Tuesday, 3 January 2012

General Computing in the Firing Line

After being bowled over by the talk by Cory Doctorow: ' The coming war on general computation', I wanted to help make the subject a bit more accessable for less technically minded readers. This is my summary take on his excellent talk.

Unendorsed summary of a speech by Cory Doctorow
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUEvRyemKSg) by Alan Cocks

Computers are everywhere. The world we live in now is made of computers, even when we do not realise it. We don't have cars any more, we have computers we ride in. We don't have airplanes any more, we have flying control systems with a big bunch of controller units. A radio is no longer a crystal, it's a general-purpose computer with some software.

Think of the radio for a minute. The entire basis for radio regulation up until today was based on the idea that the properties of a radio are fixed at the time of manufacture, and can't be easily altered. You can't just flip a switch on your wireless baby monitor, and turn it into something that interferes with air traffic control signals. But, powerful software-defined radios can change function from baby monitor to emergency services dispatcher, to air traffic controller, just by loading and running different software.

It is easy to understand why regulators might be nervous about you changing the firmware in your automatic 'self-driving' car, or them wanting to limit the operability for aviation controllers, or somehow limit the kind of thing you could do with the upcoming bio-nano-technology. Special printers, (perhaps 3D printers) and other devices (perhaps bio technology) which are available now, or are feasible for the future for DIY fun in your shed will soon spread around the world.

Just as easy digital copying using your PC has destabilised the gigantic media industry, forcing it however reluctantly, and largely without success, to seek a different business model, so it is likely that the PC power of your general purpose computer, running programs with the new printers or other future devices, will be likely to cause rumblings elsewhere.

Judging from the past and present behaviour of the media industry when they think their business is threatened, then in future the responses from rich well funded businesses to perceived (or real) threats to their business model, are likely to be similar, and along a well trodden path. This path leads to restrictions. Basically restrictions to personal freedom, usually, laws. If we are fortunate the laws are good ones and we see a sensible balance between our loss of freedom and the benefits to us as citizens.

The trouble comes when the responses, legislation whatever, are for some reason ineffective! For media - music, films, etc., surveys repeatedly show that the people downloading music and videos for free, flouting copyright, are the very same people who go and spend the MOST money on also buying music and videos! This is - at first - counter intuitive. However, it arises from the new behaviours of customers when new technology is used.

Yet, still the massive industry of the media has moved mountains to create restrictive laws and practices to try to prevent their best customers from doing what they obviously want to do, even when they also pay for content. Strangely enough though, the media industries are not getting more profitable.

The industry response to failure has been, not altogether unreasonably, albeit short sighted, to obtain yet more restrictions. Interestingly, stand up artist 'Louis CK' did an experiment. In December 2011 he put the video of his special show on the web for a low price purchase ($5), with no copy protection, no restrictions, and said so. You might expect that the DVD would get mercilessly copied free? Well, you would be correct. But it was so easy and low priced to buy the download, that Louis CK made one million dollars in just 12 days! Maybe there is something that can be learned from this?

So what we see over the years is increasingly restrictive practices and legislation, escalating in almost desperation, and at the same time still not being very effective in results. Unfortunately though, as the escalation proceeds, unintended consequences become more apparent.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and on the journey we will probably find both the bath water and baby too, by the roadside.

Modern computers are close to magical, and there are plenty of skilful wizards around in the world who can understand the magic, and enjoy it, use it, and make more magic too. Some of the kids in your street maybe? The point to be made here is that the genie, the mythical and independent spirit, is already out of the bottle, and that even if we tried, we would find it practically impossible to restrict what computers can do. However, this does not stop legislators etc., from trying, creating more and more restrictions, monitoring, whatever, in their apparently reasonable attempts to control the genie.

A story of similar magic can be had from the internet itself, rather than the computers which we use on it. The internet was designed to be almost indestructible, and is fairly robust. The world wide web (the web sites we use) was never designed with future restrictive practices in mind. It is difficult to create a method of restriction and control, say, of certain offensive web sites, or download facilities, which is more than half effective, without using a proverbial sledge hammer. In other words, without massive loss of freedom for the citizen.

Fast rewind, back to - today. In some countries, well meaning restrictive practices have been introduced against some internet content which causes offence. These restrictive practices often have legal backing, although some do not. However, they are all intended to remove content before you can see it, or to prevent you from seeing something, or from doing something. There are any number of possible reasons why someone might think it is a good idea to restrict your access to information or restrict your actions.

With conventional hard copy publishing, books are withdrawn, banned, burned etc., hopefully with due legal process from a trusted legislature. With the new 'online' technology, things are very different. It is no longer just one book with a few hundred copies. It is websites, too numerous to control. Too numerous for trusted legal processes. It is also key utilities such as file sharing, peer to peer torrenting for example, which are as general purpose as good kitchen knives, which come under the sledge hammer.

Like a sharp kitchen knife these facilities can be used for good or ill, but against modern technology, traditional methods of restriction and control cause large collateral damage. One consequence of the restrictions turning out to be less effective than desired, is an increasing willingness to impose yet more controls, to censor, monitor and eavesdrop, etc., and also to position new infrastructure to suit.

I use the term 'censor' because when a central authority causes selective information to be with held from its audience, censorship is what it is. This situation is not the same as being in a cinema, or inside a planning meeting at the BBC. Those are situations we have lived with and understand, and there are non-secret checks and balances too.

Something which imposes outside controls into your computer is commonly called 'spyware' or 'malware'. If a Company, or Government imposes this it might be called by a different name.

I wish I could offer good answers!

Unfortunately, however reasonable it may seem to introduce more and yet more restrictions - in how you may use your computer, or in how you are allowed to access or use the internet - it all moves in the direction of restriction - censorship - and lack of freedom.

I myself want to avoid seeing offensive websites. I do want deserving artists to be rewarded. I also do really want to live with freedom of access to information, even though the new technology which surrounds us has ephemeral brake pedals.

The technology is not amenable to centralised control. At least, not without massive loss of freedom. The bathwater may be distasteful but hopefully the world will find a way of keeping baby safe. 'Centralised control' has an Orwellian tone. Repressive regimes exist. What you consider to be 'oppressive' will depend on which regime you live in and who you are.

At the time of writing this summary, there is an energetic debate in the USA at least, about new legislation which intends to impose controls. When the technical practicability of the strategy was assessed, it was deemed to be quite practicable. In fact, the explicit reasons given were that this worked ok in the following countries: China, Russia, Iran, Egypt, Tunisia, Burma, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan.

All this is in the name of well meaning and good things - as seen by the various agencies of course. There are already in place, some restrictions in UK, Australia, Canada, Europe, with currently significant further movements in USA.

If you want the chance to be informed, perhaps even to influence the future of your world, then now is certainly a good time to get more curious!

Original event: 28c3: The coming war on general computation, Cory Doctorow

Original transcript by Joshua Wise of the event: https://github.com/jwise/28c3-doctorow/blob/master/transcript.md

creative commons licence cc-by non commercial

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