The Sleeping Policeman: DRM is not harmless

doctorow_cory_republica_2013The title of Cory Doctorow’s recent talk at the re:publica conference in Berlin, “It’s not a fax machine connected to a waffle iron,” is a phrase I heard him use at an event for his recent book, Homeland (the follow-up to Little Brother) at the Harvard Bookstore in March. Indeed, the two talks shared a theme as well as some overlapping material, but I believe it’s worth writing about again. (I’ve provided the approximate times of the video for quotes, if you want to jump right to that section of the talk.)

Doctorow explained digital rights management (DRM) in simple terms, then said, “From the beginning it was a fool’s errand. This is a break once, break everywhere exercise in futility that can’t prevent copying” (~10min30sec). Those who create DRM know that it doesn’t stop copying, but that it’s a speed bump (“sleeping policeman,” in Britain). However, “the speed bump is between the people who want to do the right thing and their enjoyment of the media….The speed bump is only there if you’re doing the right thing” (~11min/~12min). DRM will be broken by those who are tech-savvy, and will frustrate users who aren’t, even when they’re trying to use the product they purchased in an “approved” way.

Doctorow continued, “It’s impossible to talk about technology questions without examining and weighing legal code at the same time as we consider software code” (~14min). The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), established in 1967, “made it illegal to reverse engineer or interoperate with any technology that had any DRM in it” (15min30sec). This has had the chilling effect of reducing innovation; products are designed to be resistant to user modification (this is called “robustness”). Therefore, “digital rights management effectively bans free and open-source software” (~18min40sec).

“Why does it matter if you can’t interoperate with a system?” Doctorow asked rhetorically. One answer is, because it kills innovation (~19m). Take DVDs and DVD players, for example: “DVDs have been out since 1996. And not one feature has been added to them since 1996….You are legally allowed to watch your DVDs. Period….And that is what you get when you add DRM to any technology” (~21min30sec/~23min).

But interoperability “is only the first-order casualty of DRM.” The most dire consequence of DRM is (the loss of) transparency (~23min20sec). Devices come pre-loaded with “anti-features” that instead of saying “yes, Master,” say “I can’t let you do that, Dave” (~23min45sec). Lest we find these anti-features on our devices and simply put them in the trash, they are hidden from us:  they are “designed to lie to you” (~25min).

And that, Doctorow said, is the true cost of DRM. “When you add DRM to a system, you create a legal requirement for opacity, and an injunction against reporting weak security….Computers have the power to liberate us or to enslave us. When computers don’t tell us what they’re doing, they expose us to horrible risks. And when the law prohibits third parties from finding out what our computers are doing, and telling us about it, those risks are magnified” (~28min/29min30sec).

Computers, Doctorow pointed out, are ubiquitous. He gestured to the audience, “Everything in this room has a wireless interface. You are basically in a microwave oven now” (~33min40sec). And he warned against complacency: “We [the tech-savvy] can break DRM, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless” (~36min15sec). DRM and other ways that our technology is designed to work against us instead of for us have serious consequences. “People who believed that computers and networks could solve problems also saw that they had the potential for terrible oppression” (~37min). The internet is “the nervous system of the 21st century, where everything we do today involves the internet and everything we do tomorrow will require it” (~39min20sec). “We can build a network that is part of our freedom or part of our oppression….I want a free and fair world….There is no way to fight oppression without free devices and free networks” (~45min30sec/~44min20sec).

Quotes from the Q&A

The first person referred to the story Doctorow had mentioned about Barnaby Jack’s identification of a security flaw in implanted defibrillators: “I wouldn’t want to attach my heart to the internet.”

In response to another question, Doctorow made an analogy between the regulation of drinking water in London and the regulation of computer networks: “It should always be legal to blow the whistle. It should always be legal to know things about your water….We should regulate water with the gravitas of something that is literally life or death, not just for us, but for everybody in the world whose  destinies we’re intermingled with. And this is true of networks and computers…” (~54min30sec)

Another question concerned the youngest generation, and how they might contribute. Doctorow said, “I really firmly believe that a sense of agency, control, and the right to tinker is at the core of raising a generation that will not allow their computers to become tools of oppression” (~58min30sec). He mentioned two tools that allow kids to create rather than consume: Popcorn, a video remixing tool from Mozilla, and Scratch, a simple programming language from the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the MIT Media Lab. (Of course, once you’ve created content, you have to be aware of how and where you’re sharing it; if you’re using a platform such as facebook or tumblr, what are their terms of agreement? And around we go again.)

Watch Cory’s talk here, or by clicking on the image at the top of this post.

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One thought on “The Sleeping Policeman: DRM is not harmless

  1. Pingback: Coding in libraries | Jenny Arch

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