Our Paranoid Society

This is what happens when everyone is afraid of everyone else:

His mission was to photograph each of the nation’s 50 state capitol buildings and dispatch a postcard from each city, using postage stamps from a childhood collection. Each postcard would be mailed to the next state on his journey, where he would pick it up, continuing until he had gone full circle back to Indiana.

But there was a problem. On a flight from Sacramento, Calif., to Honolulu, Mr. Fazel described his project to a fellow passenger. He later discovered that she had reported him as suspicious — perhaps to the pilot or the Transportation Security Administration — and taken a picture of him as he slept.

How paranoid must we be for a passenger on an airplane to go to the trouble of taking a picture of someone while they sleep so as to make it easier to report him to the authorities?! Would you do this? Could you ever see yourself doing this? I know I couldn’t.

Once we start reporting one another for “suspicious activity,” we’re doomed. Neighbors who don’t get along will be reporting each other for fictions and imagined crimes, and the system will be abused for personal gain. After all, if you can just call a number and say “so-and-so acted weird, I suspect he’s a terrorist” and have that person arrested – I mean, c’mon people! We’re one step away from a loud knock in the middle of the night and lots of scary looking men in black jackets land here!

And if I hear one person say “we need to be like this, people are out to kill us, it’s a strange new world after 9/11,” I will say BULL. There is a fine line between healthy suspicion and rampant paranoia, and I am telling you – this is the latter, not the former.

Now that this gentleman has been (wrongly) accused, how does he clear his good name? How does he get himself off the “extra screening” list? How can he stop the harassment? He was not charged of anything, he turned out to be completely harmless. So where is his recourse?

Unlike being arrested for a “normal” crime, he has no recourse. There is no court that can seal his records (or remove them completely). He has no one to appeal to. The system is secret and allows for no questioning of its inner workings. It is a system designed to quash any opposition. If you don’t like it, be careful about saying so – you’ll end up on the list and endlessly harassed every time you exercise your right to travel. The system is designed to “bully” people into submission. You dare not speak up for fear of the inconvenience it’ll cause you.

Which, coincidentally, brings to mind the story of a bunch of people who got fed up with the same sort of thing – a system designed to “bully” them into submission. Every time they complained, the system just squeezed them harder, hoping that they’d just roll over and accept domination.

Fortunately for us, those people didn’t roll over. They were the founding fathers of the United States of America, and they stood up to this sort of harassment, bullying, and removal of their inalienable rights.

We could all do well to learn – or re-learn – from their example in these troubling times.

Democracy and Liberty

This little analogy, found in a signature on Slashdot, sums it up quite nicely:

Democracy is two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. Liberty is a well-armed sheep contesting the vote.

Applying Old Laws to New Technology

You’ve probably heard of the RIAA and the MPAA (the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America, respectively) before. They’ve been in the news a lot lately – suing old people who don’t have a computer for sharing mp3 files on the Internet and so forth.

A recent Slashdot story tells the tale of just how twisted this story has become.

The basic problem here is one of scale.

Before the Internet and P2P, the average person simply did not have the means to undertake large-scale copyright violation. Sure, you could copy a tape, or even a VHS casette, but you still had to:

  1. Pay for the tapes
  2. Pay to distribute them (postage, gas for driving to your friends house, etc.)
  3. Take the time to make each copy individually

So by and large, individual copyright violations remained decidedly small scale. The effects of such violations were not statistically significant1 to the copyright holders (as far as their profit was concerned), so they were not pursued.

Fast-forward to the current day. Now we have the Internet, P2P software, and music is now digital. This is a huge difference – the cost of making copies is now basically $0 (it’s all just bits & bytes), and the cost of distributing it is basically $0 as well (or, rather, the cost started low and is approaching zero, as bandwidth gets cheaper and cheaper).

Now the average person has the means to distribute copyrighted material to a huge audience. Suddenly, this sort of copyright violation is most definitely statistically significant to the copyright holder. (Or, at least they would have you think so – I still maintain that while significant, it is still very, very small.)

