Communicating freely

Thoughts on how we can all talk a little easier, and how that can make life better.

DRM, ‘Trusted Computing’, and the future of our children

There is a war being fought over the future of digital technology and there is a serious reason for conflict. You see, computers allow people to copy things, and digital copies are always perfect. You can make as many copies as you want. In the past you would could buy a high quality version of something like a DVD. Only one person could use this DVD at a time. You could lend the DVD to another person and get it back a week later, but that meant you would not have it in the meantime. Copying, by necessity, was limited. But this has changed. With digital technology you can give a perfect digital copy of a movie to ten million people at zero cost, and still keep the original for yourself.

If people can share an infinite amount of digital products zero cost, there is no reason for people to pay for such products. This has the potential to turn the economic foundation of publishing on its head. Sharing information takes on a whole new meaning in the digital realm.

The traditional publishers want to prevent people using technology to copy things and are promoting a restrictive system called Digital Rights Management (DRM). These people believe that the Internet and the PC are a threat to the economic foundation of publishing media. They believe that if they don’t find a way to regulate how people use computers, their revenue streams will cease to exist. They say that they need to be able to prevent the copying of copyrighted work.

Other groups of people insist that sharing is important, and rejects DRM because it means allowing private companies to have control over personal computers. These people believe that networked and free communication is empowering the disenfranchised. They believe that people will pay for things legitimately most of the time and that the traditional publishers want to encroach on an area of personal freedom that goes against both the precedent of law and of copyright history. They say that people have always had the choice to obey or disobey copyright law and the onus is on the publisher to prove breaches of copyright.

Microsoft, Intel, Apple and the entire music and movie industry of the USA stand on one side and thousands of programmers, technology organisations and academics on the other. Both sides have something important to say, and both sides are refusing to listen to the other.

Over 500 million people use the Internet, and over a billion computers are in use around the world. It has become impossible to ignore the issue of content management and access. Call it Digital Rights Management (DRM), if you will, or call it working out how to manage copying in the digital realm. We need to solve the problem of how digital information will be shared and equally importantly, we need to set open and wide reaching standards. It has been more than ten years since computers and the Internet really started to take off, and there is still no coherent approach to restricted (or unrestricted) information sharing. This is a serious problem.

Let’s have a look at the history.

In 1994 there was a new buzzword in computer magazines. It was “multimedia.” Users were told a revolution was coming.  We would have pictures, video and sound on every desktop. Microsoft heralded this revolution with the introduction of their advanced new operating system called Windows 95, IBM pointed out that they already had a great 32bit system that could do multimedia with OS/2 and Apple cheerfully reminded everyone that they had a multimedia machine in deployment since the mid-eighties.

By 1995 the Internet was beginning to take off. Modems were falling to price levels that made sense and more websites started to appear. By 1996 the tech crowd were pretty advanced, and by 1997 the web was finally entering the lives of everyone. Companies like appeared, and everything changed.

No one expected the Internet to become so big so quickly. No one could have predicted the extent to which digital technology would enter the fabric of everyday life, especially in the economic sphere. Far from proving to be an extension of the existing market space, the digital world became an economy in its own right. Computers became an inescapable and essential part of everyday life. Costs plummeted and power soared. Multimedia changed from being a novelty to being a normal product.

By around 1998 there were millions of people with the ability to view and share many different forms of digital content. The only major problem was a lack of content to actually share. DVDs were too big to squeeze down modem lines, and music files were still substantial in size. Pictures were about the only thing that most people could share.

Technology advanced. Real Networks developed a good way to make small sound files with high quality, and then MP3 appeared and gave everyone the ability to share as much music as they wanted. Even over a modem it was possible to download an entire album in a couple of hours. File sharing networks appeared, and new social networking groups formed around them. Napster created software that literally allowed anyone to find the music they liked, and download it with one click.

A floodgate of community sharing was opened. New networks appeared, new methodologies were introduced, but the essential idea remained the same: create a simple network that allowed lots of people to share lots of files. This innovation apparently caught the publishing industry completely by surprise. No major publishing house had invested in the development of a commercial digital distribution network, and the first one to appear with a usable interface was Apple’s iTunes in 2001. It is ironic that when millions of people wanted to share information, the only way they could do so easily was through free file sharing networks.

By the time the music, movie and text publishing industry began to actively engage with the emerging technology, file sharing was already an accepted method of providing multimedia information. It might have been a free method, and it might have been a method that largely ignored copyright, but file sharing was the method that most people used to get most of their files. Millions of people shared billions of files. Even today file sharing accounts for over 60% of the traffic on the Internet. A significant amount of this traffic is illegitimate.

Technology allows sharing. People are sharing files. These files included copyrighted music, films, books and software. Companies say revenue is being lost because of file sharing, and that something needs to be done. The question is “what needs to be done?”

Should governments stop people sharing? They already do. It’s called copyright law. According to this, only the original creator of a work has the right to determine who makes a copy of this work, and what is done with the copy. This law is applicable to books that you can hold, and books on your computer. It applies to music, movies and software. But companies say that this law is not enough. Because of the power of technology, and the ability of the user to share copies so easily and so extensively, companies say that stronger measures are required to protect their copyrighted material.

This is where we get DRM.  Digital Rights Management is about restricting how and when people can use copyrighted files. It may restrict how many times you can play something. It may restrict your ability to share something. It may restrict the method you employ to consume something. It is about allowing companies to determine how the end user will experience the copyrighted material that the end user purchased.

