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.

Who do you trust?

It’s very hard to decide what is true and what is false when you don’t trust anyone’s sources.

I’ve been involved in some crazy arguments/discussions in the past. Things like 9/11 conspiracy theories, that whole “the moon landing was faked” thing, along with lots of others.

I love using logic to solve an argument, but there’s a fundamental weakness that eventually destroys any hope of stamping out crazy theories, and that weakness is trust.

As an example, I’m going to use the “moon landing was faked” argument, because I saw it come up in a discussion on Slashdot recently.

The problem, as I watched both sided argue, was one of who do you trust. The side that believed the moon landing was faked didn’t trust anyone – they didn’t trust NASA, the US Government, or any government for that matter. You could try to argue back with them about any number of things – my favorite is the laser range finding reflectors that Apollo astronauts left on the moon, which can be verified fairly easily – and they’ll just disbelieve you. They don’t trust anything. If you say “astronomers have verified the reflectors,” they’ll just say something like “the government paid them to say that” or “the government sent up a second rocket with only a robot to put the reflectors there; men have never been on the moon, only robots.” If you counter with “well, someone would have noticed a second Saturn V rocket being shot towards the moon,” they’ll just come back again and say “the CIA covered it up” or “the Russians didn’t have deep-space tracking capability.” No matter what you do, they will either disbelieve what you present as facts (claiming that they don’t “trust” your source), or they’ll vaguely link your argument back to something that they don’t trust (the government, the CIA, the Russians, etc.).

Now, in the context of the moon landing, this might not seem like such a huge deal – I mean, so what, right? So there are a few nuts out there that don’t believe that man has walked on the moon. So what?

Well, the problem isn’t that there are people who don’t believe in the moon landing, the problem is that this same sort of phenomenon crops up in more modern, more pressing issues today. Just look at the arguments regarding global warming. The whole thing is one big mess, because nobody trusts anyone. People don’t trust politicians, politicians don’t trust scientists, and the whole thing is just a big mess of the child-like game of “uh-huh!” and “nuh-uh!”

And in case that wasn’t enough, we can take a look at the other side of the coin.

I’ve talked a lot about our government’s attempts to grab more power and reduce individual rights and privacy, and why these are bad things. Recently, a report came out that illustrates this problem rather succinctly:

Government Employee Uses DHS Database to Track Ex-Girlfriend

“According to the indictment, Robinson, began a relationship with an unidentified woman in 2002 that ended acrimoniously seven months later. After the breakup, federal authorities allege Robinson accessed a government database known as the TECS (Treasury Enforcement Communications System) at least 163 times to track the travel patterns of the woman and her family.”

As Bruce Schneier points out (and this has been pointed out by many people, over and over again):

“When you build a surveillance system, you invite trusted insiders to abuse that system.”

There’s that word trust again.

People get all up in a fuss over government surveillance, national ID cards, and so forth not because they don’t see the benefits of the system, but because they don’t trust the government to only use the system for its stated purpose.

If you’ve read around my site, you might have found that the fictional “Federation” that I use in my stories has a surveillance system that would make Big Brother proud – it tracks just about everything. Why is it that I write about a civilization with so much surveillance, but then seem to opposed to surveillance from our own government? The answer, of course, is trust.

In my fictional world, surveillance is entirely handled by a self-aware computer system that is totally obedient to the laws, and has elaborate, well-tested, well-thought-out, and robust security systems in place to ensure that private information remains private. My fictional government might seem 1984-ish at first glance, but a closer inspection reveals elaborate privacy controls and systems – including things like warrants, probable cause, and so forth – all to prevent abuse. I put these things in my fictional world precisely because I know that they are needed. I know that no matter how good your intentions are, someone will mis-use a system. And it is precisely because I have never seen such precautions proposed for any system build here in our real world today that I stand so strongly opposed to their implementation. Until there are privacy controls and systems that I trust completely, I will continue to oppose such systems.

So there you have it – the problems of trust.

There are no clear-cut answers for how to solve this problem, although I can think of a few simple things to get us all started. Firstly, we need openness and transparency in our government. Only when we can see exactly what’s going on inside can we begin to rebuild the trust that our government has lost. Politicians need to stop lying – or weaseling out of things, anyway. Truth, honesty, and honor (no more scapegoats) will go a long way towards restoring trust.

After all, I’d hate to see the kind of world where there is no trust anymore – the kind of world where everyone thinks the moon landings were faked.

I’m sure you can think of a few more ways to help – feel free to share them. Although, don’t just share them with me – share them with your friends, your family, your co-workers. Write to your representatives, at both the local, state, and Federal level.

But only if you trust me. 😉