Article 43


Sunday, September 02, 2007

Absolute Power, Absolute DRM


DRM requires someone else to have power over your computer. Absolute DRM means absolute power, and as LORD ACTON famously said, absolute power is not a good thing.

By Philip Dorrell
Aug 24, 2005

What Lord Acton Said

Just in case you didn’t already know, what he really said was:

Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

Even though almost everyone has heard of this quote, and most of us know what it means, we tend not to take it quite as seriously as we should.

What We Actually Believe

Although we sometimes nod our head in agreement with Acton’s quote, usually we believe the exact opposite, which is something like:

Some people do good things because they are good people, and other people do bad things because they are bad people.

The explanatory power of “good” and “bad” as properties of people is burned into our consciousness. It is a good way of understanding and responding to the people that we deal with in our day to day lives. Lord Acton’s quote effectively says that this is not a good way of understanding the behaviour of those in power.

Fairy Tales

One cultural manifestation of the bad person/good person explanation is the fairy tale.

In the typical fairy tale, there is a good king and a good queen, and then some bad individual comes along and does bad stuff, or maybe there is just a bad king or bad queen to start with. Then more stuff happens, and Prince Charming comes along, and he fights for what is right, and he marries the Princess, and they become King and Queen. And because they are good people, everyone lives happily ever after.

What Lord Acton is telling us is that this is fundamentally wrong. The basic problem is not that there is a Bad King that needs to be replaced with a Good King. It’s that the very position of King is intrinsically evil. The power and privilege of the kingly position creates the irresistible temptation to exploit and oppress in order to enjoy and maintain said power and privilege. To remove the evil, we must do more than get rid of the Bad King, we must also do away with the idea of King, or at least water it down a lot.

A substantial part of modern history consists of the actions of incredibly evil people who have taken control of whole countries. What would these people have done if they hadn’t become presidents and revolutionary leaders? According to the good/evil person theory, they would still have been doing something equally evil as what they did as president. And conversely, we believe that if only there had been a mechanism to check someone’s credentials and good character properly before they became leader, all that nasty stuff could have been avoided.

An Example: Communism

One of the great evils of modern times has been (and still is in some places) Communism. Many of the effects of Communism are quite obviously very nasty millions of people have been imprisoned, tortured and murdered (whether by force or by neglect).

The obvious explanation of the evil of Communism is that it is caused by evil Communists. Yet when we look at the motivations and justifications of Communism, we find almost the opposite. Marx was concerned for the interests of the majority of people who were both poor and oppressed by the richer and powerful. Many of those who started or led Communist movements did so because they were motivated to help the least powerful members of society, who in many cases were exploited by greedy landlords, money-lenders and factory owners.

It’s not just that these Communists were obviously “good” people, in the sense that their actions were motivated by their concern for the suffering of others. Communism itself sees the world in terms of “good” and “bad” people. The “good” people are the hard-working over-exploited lower classes. The “bad” people are the exploiters the rich greedy capitalists. The solution to exploitation and oppression is to remove the “bad” capitalists from their position of power, and replace them with the “good” people, i.e. the workers.

According to the “good"/"bad" person theory of good and evil, this should have worked. Replacing the obviously evil capitalists with the “good” workers should have solved the problem of exploitation. Yet somehow, it actually made things worse. (We might grant that some aspects of exploitation are reduced in some cases, but looking at the overall picture, on average, and in the long term, things usually got worse.)

Absolute DRM

DRM (Digital Rights Management) is a euphemism for copy-control. The point of DRM is to enforce copyright by technical means. The defense of copyright seems like a just cause it is how creators of content are given reward for their work, and infringement of copyright by “bad” pirates deprives the “good” creators of what is rightfully theirs. A substantial proportion of information copying that occurs in the world is copyright infringement. So surely something should be done to stop it.

Which brings us back to Lord Acton. Almost.

