Issue #16 February 2006

A very long talk with Cory Doctorow, part 2

by Bascha Harris

Is it the business model that is going to be the one that determines whether or not the network is ultimately a tool for liberation or a tool for control?

When we last left our hero, he was decrying existing copyright law. The resulting destruction of creative work as it passes into obscurity without reproduction is simply unacceptable. In an age of decreasing interest in the printed word (combined with the rapid advancement of ways to publish it), digital distribution is a riddle to be solved--and fast.

Doctorow's choice is currently the Creative Commons Developing Nations License. Earlier works were released under a more general version of the license (attribution, no derivative, non-commercial). The Developing Nations version is similar in basic structure, but includes clauses that allow users in developing nations even greater liberties.

"If you live in a country that isn't on the World Bank list of financial countries, you can make copies and you can make journalistic work. You can make films. You can make translations. You can do whatever it is you feel like doing."

"There were a couple of reasons I did it. [These countries] are in deep trouble largely because their wealth has been systematically removed and exported to the developed world."

"If there's someone who has the opportunity to make some money by printing one of my books and distributing it locally, why the hell not? It's not as though the money available to me for the Nigerian rights to my books is a sum that I'm ever going to miss. Once you calculate the cost of my agent going to Frankfurt to the book fair, meeting someone from a Nigerian publisher, doing the deal, taking his 15%, sending me the check, the bank taking their piece of it and so on, I'll be lucky if I see a couple hundred bucks. And honestly I would much rather that people read my stuff than that I get the $200 from some Nigerian publisher. But there is also, I think, a good, solid economic reason to do it and that is that some of these countries might just successfully industrialize and if they do, they will have to start paying for licenses."

Broadcast Flag and DRM: Corey goes to the UN

Doctorow is certainly familiar with nations--developing and otherwise. In his previous position directing European Affairs for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), he spent time at the UN dealing with international property issues. The first assignment of his four-year stint was fighting the FCC's Broadcast Flag mandate, a proposal that would have required Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies in all digital television tuners.

The EFF believed this could eventually make homegrown recorders and storage devices illegal and unfairly restrict hardware choices to DRM-embedded devices--devices that could not be tampered with by their owners. (Brings to mind certain analogies about a rogue OS, a bottle of ketchup, and a hood welded shut.)

The US Court of Appeals agreed that Broadcast Flag was too restrictive. It was repealed in May of 2005.

After its defeat, Doctorow continues to work against the insidious methodology behind its madness. DRM was the technological advancement that made Broadcast Flag legislation possible; it isn't going to go away. Can it be used for good as well as evil? Doctorow believes that the outcome depends on the system. Will it be based on voluntary participation, required participation, or participation only on the assurance that you will not disrupt other vendors' business models?

"Is it the business model that is going to be the one that determines whether or not the network is ultimately a tool for liberation or a tool for control?"

DRM will likely be the focus of his talk at this year's Summit.

"I expect that one thing that I'm going to try and get people's heads around is what DRM means. [It] isn't just about what you can and can't do with media, because I think that we start with the assumption that there [are] legitimate instances in which someone might want to technologically enforce rules about what you can and can't do ... From there we kind of blindly follow that to a conclusion around technological countermeasures, technological protection measures, without spending a lot of time wondering about what the impact on business and free speech and due process will be."

When it comes to blind technologists, Doctorow isn't afraid to name names. Microsoft, of course, is a usual suspect. But designer's darling Apple also comes under fire.

"What we never ask is, 'Is it bad for Apple to get us locked into a technological platform that we can't get out of unless we want to abandon our investment in hardware, software, media, and metadata that originate with it?' If you spend five years of your life organizing your music collection on iTunes, not only can you not get your music out of iTunes, you can't get the organization out of iTunes either."

Even the movie industry is guilty. The British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) sent out screeners for their annual awards encoded with DRM. The format required special hardware, and viewings were interrupted with frequent warnings about piracy.

"One of the emails that I got when I was blogging about this was from someone who is on the BAFTA jury who said, 'Well, every year I get twice as many screeners as I can conceivably hope to watch, and this year it was really easy to decide which half I was going to watch. I was going to watch the half that didn't require me to hook up another device to my television.'"

DRM isn't limited to these examples. Napster uses DRM for its unlimited service; Xbox and Xbox 360, as well as several film studios, use DRM to restrict region and prevent unauthorized copying.

