oday Sony published an official statement concerning the growing controversy surrounding hacker George Hotz’s PlayStation 3 exploit. Essentially, anyone caught using unlicensed software while connected to the PlayStation Network will have their services terminated. The basis of their response is that users who exploit the PS3 hardware can damage the online experience for others via “hacks and cheats.” That’s a noble goal, and anyone who’s played Modern Warfare 2 on a console likely knows how damaging game exploits can be.
Regardless of how Sony wishes to spin the issue, game hacks are hardly the heart of this controversy. Pirated games aren’t even the heart of the issue. Sony ignited this fire by removing Other OS from its console, and now seems desperate to stamp out the spreading flames.
Other OS was a big deal when the PS3 launched in 2006. Sony was allowing users to install another OS onto the PlayStation 3’s hard drive--some distro of Linux, basically--which was a remarkably open and flexible concept for a game console. It lent credence to Sony’s “The PS3 is basically a really powerful PC, not a game console” argument, and gave tech-savvy users an entirely new use for the PlayStation 3 aside from playing games. Last year, Sony took it away.
Ironically, Sony was looking to protect the console from exploitation. There’s no better way to piss off hackers than to tell them they’re not allowed to hack something, so hack it they did. This is what it all boils down to--for years, hackers have maintained that users have the right to modify a piece of hardware they’ve spent money on. Once it’s in their hands, it’s theirs to do with as they please--while pirating games is obviously a copyright violation, hacking a PS3 to, say, play a homebrew game is a far more legally ambiguous concept.
Hackers like George Hotz who exploited the PlayStation 3’s master key claim to be anti-piracy--but again, piracy isn’t the real issue. The point is that this exploit allows users to install custom software, homebrew games and apps, Linux--using the hardware they paid for to do whatever they will. Isn’t that their right?
The similar jailbreak for the Nintendo Wii, for instance, opens the console to a wealth of functionality it wouldn’t normally offer. The Homebrew Channel grants access to indie games and ways to rip Wii games that can then be played on a PC with the Dolphin emulator at far higher resolutions than Nintendo’s console supports. It also makes piracy possible, of course, and there's no way to know how many Homebrew users are in it for the customization and how many just want to play free games.
Given the typical wording of end-user licenses for services like the PlayStation Network, Sony probably has every legal right to yank service from its customers for just about anything it deems unsavory, including custom software. But how many people will it ban for running Linux? How many people will it ban for wanting to play older region-locked PS2 and PS1 games on the console?