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  • DRM and rights in a digital world

    Published August 14, 2013 · Estimated reading time: 6 minutes · 2 responses so far
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    A couple of days ago I was listening to an older edition of Science Weekly, particularly a lecture by Cory Doctorow. I found the lecture to be a truly thought-provoking look at digitization of the world and its implications. Doctorow’s focus was on DRM (Digital Rights Management) in the narrow scope, but broadly dealt with our rights and freedoms in an increasingly digital world. He made a lot of interesting points, I’d like to go over some parts of the lecture which I found very interesting.

    When it came to DRM, I have to be frank– I never really understood the controversy in some technology quarters. It always made sense to me that any company or artist worth their salt would try to do their best to prevent, or at least discourage, pirating. However, Doctorow framed the issue from a completely different perspective, and related DRM to the broader issues of a person’s rights and freedoms to control their life in the digital world. At the beginning of the lecture Doctorow began by describe our world as a digital one, where everything we do and everything we are is encased in a computer.

    “We have computers on our desks, and we have computers in our pockets. We have computers we insert in our bodies, and we have computers into which we insert our bodies. And they have the power to liberate us, or enslave us. When computers don’t tell us what they’re doing, they expose us to horrible risks.”

    As a lay person, I’d wondered what was the worst that could happen: You can’t copy that DVD or game you bought? An inconvenience for sure, but not a full-scale tragedy. Doctorow gave several examples of the risks and some real-life worst-case scenarios. One particularly compelling example was the Sony BMG copy protection rootkit scandal in which Sony essentially installed two pieces of software via their CDs to prevent copying by interfering with the operating system interface. The programs were designed to not be detected by the computer at all, and prevent recognition of software with a certain extension (rootkits). Now, of course, this was very quickly exploited by virus-developers etc. to help install other nefarious programs. The popular narrative often places the blame on the virus-makers, blackhat hackers, etc. But Doctorow’s metaphor provided a wonderful counterpoint to this: the viruses, trojans etc. were like opportunistic infections taking advantage a gaping open wound. A wound caused by Sony effectively committing a covert assault on the digital extension of millions of individuals, all in order to enforce their DRM.

    According to Doctorow, there have been other examples of this kind of behaviour. He described a scandal involving seven companies involved in hire purchase laptop business. Providing these laptops on installment plans, the companies felt they needed to reduce risk of loss. Hence they essentially began monitoring users, interacting with their webcams etc. all under the guide of ensuring their property would not be lost, without any outward indication that the computer was being monitored. After a legal battle, the companies were told by the government that they could continue to “monitor”, so long as their users consented to it. That is, as long as it was in the fine print.

    “[Consumer Union] reckoned that it would take 27 hours a day to review all the user agreements that you interact with in a day… and they all come down to the same thing, by being dumb enough to be a customer of this firm, you agree that they’re allowed to come over to your house and punch you in the mouth… so none of us read them… before you click the agree button, one thing you’re sure of, is you don’t agree.”

    The comedian Eddie Izzard actually has a fantastic bit on terms and conditions which I think would be quite fitting here.

    “They’ve made us liars… No one has read the terms and conditions. No one in the world. No one. Even the lawyers who wrote it wrote it like this. It could say anything in there.”


    Indeed when it comes to terms and conditions the user who makes the choice not to read the contract or skim over the contract is to blame. Right? But does reading the fine print even make a difference when (a) a user don’t understand what it says (b) a user no choice but to agree with it and hope for the best. In getting a mortgage, making a large purchase etc. we take our contracts to lawyers who’ve been trained to read these things. But is it realistic to expect people to do the same when purchasing a toaster? Most of us have an assumption of trust and goodwill, or at least, a hope that our toaster won’t start broadcasting our eating habits to the world.

    For instance, when I purchased my tablet I had a host of apps I wanted to install to make the tablet actually useful. However, all of these apps wanted a range of strange permissions. It perplexed me as to why a calculator wanted permission to access my “fine (GPS) location”, phone calls “read phone state and identity”, personal information “read contact data”. It wasn’t one or two obscure apps that asked for these permissions, almost all of them asked for permissions that seemed to be completely unrelated to their purpose. Of course, I consulted various websites, and the advice was generally “use common sense”, and “when you come across something you don’t understand, usually a bit of deductive reasoning can figure out why an app needs to do something.” But what if I can’t figure it out? What if I draw the wrong conclusion? Do I need to do this for every single app? What if the app isn’t trust-worthy? What if I don’t want my calculator to have access to my camera? It became a matter of installing an app and hoping for the best, or not installing any apps at all and not taking advantage of my purchase.

    We all have the choice to not use a tablet or a smartphone, or not even a computer. We can become luddites and hide in caves. But we live in a world where everything is going digital. In the words of Doctorow “We have computers we insert in our bodies, and we have computers into which we insert our bodies.” But increasingly we are living in a world, people don’t know what is happening to their computers. They may as well be black-boxes. According to Doctorow, we’re also increasingly living a world where legislation, pushed in part by DRM-supporters, hinders or even criminalizes those who know from informing people about what is happening to their computers and other electronics. Even with the best of intentions in mind—we’re all becoming more and more vulnerable.

    By the end of the lecture Doctorow did not really propose a ‘solution’ or a way to navigate into the future. However, I think his point was not really for us– the users– to understand the nitty-gritty parts of DRM. Rather, for us to keep in mind the broad ramifications when smaller debates and legislation involving digital technology come up. For this reason, whether one doesn’t agree or isn’t sure what to think– I think listening to Doctorow’s lecture is worth the time.

    Permanent linkMarzieh Ghiasi