Globe and Mail runs loony screed against "hackers", Aaron Swartz, logic

Cory wrote on Monday about Ahmed Al-Kabaz, the Dawson College Comp Sci student who found a massive bug on his school's website that left total data on thousands of students vulnerable to an easy hack. Ahmed reported the bug to Dawson's administrators and later checked to see if it had been closed. He was then expelled. The story outraged Canadians, disgraced Dawson College and won Ahmed some job offers. Yesterday, the editorial board of The Globe and Mail, Canada's "newspaper of record", published this contrary view:

"When did it become wrong to punish hackers?"

The piece not only sides with Dawson College on Ahmed's expulsion, it also takes the opportunity to state the Globe's support for Carmen Ortiz's prosecution of Aaron Swartz. And it goes on. In five galling paragraphs, the Globe and Mail has declared its opposition to Internet freedom fighters, copyright reformists, privacy activists, transparency campaigners, and hackers of any stripe.

Read it and I think you'll agree that it's a stunningly ignorant piece of writing. A proud declaration of ignorance. An ignorance manifesto.

It's beneath contempt and consideration, save for the fact that it was published by the most influential newspaper in Canada. So it must be dealt with. Where to begin?

"The international hacking community is currently up in arms after the suicide of Aaron Swartz"

Sorry, "the international hacking community"?

Are the academics who donated thousands of research papers to the public domain in Aaron's memory members of this "international hacking community"? Is Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren in this shady cult too, and is her bill in Aaron's memory a weapon of her radical cause? What about the hundreds of thousands of people who mourn Aaron because his contributions are so wonderful and his resolve to do good so inspiring? Are we the "international community of hackers", or is that just a convenient way of ghettoizing, belittling and dismissing us?

"Stealing is stealing," "rules exist for a reason," copyright is a "foundation".

Jesus, really? You'd think they wouldn't go there, considering what just happened.

Last fall, senior Globe columnist Margaret Wente was exposed as a serial plagiarist and a fabulist. The Globe knew about her thievery for months but ignored it for as long as they could. Then they tried to sweep it under the rug. Finally, they apologized, badly and insincerely. So much for copyright, so much for "stealing is stealing". And as for "the rules," they didn't apply to Margaret Wente. Her job was protected.

"In the age of the Internet, the massive downloading for free of music and movies and other copyrighted material has muddied the waters for many people."

What on Earth does music downloading have to do with Ahmed Al-Kabaz and his discovery of sloppy code that put himself and thousands of his peers at risk? What exactly does movie piracy have to do with Aaron Swartz's belief that locking away thousands of scholarly works, paid for with public funds and created for the good of humanity, was a crime that couldn't be tolerated? Who exactly is guilty of muddying the waters by lumping these disparate things together?*

Can the Globe's editorial board really not fathom the difference between running a security diagnostic tool on a website and launching a "cyber attack"? Would they uncritically appropriate language from a corporate press release in any other instance? Is this truly an inability to discern distinctions between fraudsters and fixers, between thieves and humanitarians, or just an angry refusal to even try?

Either way, it's no longer okay to be this stupid. Stubborn, willful stupidity like this, in the hands of power, has consequences.

Jesse Brown blogs at and is on Twitter @JesseBrown.

*Actually, there is a connection between Ahmed Al-Kabaz and Aaron Swartz. Ahmed investigated a powerful institution to see if it was competent and safe, and when he discovered that it wasn't, he exposed it. Aaron believed passionately in the public's right to information. Both were doing journalism. In decrying their actions, the Globe has in effect taken a position against the basic mission of journalism .


  1. Where to begin? With a calm letter to the editor, and the owner, saying “I’m sorry to have to point this out, but your story of [date] on page [n], under the headline […], had some of its basic facts wrong, and as a result drew completely incorrect conclusions. Specifically, […]. I trust that you will recheck these facts and publish a retraction at the soonest possible opportunity, before this damages your paper’s reputation, and that you will speak to this reporter about how to cover a story more accurately.”

    Give them something that comes across as helpful, so they don’t just get defensive about it and throw it out.