And therein lies the problem. Copyright law (as currently written, and, more importantly, as traditionally enforced) does not scale well. It worked fine when there were only a (relatively) few major copyright violators. It doesn’t work well when everyone & their brother can share an entire music store’s worth of copyrighted materials (music, movies, etc.) to the entire world from their bedroom while they sleep!

So what to do?

One way to deal with this is the draconian, heavy-handed legal way. Strictly speaking, any copyright violation is illegal – no matter how large or small. You could crack down on all of it – sue everyone into oblivion. Pass laws to make the possession of devices used to violate copyright illegal. (This has already been done, by the way. Look up the DMCA.) No excuses!

Of course, it’s easy to see that if you did this, we’d end up back in the stone ages, since all sorts of modern technology can be used to violate copyright – this is nothing new. And the courts have already ruled on this, to a certain extent – back when VHS was new, there were lawsuits about it being used to copy movies at home. The courts ruled that this was covered under “fair use,” and that just because a device might be used to violate copyright does not mean that the device itself should be illegal (especially if the devices’ primary purpose is not copyright violation – devices that are specifically engineered to violate copyright fall into a more uncertain gray area, legally speaking).

Unfortunately, this is the method that the RIAA and MPAA have decided to use in enforcing their “rights.” They want to maintain the “status-quo.” They don’t care what new technology comes out – they want the ability of people to copy their stuff (i.e. music and movies) to remain just as difficult as it was before computers & the Internet. As a direct result of this line of thinking, we have things like DRM and rootkits that hijack our computers (without permission) on our music CDs.

The other way to handle this – the way that should be used (in my opinion), is to make an economic incentive for people not to indulge in wide-scale copyright infringement. After all, that’s what kept it under control in the first place!

To a small extent, this is already underway – though not spearheaded by the RIAA or MPAA, by any means. I’m talking, of course, about things like iTunes. Basically, if you make the music cheap enough, and trust to the general “goodness” in people, they will opt to buy music, rather than steal it. Especially if the purchased music includes “perks,” such as higher quality file formats, or maybe on-line access to additional content (movies, websites, interviews, stuff like that – like what you’d find on a DVD’s “extras” section).

At the same time, you have to remove the barriers to “fair use.” Don’t encode these purchased files so that they can only be played on one computer. People expect to be able to play “their” music on whatever device they choose – and they don’t like it when they can’t. And if they can’t, they’ll go get their music somewhere else – that is to say, from copyright violators on the Internet.

The trick, of course, is balance – something that corporate America is notoriously bad at. But if that balance can be struck, I truly do believe that copyright violations (in the form of normal-person file sharing, anyway) will go way down. It’s not “the status-quo,” and it’s certainly not “the way things used to be,” but hey, markets evolve, and companies (and laws) must evolve with them or perish.


1 In commonly heard arguments, you’ll hear people throw around qualifiers such as “large,” “measurable,” or “increasingly significant” in relation to how much of an effect file sharing (as a form of copyright violation) is having on their industries. This is just a trick of rhetoric – these qualifiers have no measurable or defined quantity. Just one person sharing a Britney Spears track with one other person is technically “measurable,” after all. I’ve used the more accurate statistically significant because statistics is math and can be quantified. I could even come up with the formula necessary to determine it, if I wasn’t lazy.

The Right to Read

I stumbled across this the other day – it’s a sort of story about the future, or what it might be like, if we continue to allow both large corporations and the government dictate what we do with the information we buy.

I came across it because I was reading about Amazon’s new e-book reader thing, the Kindle. At first glance, I love the idea. However, more than a few people have looked at the logical conclusion of things like this (and the atrocious licensing agreements that accompany them) and suffice to say, they aren’t happy.

The basic problem here is, as usual, DRM. (That’s supposedly for “digital rights management,” but a more accurate description would be “digital restrictions management.”)

Think about the problem like this: when you buy a book, you OWN it. You can read it, give it to others to read, and so forth. You can even sell it if you want to – or give it to a used book store to re-sell to others. Or donate it to a library and let them lend it to people. These are inherent rights that you have based on your ownership of a physical object.

