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Peer Review - Richard Koman

Use P2P, Go to Jail. Any Questions?

07/10/2001

In December 1999, David McOwen -- a system administrator at DeKalb Tech, part of the Georgia state university system -- installed a screensaver from Distributed.net on some of the computers at DeKalb. That was his mistake -- but he never could have guessed how big a mistake that would turn out to be. As it turns out he will likely be arrested in the next few weeks on charges that have a maximum penalty of 15 years in prison.

Distributed.Net software is part of the class of "distributed computing" apps that tackle large computing problems, by breaking them up and distributing the chunks to computers on the Internet. To help work on these problems, computers must run Distributed.Net's client software.

According to David Joyner, McOwen's attorney, 18 months ago McOwen was confronted by managers over the installation of the Distributed.net software. He was asked to resign, and he complied with this request. Perhaps it seemed strange to McOwen that he lost his job over running software that explicitly only runs when the computer is not otherwise being used, or that a technical institution would object to unused resources being applied to solve scientific problems, but he certainly thought that was the end of the tale.

In fact, McOwen is now being criminally prosecuted for the "crime." What crime? The state claims that the Distributed.net client cost the state $415,951.49 in bandwidth charges. The cost of bandwidth, the state says, is 59 cents per second. If you do the math at this rate, you find that the DeKalb is paying $1,529,280 per month for bandwidth. The amount they're seeking from McOwen is roughly a third of this cost.

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"It's rather bizarre," said Joyner. "I don’t see a victim in this case. There's usually a victim in these prosecutions. This program doesn’t run until the screensaver comes on, which indicates no one is using the computer."

Since most of the infringing time happened in December, when very few people were working at the school, this bandwidth usage occurred when the bandwidth was not otherwise being used. Assuming the school pays for bandwidth whether it's used or not, it's hard to understand the logic that says the school system was ripped off.

"It's somehow based on the amount of data transmission," said Joyner. "But, honestly, I don't have the foggiest idea how they came up with this. … I've received over 100 emails from people telling me this rate of 59 cents a second is … insane."

According to Joyner, the state attorney general's office will be prosecuting under a "computer hacking statute" -- OCGA 16-9-93 -- likely using "computer trespass" language.

Richard Koman is a featured speaker at the O'Reilly P2P & Web Services Conference, Sept. 18-20 in Washington, DC.

"They're going for an indictment," Joyner explained. "It doesn’t matter whether he comes up with the money. That would not stop prosecution. … As far as I know this is the first case of its kind in Georgia and possibly the nation."

Joyner expects a grand jury hearing to take place at the end of July or early August, and for McOwen to be arrested once the grand jury issues its indictment.

In a mass-mailed email message, McOwen wrote: "We need to know for sure that they are setting this dangerous precedent, making me an example and everyone is next. They did not give me an opportunity to just turn the client off, they also said that there was no harm done after they turned it off. ... The future of all that use the Internet and computers is at stake. Don't let them turn the good of computers into something so terrible. If it was so terrible it should be taken away from the world and not prosecuting one individual."



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