    “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

    1. To clarify one point:

      The Globe makes clear that when an argument has an author’s name on it, it’s just that author’s opinion, not one supported by the paper as an institution.  It regularly publishes individual bylined essays by different writers that take completely opposite views on an issue.  This is different.

      That piece is an editorial – it’s got no cited author because it was supposedly written by, and represents the opinion of, the entire editorial board.  In other words, it’s as close as a newspaper can get to an official declaration.  It was vetted by all the most senior staff at the paper.

      1.  Given that this article represents the opinion of the entire editorial board then I am not at all surprised by its tone.  In my experience the farther up the managerial/corporate/bureaucratic food chain you go the less they understand how things actually work.

        I suspect that from a board’s perspective the entire organization looks like it is just a set of rules and of course any breaking of the rules should be punished.  (Unless doing so punishes them as in the case of Margaret Wente.)

        Another attitude I find common from upper management is that when there is a risk due to a system vulnerability they see pursuing legal action after a breach as roughly equivalent to just fixing the vulnerability.

        Don’t get me wrong, vulnerabilities are often very difficult to fix.  However, I think too often the focus is on punishing rather than fixing.

    2.  Next step: Send a copy of that letter to the editors of the competing papers, with a cover letter saying “Thought you’d be interested/amused that the Globe and Mail got a technology story wrong again. I trust you can do better.”

      That both helps keep the errors from propagating, and holds the G&M’s feet to the fire — if they don’t correct themselves, their competitors will correct them, which is a bigger problem.

      If you really want to nail that down, add a PS to the G&M’s letter saying you’re doing this. Put it as “in the interest of accurate reporting” — again, you want to give them a chance to save face by agreeing with you, so you don’t want to come across as adversarial unless you absolutely must.

  2. The Globe has made some serious missteps recently; I would hesitate to call it “the most influential newspaper in Canada” at the moment.  I personally see it as a paper in decline. 

    1.  Hear, hear!

      I stopped buying it about a year and a half ago, after they redesigned it.  And made it very clear that I wasn’t the target audience any more.

      (Before the redesign, they reported that the Globe was the only major newspaper that hadn’t lost readership – therefore, they needed to redesign, er, because an expensive consultant (the same one all the major, declining, newspaper used) told us to.  Seriously, WTF?)

      Grope & Fail, more like it.

      1.  Yes, I gave up on them after how they handled Obama’s win, and then hearing the new Editor’s defense thereof.  And I thought the National Post was bad.  Ugh.

        1. For this neighbor to your South who barely bothers to read newspapers down here, would you care to sum up their response?

          1. I can’t find it online, but I believe the headline was “Divided States of America.”  Something like that.  Didn’t mention Obama, and wasn’t even the top story.

          2. Today their ever-brilliant columnist Margaret Wente, whose plagiarism is referenced above, has a piece called “Whatever Happened To Global Warming?”  You know, one of those “Now I’m not denying that global warming is real, but to do anything about it would be a serious mistake.”  They definitely know who their masters are down there.

          3.  I quite like the Globe and Mail, but its stance on Global Warming has been a long term failure.  They went through a succession of science editors, who kept quitting because they had a policy of ignoring it.

            Anyway, preparing my letter expressing my disapproval of their “adherence to the law should trump common-sense” editorial.

            The Wente scandal I’d call bad journalism rather than plagiarism, but then I’d call Al-Kabaz’s actions trying to be helpful rather than illegal access.

  3. Dear Editor,

    Sorry to hear about your DDoS. But you guys really riled up that international community.

    1. Site’s up, and fast. And has a moderated comment section where you could do as @boingboing-3c5f649c852dd2623fc23d6baca7660a:disqus suggested.

      1. Mine was an implication that something untoward was likely to happen if they’re going to go on about persecuting hackers.  I would comment, but I don’t care about them enough to urge them to change their policy.  They want to run crazy things up their petard and I’m willing to watch them.  I like my view from here, I have a big bucket of popcorn and a really comfortable chair.

      2. The G & M’s comments section is sadly not worth contributing to – the writers and editors clearly don’t read it, it’s often a cesspool of vile racism, misinformed spittle-flecked invective, and internet tough-guyism.