However, with an e-book, you don’t have those rights. Or, more accurately, with an e-book protected by draconian DRM, you don’t have those rights. DRM is designed specifically to prevent you from sharing with others or re-selling to anyone else. And what’s worse is that if you should find a way around the DRM, you’re in violation of the DMCA – and the punishment for that is quite severe.

With DRM, you don’t own anything anymore. You’re effectively “leasing” or “renting” or “subscribing” to a service – the book – which can be revoked at any time based on the terms of the agreement. And just like renting, you can’t sub-let (sell to someone else) or let someone else use it instead of you (at least, not without the consent of the original owner – which, in case you missed it the first time, is not you).

This is not a good situation to be in as a consumer, and the story I linked to in the first paragraph illustrates one possible future, if you draw things out to their logical conclusion.

Now, I’m not saying that DRM isn’t necessary (in certain cases), or that leasing/renting digital media (be it music, videos, books, or even software) isn’t a valid option – but as usual, it’s all about context. And, of course, striking a balance between the needs/desires of content owners/creators (control the means of production, prevent reselling, squeeze as much money from consumers as possible) and consumers (who basically want everything for free).

In this case, of course, the market has spoken quite loudly and clearly – we’re just waiting for the market to listen. So far, it hasn’t.

People (consumers) clearly want to be able to use digital media in the same way that they used physical media – i.e. books, CDs, tapes, movies, etc.; which is to say, they want to be able to occasionally lend them to a friend (without penalty), re-sell them at any time, and use/play them in any machine of theirs that they want (in the car, at the summer house, on a plane, etc.).

Most DRM at the moment does not allow you to do any of the above. You can’t lend a product with DRM to a friend (it’s tied to your account), you can’t re-sell it (again, tied to your account), and you can’t use/play it in any machine of yours that you want (you might be allowed to do so a few times, but after you exceed some arbitrary limit, it locks you out of your own content).

If you think about this for a moment, it seems very odd that a company that has customers is so willing to ignore what they want – and would be willing to pay for – just to slap “DRM” on it to maximize future profits. You’d think they’d realize that their consumers just won’t put up with it – I mean, people know file sharing is wrong, and yet they do it all the time. Why? Because they want to do these things, but DRM doesn’t let them. So they find ways around it – and they are so adamant about these “rights” of theirs that they are willing to break the law to do so. So why do companies continue to do it? How, in a free market, can they survive while mis-treating their customers so?

More astute readers might at this point be forming the word “monopoly” in their minds, and that’s… part of the issue. The other part is simply apathy on the part of the consumer, and the fact that their is a lot of slick advertising out there making it seem like DRM is a feature that we (as consumers) should love so much that we demand it be included in everything we buy. It also doesn’t help that this whole arena of digital products (and the distinction between digital media and physical media, which many people don’t quite get) is rather new, and most people aren’t really up-to-speed on the ramifications of it.

Basically, there are 2 ways that things can work out from here. One way is outlined in “The Right to Read,” which is the story that got this whole post rolling in the first place. The other way is an outcry from consumes so loud that media (and I’m talking all media companies here, from music & movies to books, software, and services) have no choice but to make certain concessions and adapt – giving us the rights we obviously want, but still being able to make a buck.

I buy DRM-free songs from iTunes specifically because I don’t want to see us end up in the kind of society outlined in The Right to Read. And the more people who read this article, and understand what it means, the more they will be able to make informed choices in the future, and educate more people, until that wonderful “democracy” effect comes into play (through either government action or, preferably, the free market effect) and things change for the better.

I’ll keep my fingers crossed. In the meantime… spread the word, and try to live DRM-free.

Time flows like a river… and history repeats

It occurred to me recently that Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, and all those sorts of sites are just like GeoCities and Tripod were back in the early days of the web – in other words, filled with awful, horrible, ugly web pages that nobody wants to look at.

It occurred to me recently that Facebook, MySpace, Friendster, and all those sorts of sites are just like GeoCities and Tripod were back in the early days of the web – in other words, filled with awful, horrible, ugly web pages that nobody wants to look at.

Ah, progress.