new buzzword nominee

26 June 2005, 6:39 pm

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I think these are possibilities are so obviously and unequivocally bad that opposition to them should transcend any party boundaries. It’s worth looking at who stands to benefit from them, why these parties see content control techniques as desirable, and why these agendas have enjoyed legislative and judical support over the past several years.

Much of the content control agenda is being pushed by the motion picture and music industries, and their disproportionally powerful lobby groups. They’re terrified by the prospect of their content being stolen without restriction. They’re grasping at any straw, and I don’t think they’re concerned with (or necessarily even aware of) some of the nastiest of the possible consequences of the content control they’re attempting to mandate.

Additional support for content control comes from the high-tech industry titans. They’re responding in large part to the frustration of businesses and private individuals alike with the erosion of computer security under the unslaught of virus, spyware and trojan horses. An important aspect of the “trusted computing” architecture is that it can forbid not only the use or transfer of documents, but also of programs — so spyware, for example, might simply lack the permission to run.

Finally, the US military and intelligence communities are interested in the potential of these technologies to control the flow of information. Closing leaks from within their organizations is one obvious benefit to them, and I’ve suggested other uses above.

Not all of this is necessarily bad — spyware and viruses are problems that need to be addressed. I’m not an apologist for the music or movie businesses — I think some of their current woes are the consequences of business practices that were at best short-sighted and at worst duplicitious. Still, I don’t think stealing stealing their content with no remuneration is, or should be, acceptable.

But I don’t think we should have “solutions” forced up on us which fundamentally undermine the principles upon which this nation was founded.

The core of the problem lies in the synergy between technological approaches, legislative decisions, and judicial interpretations of the legislation as applied to evolving technology. The controversial Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is particularly troublesome, because it criminalizes any attempt to defeat content control measures, even for uses — like backups — that don’t infringe the copyright owner’s rights.
(If you want a perspective on this from a slightly cooler head than mine, try Rep. Rick Boucher).

This stuff is hard to understand, and that’s not coincidental. It’s easier to foist it on consumers if they don’t have a clear sense of what’s being pushed on them. It’s also easy to marginalize this as a geek-only issue — the province of few shrill malcontents.

That’s why I think clearer, less geeky, and more honest terminology would be a big help in discussing and popularizing these issues.

I’d also like to briefly consider some of the existing terminology and why it’s inadequate or misleading.

  • Digital Rights Management (DRM) The problem with the term “DRM” is that it doesn’t specify who gets to manage the rights. But having rights sounds like a good thing, right? In point of fact, the rights holder gets to manage the rights, and the rights holder is (virtually always) a corporate entity, not the consumer.
  • Trusted Computing Again, who does the trusting? The consumer doesn’t purchase software — the consumer purchases a license to use software. That means it’s the the company that owns the software that gets to do the trusting. It’s not “what do you trust your computer (or software on your computer) to do?” — it’s “what does your computer trust you to do?”
  • Next-Generation Secure Computing Base (NGSCB) This is Microsoft’s current name for its implementation of Trusted Computing. The former name, “Palladium,” quickly got a bad rap, and was abandoned. The new name has “secure computing” in it, which sounds like it ought to be a positive thing. But it’s also a tongue twister with an unpronouncable acronym. It’s difficult to rally opposition against something you can’t even pronounce.

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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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