  4. Well….yet another glaring example of why the “traditional media” is sliding into oblivion as the information age changes the world too fast for it to keep up. Talk about “uninformed opinion.”

  5. Haven’t seen the G&M since they went behind a paywall. They did that to drive business to other papers more deserving of a tiny subscription fee, as a favour I guess.

  6. So the argument is that no one should look inside any box whether that box lid is open, closed, locked, unlocked, full of holes,holds trash, holds treasure, holds a small baby,etc. No one should try to learn how to make their own boxes or improve the boxes around them? Because we all know those boxes were made perfect to begin with?

    1. Poor analogy. It would have been better to suggest one shouldn’t take boxes owned by others, or even if ownership is unclear.

      You know, like how things really work.

  7. I prefer to give the authors more credit for their position, which is a perfectly sensible one if you believe that such vacuous hit pieces are specifically designed to poke the beehive and drive traffic.

    The alternative is to believe that otherwise intelligent people are as dumb and uninformed as they sound.  I don’t buy it.

  8. I was a subscriber to the Globe for a decade or so, mostly because it was the only paper available out West that wasn’t owned by Conrad Black.  The only other major paper outside his clutches was the Toronto Star, and I was not about to start reading that in Vancouver (since it would not be about my city).

    In the rare moments when I am desperate for something to read I still tend to favour the Globe, but less and less.   Their coverage is firmly rooted in Bay Street and the protection of old-money and power in the country.  And I am most certainly not.

    In grad school I did a multi-year comparison of the Globe, the National Post and a few minor papers looking at their depiction of climate change, Kyoto and the various political, activist and business interests involved.  The Globe came out looking fairly good in comparison to the Post as far as balanced coverage, but none of them were ever taking the issue remotely seriously.  The Post routinely mocked, while the Globe mostly just ignored.  Of course, to my knowledge only about 3-4 people ever read my thesis, and now it is well out of date anyways.

    I am not surprised at their dismissive attitude.  If you ever want to know what position the Globe will take, first figure out the interests of the Toronto Club (rich guys club in Toronto) and the Chamber of Commerce (specifically the Ontario Chamber of Commerce), then extrapolate.  If they have an interest, you will literally never be wrong in assuming the Globe will promote it.

  9. The G&M lost me a while back with their “mistakes were made” attitude towards police brutality.

  10. It may be that this story is getting a bit spun. On slashdot there was a post from someone claiming to be from the school that knew the kids. Apparently there was a bunch that were developing an app, and were given access by administration. They then used some infiltration tools found online to get at personal information. Administration then removed access, and they hacked in anyway. Hence the expulsion. It wasn’t clear if the programmer took the fall for someone elses actions also.

    In any case I have no idea if any of that is true at all. However either it was a really big over reaction by admin, or we arn’t getting the whole story, or authors have been writing what sells.

    I know I am not convincved that we are hearing at all an unbiased story. That said, it could very well be that he was totally innocent and the school admin totally over reacted and were a bunch of jerks. I know I was outraged by it initially. Or it could be that the story was told by the student and media ran with it without any confirmation from any other sources.

  11. You know, I still think they responded this way because we pitched the story to them before we pitched it to the National Post. They responded too slowly so we moved on and they ended up missing out on one of the bigger stories of this young year.

  12. You know, I still think they responded this way because we pitched the story to them before we pitched it to the National Post. They responded too slowly so we moved on and they ended up missing out on one of the bigger stories of this young year.

  13. Don’t forget that Wobbly member Darrell Issa, who must be part of the international piracy confederation, and a sleeper agent in the Republican Party, who plans hearings on prosecutorial behavior in this case.

  14. The Globe and Mail is owned by the same gaggle that own Thomson-Reuters. Of course they’re going to be in the camp of “Gotta save what’s left of the old economic model”.

  15. Journalists, and especially columnists, are against an open Internet because it renders their job useless. Who’s going to pay to read a columnist’s opinion when we can all read each other blogs, which are by no means stupider than their usual rant ?

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