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Double-edged sword

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on June 18, 2004
(Issue 2225, Don't Leave Home Without It)

A recent 'report" alleging that Linus Torvalds stole the source code for Linux from a Unix offshoot illustrated the double-edged sword that the Internet's decentralization represents in transforming mass communication.

On the one hand, Kenneth Brown was able to get his allegations to the public (and media) by publishing them at the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution Web site.

At the same time, Torvalds and at least one of the sources Brown interviewed for his article were also able to use the Internet to refute his charges, and to call into question both his professionalism and his methods – as well as point out that his previously unknown institution gets funding from Microsoft, which has a track record of open hostility to Linux.

Of course, Brown's original assertion – that Torvalds lifted Linux from Minix source code – is still getting plenty of media attention. All you have to do in this day and age is make an accusation, no matter how poorly grounded or backed up by facts, and the media will run with it.

What makes this case different from most others, though, is that people interviewed by Brown are coming forward and saying that not only are his assertions wrong, but that he lacks the necessary knowledge to know whether his assertion is true or not.

Which people have done in response to shoddy reporting for years, but in the past, if you were interviewed by the New York Times and felt they got it wrong, what recourse did you have? An angry letter to the editor? Cancelling your subscription?

The ‘Net changes the equation – especially when you have Web-savvy people like Andrew S. Tanenbaum as the ones upset with the way their quotes were used.

The expert weighs in

Tanenbaum is the man who wrote Minix, which he did as a way of teaching his students a Unix-like environment at a time when Unix was too expensive for many universities to use as a teaching tool. Tanenbaum was interviewed as a primary source by Brown for his attack piece on Torvalds – and yet Tanenbaum has posted a repudiation of Brown on his own Web site at Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where he teaches.

In this essay, Tanenbaum points out that Brown's primary claim – that Torvalds 'stole" Linux from Minix – arose from the fact that the computer Torvalds created Linux on was running Minix as its OS. As Torvalds asked rhetorically in an interview with c|net, 'Do your articles contain Windows source code because you use Windows to write them?"

Tanenbaum also pointed out that whereas Minix is a microkernel OS, Linux is a monolithic kernel OS – the same source code wouldn't even work for much of the two operating systems.

Finally, Brown's assertion that Torvalds must have stolen source code when writing Linux because no one person could possibly write their own operating system is stood on its head by Tanenbaum, who points out that Brown acknowledges that Tanenbaum wrote Minix by himself, then claims Torvalds stole it.

If Tanenbaum could write Minix, why should we believe Torvalds couldn't write Linux? (Tanenbaum also offers up Gary Kildall and CP/M, Tim Paterson and MS-DOS, Doug Comer and XINU, and Ric Holt and TUNIS as further examples of a single person writing a basic operating system from scratch.)

All of which makes you wonder if Torvalds won't find himself a good attorney specializing in defamation and sue Brown for libel, especially as Brown never interviewed Torvalds!

The fallout

As this is written (late May), Brown is sticking by his accusations, Torvalds has not yet sued, most of the tech-savvy outlets are laughing at Brown, while the mainstream media is taking him seriously (although noting the fact that most tech heads think he's flat-out wrong).

On the heels of the Tech Central Station fiasco last fall, in which the supposedly 'libertarian" Web site was exposed as a front for a lobbying firm that counted Microsoft among its clients, the Ken Brown example offers evidence of at least a couple of trends online, one positive, one negative.

On the negative side is the fact that apparently Microsoft is still trying to plant news in the mainstream media by using front organizations to attack its rivals or promote its interests.

The good news is obviously the fact that in both cases, the truth was brought out and plastered all over the ‘Net, ultimately discrediting the smear job attempt.

It is the decentralized nature of the Internet that allows folks to share information on Microsoft's ties to both Tech Central Station and Alexis de Tocqueville Institution. Before the ‘Net's arrival, Microsoft could have bought its way into network TV or one of the major national newspapers, and influenced news coverage (and ultimately government policy) without being caught.

Those days are over, thanks to this amazing communications tool we call the ‘Net.