A lot has been said about DRM, and it occasionally appears in the mainstream news. But there is one cold hard fact about DRM, which is typically underemphasised (or not emphasised at all) by the mainstream media. Which is that DRM will only work if some central organisation controls:

ALL THE COMPUTERS in the world


ALL THE CONNECTIONS between all the computers in the world

About the only time this point of view appears in the media is when Richard M Stallman gets an article published in a newspaper (e.g. WHO CONTROLS YOUR COMPUTER?). There is also COREY DOCTOROW (in particular his famous MICROSFT RESEARCH DRM TALK).

There are other well-known “copyfighters”, such as Lawrence Lessig, and members of the EFF, but most of them seem to be more interested in advocating “balance” between copyright and computer freedom.

Unfortunately, there is no balance. Either DRM fails completely, or we live in some sort of technological DICTATORSHIP.

The XBox

It might seem bizarre that all the people of the world would cede control of their computers to a central agency. But this is not too different to what already happens with copy-control on game consoles. The most famous example of this is the XBox. The XBox is a controlled computer, and it is controlled both indirectly and directly by Microsoft. The indirect control happens when the XBox only loads software that is signed with a special Microsoft private key. The direct control happens when you connect your XBox to the Internet, and Microsoft carries out an automatic software “upgrade”.

Now some people call Microsoft “evil”, but I think it is unreasonable to compare them to historical figures like Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin. It is true that Microsoft could disable a lot of XBoxes very suddenly if it wanted to, but so far it hasn’t, and it would probably be commercial suicide if they did. And even if they did, it would only stop people from playing video games (and mess up a very small number of XBoxes that had been “modded” for purposes other than pirating games).

The World Computer Control Agency

Would it be so bad to extend this concept to all computers? If we didn’t trust Microsoft, perhaps we could organise some central World Computer Control Agency to manage all the world’s computers and computer networks in order to prevent copyright infringement.

This World Computer Control Agency would decide which software people could run on their computers and which software people could not run. They could give themselves the ability to run software that no one else was allowed to run. They could monitor all computer use and all computer communications. They could disable anyone or everyone’s computer at any time.

The more that people use computers to do their work, manage their lives and communicate with each other, the more that this kind of computer control will translate into control over people. A single agency that has control over all the world’s computers will be a single agency with absolute power.

And if we take Lord Acton’s words at all seriously, that agency will become corrupted.

Fighting the Battle for Freedom (Again)

The battle for freedom has been fought so many times. Very rarely do the forces of anti-freedom suddenly spring from nowhere. More often, they gradually convince a larger and larger number of people that they represent a just and moral cause. In the end, millions of people may support them, or at least sympathise with them.

So probably the battle will have to be fought yet another time. If history is any guide, then the longer that the forces of anti-freedom maintain the general public in the dark about what is going on, the nastier things will get before they get better.

Finding Alternative Solutions

Communism was a fight against oppression, exploitation and poverty. It turned out, in the end, that you could actually fight all these things without a Communist revolution, and without abandoning all individual freedoms. Some legislation to rein in the power of corporations, a bit of social welfare, and the life of the “oppressed masses” in many modern countries is actually quite good.

We need to do something similar with copy-control and copyright. The real problem is not the prevention of copying; rather it’s getting the content creators paid in proportion to the value of their contribution. Giving them the right to control copying is one way of “measuring” this value, but it doesn’t have to be the only way. Copy-control is also a very destructive means of measuring value, because you effectively destroy all the potential value of the copying that you prevent.

This is the motivation behind alternative compensation systems, where “alternative” means an alternative to copy-control. What the best such system is, and how good it will be, remains a matter of contention. (My own take on this subject is PUBLISHED DIGITAL INFORMATION IS A PUBLIC GOOD: The Case for Voted Compensation.) But the impossibility of sustaining both copy-control and human freedom in a world full of computer technology means that we have to start thinking about it.


Posted by Elvis on 09/02/07 •
Section Privacy And Rights
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