Noted science fiction author and Boing Boing curator Cory Doctorow delivered an important speech last month in London, explaining why attempts by copyright owners to lock down computers and web sites inevitably lead to surveillance and censorship, and how the copyright battles presage bigger fights to come over the very future of general-purpose computers. It’s fascinating and convincing – a must-read for anyone interested in the policy arguments about copyrights, Internet freedom, and how poor decisions now might affect us later. It’s been posted as an article here and deserves to be read and discussed and shared.
We don’t know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of running any program except for some programs that we don’t like, are prohibited by law, or which loses us money. The closest approximation that we have to this is a computer with spyware: a computer on which remote parties set policies without the computer user’s knowledge, or over the objection of the computer’s owner. Digital rights management always converges on malware.
In one famous incident—a gift to people who share this hypothesis—Sony loaded covert rootkit installers on 6 million audio CDs, which secretly executed programs that watched for attempts to read the sound files on CDs and terminated them. It also hid the rootkit’s existence by causing the computer operating system’s kernel to lie about which processes were running, and which files were present on the drive.
. . . It may seem like SOPA, the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act, is the endgame in a long fight over copyright and the Internet, and it may seem that if we defeat SOPA, we’ll be well on our way to securing the freedom of PCs and networks. But as I said at the beginning of this talk, this isn’t about copyright.
The copyright wars are just the beta version of a long coming war on computation. The entertainment industry is just the first belligerents to take up arms, and we tend to think of them as particularly successful. After all, here is SOPA, trembling on the verge of passage, ready to break the Internet on a fundamental level— all in the name of preserving Top 40 music, reality TV shows, and Ashton Kutcher movies.
But the reality is that copyright legislation gets as far as it does precisely because it’s not taken seriously by politicians.
. . . Why might other sectors come to nurse grudges against computers in the way the entertainment business already has? The world we live in today is made of computers. We don’t have cars anymore; we have computers we ride in. We don’t have airplanes anymore; we have flying Solaris boxes attached to bucketfuls of industrial control systems. A 3D printer is not a device, it’s a peripheral, and it only works connected to a computer. A radio is no longer a crystal: it’s a general-purpose computer, running software. The grievances that arise from unauthorized copies of Snooki’s Confessions of a Guidette are trivial when compared to the calls-to-action that our computer-embroidered reality will soon create.