The argument against DRM isn't waged solely on philosophical grounds. The programs and hardware that make up DRM technology can conflict with users' native networks or systems, causing data loss or other damage. The information transfer afforded by some forms can make user information vulnerable or collect data the user would prefer not to share.

Rampant data collection spawns civil disobedience

Other forms of specious fact-gathering are also under fire from the EFF--and Doctorow. Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags store and share information with local transmitters. Some are self-powered, while others are simply inert chips with antennas that can be contacted by a local network. The network appliances can read the chip's current data or add new data to its stream.

Though the defenders of this technology claim that cards should be readable only when scanned or within a limited area, Doctorow confirmed their range could be much greater than advertised.

"At the various hacker conferences [in] Las Vegas last year--there's two of them in a row, Defcon and Blackhat--someone demonstrated reading these things at about 60 feet, and that was passively. Actively, you could read them a lot further than that. So even though these things are rated for two or three inches ... they have the potential to be read a lot further and carry a very large risk to privacy.

Privacy is not only violated through off-use scanning, but also through information aggregation. Could it be one day be possible to identify a person by the collection of objects that they carry? Doctorow believes it could be done.

"So I might be one of several people wearing Levi's jeans, but I'm probably the only one wearing Levi's jeans and my bohemian leather shoulder bag or whatever, right? And all of these things collectively add up to a unique identifier that can be tracked through time and space."

As RFIDs multiply and systems tracking their data consolidate (and if technology improves to process this staggering amount of data), what is known about any individual could get very specific. For now, there is only limited use: RFIDs in passports, London's tube cards, ski lifts, and grocery stores. (And the odd RFID in people.)

How adamant is Doctorow that their data-collection methods are not benign?

He cooks his tube card once a week to obscure his own data trail.

"They charge you to replace your tube card if you lose it, but they don't charge you if it's stopped working. So every seven days--because I buy one-week tube cards--I microwave my tube card and then I bring it to the station and I say, "My tube card stopped working," and they give me a new one. Since I pay cash for them, there's no way to connect the two. The result is [that] they only get seven days of data from me and no persistent data stream."

A minor infraction, to be sure. But other RFIDs can't be so easily eluded.

"If you have an EZ pass or a toll pass and you're in California, chances are that the California Highway Patrol is actually reading your toll pass--not just at toll booths, but on random stretches of highway without your knowledge and without your ability to stop it. They're just keeping track of who's going where on the freeway."

Despite the discomfort Doctorow and others feel at being counted and tracked, some customers do desire the customized experience, and some organizations are genuinely interested only in providing better services. And people are quite willing to fork over information in exchange for better prices, special sales, speedier or more convenient transactions. Whether it's automating payment with a transfer or registering to win the Publisher's Clearing House, people do it. In droves.

RFIDs are necessary technology: Microchipping a pet in case it is lost. Tracking the vital signs of someone who is sick. And neutral convenience functions, like opening the garage door or turning off and on appliances and lights.

Recognizing that, Doctorow agrees that the solution is not to ban the technology outright--but to ensure that individuals can chose when, how, and where they are being watched.

"[Legislation could] require mechanisms for a user to control when their RFID is being read or be notified when an RFID is being read ... I think as the owner of that device, it should be your choice whether or not you choose to disclose the fact that you're driving down Freeway 101 at a certain time at a certain speed. You should be able to tell your pass not to disclose that kind of information."

In Doctorow's fiction, freedom-encroaching devices run rampant. Human beings are data--an ensouled hard drive. Implanted counters track Slashdot-like karmic currency. Is this the future of mankind? Not if he can help it.

"I think that in order to be a technology activist, you have to be an optimist and a pessimist. You have to be an optimist in that you believe that technology can be a tool for genuine liberation ... and positive social change and for democracy. [That] it's not pre-ordained and that it could go wrong and that when it goes wrong it could be really terrible. So you can't be a fatalist and believe that the future of the world is pre-ordained, that technology will necessarily make us into better people. You have to rather devote your energy to seeing to it that those positive outcomes from technology come to being."


About the author

Bascha Harris is the managing editor of Red Hat Magazine. When not grilling interweb celebrities, she can be found be found playing video games, knitting, or staring at something shiny. She would like to thank Cory Doctorow for being such a good sport during this exceptionally long interview.