Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Covering up a hole is harder than Digging it

The Tech blogs today are abuzz with the story of Digg and its attempts to censor users who posted an encryption key to hack into the HD-DVD copyright protection. The owner of Digg made a decision at first to try to fend off a possible lawsuit by cracking down on the posters, then reversed himself after an overwhelming user backlash.

Here are a few write-ups that summarize what happened:

Digg in chaos over HD DVD crack (Guardian Unlimited)
Digg this: AACS takedown notice backfires (ZDNet)
The HD-DVD Digg revolt (Washington Post)

The Wired News blog also raises some good questions in the aftermath of the events: Qs Remain After Digg Reversal.

The battles between the paradigms of transparency vs. censorship, open-source vs. copyright, and sharing vs. proprietary ownership will help to define the direction of the Internet, and potentially society as a whole. The HD-DVD consortium is trying to cripple the very technology it means to sell, but they have the power of money and its attendant influence in the legal system to back their efforts. The code hackers have something much more powerful behind them -- the understanding of the true potential of the technology and the passion to pursue their convictions no matter what the threat. I'm betting on the latter.


Knightridge Overlook said...

This is interesting from a legal perspective. The legal mechanisms used to protect this data were created under a different set of technology. The new technology makes these legal mechanisms not work very well.

However, the legal mechanisms are themselves outgrowths of cultural understandings about ownership. It's pretty unambiguously clear what it means that you own your hamburger - there's only one hamburger, and if it's yours, you get to eat it. If it's not yours, you have to make other plans. This all makes good sense.

The conceptual problem arises when having a thing also can imbue the power to create unlimited numbers of copies. Imagine how life would be changed if everyone who had a hamburger also had the ability to create a perfect copy of the hamburger for everyone else in the world. I'm not saying that would necessarily be a bad thing, I'm just saying that the societal changes that would follow are extremely broad and deep.

A thoughtful person 300 years ago might well have asked what the world would be like if there were a massive advance in technology, and the combination of mass chemical purification techniques were combined with inexpensive world transportation. Before such a change, psychoactive plants were limited to small societies that had developed coping mechanisms over centuries. After such a change, the effects of that change are extremely serious, and although we've invested trillions of dollars in outlawing the free use of that technology, we're not really in a good place with that aspect of technological advance.

I have detected a note of "blame the lawyers" in the comments that follow this thread, but that's as silly as blaming aeronautics engineers for the cocaine trade. The truth is that we need to develop some kind of functional, societal consensus on how the technology should be used. I hope we find better solutions to this technological change.

Francis Scudellari said...

Your hamburger copying metaphor is an interesting one in that it brings to mind the Gospel story of Jesus's multiplying of the loaves and fishes to feed the assembled masses. Did that make him an outlaw? I'm sure the Romans looked at him that way, but the interpretation depends on who's telling the story and who's running the society.

To the larger discussion, we're at a point where the development of the technology has outpaced the laws that govern it. There will be a fight over revising the laws to deal with the new conditions, and lawyers will have their rightful place on both sides of that debate. As you point out, however, it's up to society as a whole to determine how the technology and the laws that govern it best serve the majority, not how they best protect the profits of the corporations who currently are in control of content distribution.

My central thought in all this is that the nature of the technology itself favors openness, transparency, collaboration and mass distribution. What will most benefit society is figuring out a model that takes advantage of those characteristics, not one that tries to inhibit them. I think there are some businesses that get this and are adjusting accordingly. Others don't and try to use the law as a hammer to get their way.