new buzzword nominee

26 June 2005, 6:39 pm

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Obfuscation.

That’s a big word for deliberately making things confusing.

For the past two or three years, I’ve been increasingly concerned about raising public awareness about developments in the geekworld that pose a clear and present danger to personal and civil liberties.

It just hit me that obfuscation is part of what makes this such a difficult fight to fight. The terminology of the debate is chosen by the enemy, and it’s chosen to be confusing and misleading.

I’m hereby nominating a new buzzword: “Content control techniques”.

I think “Content control techniques” has several important advantages over the existing language:

  • It’s comparatively easy-to-understand
  • It doesn’t discriminate between legislation (like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and technology (like the “Fritz chip”)
  • It’s not reassuring. It suggests, but doesn’t answer, the question “Who is controlling content — and why?”.

Content control techniques are already part of our lives. You may have received an email you’re unable to forward, or downloaded a file you can’t open on another devices. You may have looked at a PDF document that wouldn’t let you save a copy of itself. You may have seen a DVD which won’t let you skip the opening ads. You may have purchased a license for software that won’t work if you’re not connected to the Internet so your license can be verified. Some of you have seen an infamous Microsoft message that informs you you’ve tampered with your computer too much, and need to contact Microsoft to re-authorize certain applications before you can use them again. These are examples of content control techniques. What they have in common is that they place restrictions on how you can use information: how you can access it, whether you can transfer it, who you can share it with. Content control techniques generally don’t give control to consumers — they take it away.

The content control techniques you’ve encountered so far have probably just been nuisances. In many cases they’ve been laughably easy to sidestep — one technology designed to prevent consumers from copying CDs with computers could be bypassed simply by holding down the shift key. Unforwardable emails don’t — yet — prevent you from making a screen capture of their content and mailing it as an image.

But powerful coalitions of corporations, with substantial legislative support, want to make things much worse. The names their advocates give these initiatives are either designed to reassure you (Trusted Computing, Digital Rights Management) — or to confuse you (NGSCB, or “Next-Generation Secure Computing Base”). Make no mistake, it’s all about content control, and it’s about taking it away from consumers.
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2 comments on “new buzzword nominee”

  1. 2fs

    Thanks - I certainly hope these ideas are being expressed in venues more broadly read than people’s blogs (and if they’re not, you might consider submitting this to such media for publication).

    On to the quibbling: you wrote, “Still, I don’t think stealing their [the music or movie industries’] content with no remuneration is, or should be, acceptable.” One problem is (as you’re aware) defining exactly who the “their” is in your sentence, and which content, which aspects of that content, can properly be regarded as “theirs.” It ain’t stealing if it belongs to you - and it ain’t theft if what’s “stolen” isn’t yours. In other words, arguably some rights and content currently claimed by the music industry aren’t properly theirs, and properly belong to (say) the musicians, or the consumers. Copy-protected CDs that don’t play on home computers or car stereos are a good example: if someone finds a way to defeat such protection and rip the CD for one’s own personal use, even if the law claims such usage is “theft,” I’d argue that it shouldn’t be. This is particularly true when the CD has no notification about its content control - or the vendor (such as an online service) fails to inform its consumers that a particular CD has content control (even if the CD itself provides such notice).

    Of course, the fact that one party has misappropriated something for itself doesn’t simplify whether corrective actions against that misappropriation are legit: James Jamerson’s heirs may indeed be ethically entitled to huge chunks of Berry Gordy’s money, but that doesn’t mean they’re right to break into Gordy’s mansion and waltz off with his jewelry.

  2. summervillain

    (and if they’re not, you might consider submitting this to such media for publication).

    The issues are well-covered in venues like Slashdot and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, but they preach to the converted. I pitched a story to Punk Planet, who passed on it. I’m open to other suggestions. I have a couple of attributable sources, but my most important source prefers anonymity.

    One problem is (as you’re aware) defining exactly who the “their” is in your sentence, and which content, which aspects of that content, can properly be regarded as “theirs.”

    For the purposes of this discussion, I don’t even want to get into debating whether or not musicians should retain the rights to their own work. Barring major intellectual property reform (which I think is highly unlikely in the current climate), in the short term corporate interests are going to remain the legal (if not moral) rightsholders for virtually all mainstream content. My primary concern is that, as citizens, we should not allow the enactment of laws (or allow technologies to be mandated) that curtail fundamental rights of democracy. (And in the case, minimally, of DMCA Section 1201 and certain provisions of the PATRIOT Act, I think it’s imperative that laws that already do so are either struck down or amended.)

    If you defeat content control to play a CD on a home computer, you’re not committing theft, but you are violating Section 1201 of the DMCA — that’s criminal, not civil code. (And at the moment, it doesn’t matter whether that use is non-infringing.)

    I do think “theft” — or if you prefer, “fraud” — is a reasonable term to apply to the unauthorized acquisition and/or distribution of content. I don’t think it matters that no tangible physical good is transferred, or that there is no physical value of a single “copy.” If you prefer, you can think of it as fraudulent access to a service: like printing a bogus ticket to an event, rather than like shoplifting a book.

    Another thing that perplexes me about trying to discuss this rationally is that many of the people who advocate awareness of these issues also suggest that it’s okay to violate the copyright of corporate interests — whether because they’re unfair businesses, or because the content is of poor quality, or because the business add no value, or because they can’t stop people from copying their content, or because all copyright should be abolished, or whatever. I need to discriminate myself from these positions, which I would characterize (at least in the short term) as extremist.

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