Firefox passive-aggressives adjudicate Nerd Law
Better than a severed horse head
Fail and You Last week, blood was shed in the Firefox community as two popular extensions to the browser - NoScript and Adblock Plus - finally started slugging it out over a conflict that had been underground for quite some time.
It came to a head when Adblock Plus developer Wladimir Palant woke up in the morning next to a severed horse's head. What followed was a series of public fire-bombings, shootings, and unprovoked tire-iron beatings that left a trail of blood winding around the world.
Ha, no, just kidding.
Two passive-aggressive nerds, each acting in their own self-interest, got into a blog slap-fight, the only collateral damage being several thousand Twitter messages and a few devout Firefox users pledging to uninstall one extension or the other so that they can feel like they took a stand on an important issue.
The Reg covered the facts of the case already, but why did this become such a public affair? Couldn't these two developers have avoided airing their dirty laundry by, oh, I don't know, talking to each other and working out their differences like adults, instead of introverted high school sophomores who can only muster the balls to ask out girls over AOL Instant Messenger?
Yes, in theory, they could have avoided this mess, but in the stick-it-to-the-man-from-your-mother's-basement world of open source, there would be no other outcome.
Giorgio Maone, who develops the NoScript security extension for Firefox, has needs like everybody else. He needs to eat, and he needs to put a roof over his head. His extension is pretty popular, accumulating around 50 million downloads. To capitalize on this, he made NoScript update itself fairly frequently, and the update page on his website displays some Google ads.
On the other side is Wladimir Palant, the current developer of Adblock Plus. Adblock Plus allows you to surf the web without seeing a lot of ads and does so by maintaining blacklists of know ad servers and formats, the most popular of which is called EasyList, maintained by somebody only known as Ares2. Palant has railed against the possible conflict of interest created when extension developers try to make money from their creations.
"I know that some other extension developers have their extension as a full-time job and that makes them dependent on money sources. Given the market value of their user base, it is hard not to sell out," he said in post on the Adblock Plus blog.
Now, Adblock Plus does provide value to users by blocking annoying and distracting banner ads, but from where I'm standing, Palant seems to have given himself mandate of altruism that borders on a savior complex. For someone who maintains software that is antithetical to the internet's general business model, this is not necessarily a bad thing, but it really does a number on those social skills.
For years, NoScript had been using some tricks to keep Adblock Plus from working on its update landing pages. Palant didn't pay it much mind for some time, until he recently recommended that EasyList explicitly block ads on the NoScript servers. Successive iterations of this blocking rendered the NoScript website useless to Adblock Plus users, to the point where they could not even download NoScript without some serious hunting. Having enough of this passive-aggressive posturing, Maone released a version of NoScript that would interfere with the internals of Adblock Plus to allow ads on the NoScript servers.
What followed was a public airing of grievances that brought in the Mozilla Foundation, who came down on Adblock Plus's side. (Yes, the Mozilla Foundation that's kept afloat by advertising revenue from Google, that Mozilla Foundation). It ended with Maone apologizing for interfering with Adblock Plus and issuing an update to NoScript that un-did his fiddling.
If you step back and look at this, it was not nearly a crisis of the magnitude the internet would have you believe. This slug-fest only affected people who use both Adblock Plus and NoScript. Each of these extensions has about 50 million downloads, and if you assume a really generous amount of overlap and adoption, this amounts to about 18 per cent of Firefox users. Woo, let's alert the BBC.
The real cause of this dispute is something I like to call Nerd Law. Nerd Law is some policy that can only be enforced by a piece of code, a public standard, or terms of service. For example, under no circumstances will a police officer throw you to the ground and introduce you to his friend the Tazer if you crawl a website and disrespect the robots.txt file.
The only way to adjudicate Nerd Law is to write about a transgression on your blog and hope that it gets to the front page of Digg. Nerd Law is the result of the pathological introversion software engineers carry around with them, being too afraid of confrontation after that one time in high school when you stood up to a jock and ended up getting your ass kicked.
If you actually talk to people, network, and make agreements, you'll find that most are reasonable. If Maone had talked with the EasyList maintainer, perhaps he could have convinced them that showing AdSense on the NoScript site wasn't a huge affront to users. After all, if those ads really pissed off a user, he could explicitly block them with Adblock Plus.
If the EasyList maintainer contacted Maone about what implications his explicit blocks on the NoScript site would have, maybe the two of them could have come to a mutually-agreeable solution.
But no. Sadly, software engineers will do what they were raised to do. And while it may be a really big hullabaloo to a very small subset of people who Twitter and blog their every thought as if anybody cared, to the rest of us, it just reaffirms our knowledge that it's easy to exploit your average introvert.
After all, what's he gonna do? Blog about it? ®
Ted Dziuba is a co-founder at Milo.com You can read his regular Reg column, Fail and You, every other Monday.