On July 17, 2009, Amazon remotely deleted Orwell’s classic 1984 from the personal kindle ereader devices of purchasers after discovering that the publisher lacked rights to publish the book. Truly an Orwellian moment.
Yesterday, at his 28c3 talk Cory Doctorow imagined a future where copying is easy, where everyone has tiny portable storage devices capable of storing the entire history of recorded and text media, and transferring it to other such devices in fractions of a second.
Yet, this future assumes that we are allowed to have such devices, as opposed to remotely manageable devices like that that Amazon is engineering, where the data you store locally is accessible and deletable remotely, or highly locked-down thin-client devices where you data is stored “in the cloud” and subject to control, including rights management, by storage providers working in cosy relationships with rights holders.
Cory’s talk was titled “The Coming War on General Computing.” driven by market forces and the interests of law enforcement, general purpose computers and general purpose networks will give way to specialized “appliances” and crippled networks, both designed to enable approved uses, but disable uses disapproved of by corporate interests and government policy makers.
Doctorow lampooned the instincts of law enforcement to cripple the Internet in order to prevent crime by comparing it to banning wheels because bank robbers use wheels on their get-away cars. Since a car, either operated by a bank robber or a anybody else, can’t drive without wheels, banning wheels to prevent bank robberies prevents a car from doing what it is meant to do. Because a car is a specialized device, meant for driving, it is useless if it can’t drive, thus legislators would never consider such measures.
Yet, a computer is a general purpose device, not being able to use bitTorrent or Tor doesn’t mean that you can’t play computer games or visit the cheezburger network. Thus, legislators don’t perceive passing laws that limit certain usage makes the computer useless, just as having less features. Cory gave the example of the banning the hands-free telephone feature from cars, which would not make them useless as cars, since they could still drive, just with one less feature. Since legislators don’t generally understand how computers work, passing laws aimed to eliminate child pornography or piracy seems to them to be more like banning a feature, like the hands-free telephone, than banning a critical component, like the wheel.
Yet, in order to prevent computers from running certain software, or from allowing software to perform certain operations something much more invasive than removing a feature must be done. Cory points out that a crippled appliance made to do only certain approved things is not a specialized computer with certain features removed, but a fully functional general purpose computer who’s user is prevented from using it in certain ways by software, akin to root-kits and spyware, that is designed to lock the user out and prevent certain operations from being possible.
In some ways, this is even worse that removing the wheels, it’s hand-cuffing the driver.
In Cory’s view, this is largely ineffective since such attempts to cripple general purpose devices is often easily circumventable, so legislatures pass legislation making such circumvention illegal.
Doctorow praises the efforts of groups like our close friends, La Quadrature du Net, that fight against freedom denying legislation, and issues a call to arms in the coming war against general computing.
“La Quadrature du Net” means “Squaring of the Net” a play on the old “Squaring the Circle,” an impossible problem that obsessed ancient geometers. The war on general computing and general networking is boxing up the net.
Cory is probably right that many of the legislators who pass laws that try to square the net don’t fully understand how networks or computers work, or the implications of how enforcing such laws necessities violating the privacy and autonomy of all users of computers and networks. It would be mistaken to conclude that such laws are passed in ignorance.
It is not ignorance, nor even genuinely the needs of law enforcement that is driving the war against general computing and a general network. It’s too simple to understand this war as simply tyrannical law enforcers and paranoid music execs duping clueless legislatures into locking-down cyberspace to save Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. Rather this war is simply a consequence of the fact that our technology industry is funded by finance capital, and finance capital requires profit as a return.
As such, the industry requires the control of user interaction and data in order to make profit. If capitalist funded firms can’t control the way people use computers they can’t make money from them, and thus they wont fund the development of software, networks or devices that do not provide such control. And without capitalist funding, no alternatives can be built on any significant scale.
The implications of this is that while we should certainly support La Quadrature and other groups fighting for our online freedoms and the freedom to use our personal computers as well like, we need to understand that our fight is much deeper than convincing some misguided legislators, our fight is against Capitalism.
We can’t realistically demand that freedom enabling computers, software and networks be funded by rent-seeking capitalists, we must find alternatives to finance capital. Otherwise, rather than progressing towards Doctorow’s utopia of instant and unlimited copying, we will get the Orwellian Amazon.com distopia of asymmetric, filtered and monitored networks, cloud storage and locked-down and crippled thin clients.
In order to stop the net from being squared, we need change the way we produce and share.