The biggest buzzword in DRM right now is ‘Trusted Computing’. This is about creating a way for companies to trust your computer with their copyrighted material (rather than anything to do with consumers trusting their computers). For several years Intel have been included a ‘Trusted Computing’ encryption chip on motherboards, and when Windows Vista is released it will support this framework. For the first time there will be a very solid and secure way for a publisher to determine if your machine has the right to play their copyrighted material. When you try to play a movie, it will check with their server to see if your Trusted Computer has the correct permissions. If you attempt to run an illegitimate file, your computer will refuse. No matter what you do, a chip on your motherboard will refuse to cooperate.

This is a very strange approach to copyright enforcement. It means that when you buy a copyrighted file, you don’t actually have the permission to use it. Your computer has the permission. The file won’t work on another computer, or your mobile phone, or your PDA, or your heavily modified XBOX. It’s a bit like selling a person a book, but designing it so that people cannot read it in the bath (or in the garden or in the kitchen). Instead of finding a way to stop the end user giving illegitimate copies of a work to other people, this type of DRM is about controlling the right to copy work for any purpose, and in the process it determines the end user consumption method and options as well.

Objections abound. That’s where all the thousands of programmers, technology organisations and academics come in. They are saying that ‘Trusted Computing’ and the entire methodological approach currently being suggested by industry heavyweights is a grossly unfair attempt to extend copyright law. The proposed DRM system would control every aspect of a person’s private digital life. This is unprecedented. There has never been an occasion when producers could control how people use their possessions.

There are so many voices. Some people say industries will collapse if we don’t have DRM. Some people say industries are too greedy and asking for too much. Some people say sharing data will help advanceand promote culture. Some people say that finally we are getting a world where everyone can have access to everything that is beautiful, useful or interesting. There is a cacophony of comment.  Ideas are swirling around and mixing together. The result is  an enormous and confusing mess.

The truth is that we are in an unusual situation. A completely new technology has appeared and this technology makes obsolete previously established technologies and the industries associated with them. Music is better digitally, and suddenly CDs and tapes and records belong to yesteryear. Films are the same. Purely digital copies on purely digital media are simply more flexible, useful and effective than those tied to traditional media. Books, magazines and newspapers are in the same boat. People with a lot of money and influence are feeling threatened, but their perception of the problem is perhaps too selfish to allow for a true understanding of what’s happening.

The network for communicating certain media has shifted because of the introduction of revolutionary technology. The paradigm of media consumption has changed, and we are lacking a new discourse to explain it. Our copyright laws and processes, our market definitions and our consumer expectations were designed before this technology was conceived. To make matters worse, a formal approach to understanding the new paradigm has been effectively impossible due to the rapid changes and evolution of digital desktops and the Internet. Thus instead of a sustained worldwide academic understanding of the emerging new digital world, we have ended up with a discourse primarily conducted by interest groups, while the slower moving world of journals and research has lagged behind. The danger is that instead of seeking and finding an understanding of these new technologies, end users will find themselves permanently disenfranchised by those who wish to profit or control the digital sphere. This situation is not helped by the level of confusion that has been created and sustained on personal, governmental and international levels.

Even the legal process has become a problem regarding the issue of DRM and intellectual property. On one hand laws are meant to protect people and companies, and on the other hand law is a restrictive influence. In countries like the USA, the law regarding the new communicative paradigms has been abused to provide virtual monopolies over the ideas needed to utilise technology. Wide-ranging patents have been granted on abstract ideas. Purchases are being removed from ownership (you don’t own the software you buy, you just license it). Copyright infringement is being pushed from a civil infringement to a criminal action.

Fear abounds. Fear breeds compliance. Compliance breeds acceptance. Acceptance means control.  The companies who create DRM in the form of ‘Trusted Computing’ (Intel, Microsoft, Apple), and the companies that own the content (EMI, Sony), will  control the digital revolution.  Imagine a world where our computers actually belong to these multinationals. It is an unappealing thought.

Worse still, governments will be disenfranchised along with citizens. Networks will be needed, but not controlled by the nations that host them and the content will be monitored by proxy, with companies working for private shareholders. That’s not just an unappealing thought. It’s untenable.

We are back to the question of “what needs to be done?” It’s a tough one. DRM is not really about making sure you don’t steal music. DRM is about attempting to create a completely new way of controlling how people use information and in doing so it is about attempting to force corporate control into what was previously a very private sphere. This is the solution that companies wish to impose.  It is not necessarily the solution your grandchildren will be glad you accepted.

We need to carefully examine how digital technology and the Internet has changed the way that people consume different types of media. We need to examine how current copyright law controls access and sharing across different nations. We need a long consultation process to discuss how we could form international standards of maintaining copyright in a reasonable way without infringing on the rights of end users or content producers. In short, we need to produce a new discourse to explore this paradigm, and we need to do so from first principles.

That is going to be a long and difficult process and to be successful, we’re all going to have to talk to each other. We’re going to have to share all our problems, concerns and aspirations. Businesses, legal experts, users, governments and technologists will have to work together to find a new way to approach publishing, information access and information control. No one group can be allowed to hijack this consultation process. Democracy demands nothing less and rightly so. The generations of the future will suffer or benefit from the end result of the legislation we are now just beginning to develop.