a message digest of each message and store that instead of the complete message. The message digest cannot be used to reconstruct the message but can be used to check that it has not been changed, by seeing if it still hashes to the same digest.

12 The others can be found in the comments to my blog and in the account of a U.K. Case.