The coming war on general-purpose computing

By Cory Doctorow - Share this article

This article is based on a keynote speech to the Chaos Computer Congress in Berlin, Dec. 2011.

General-purpose computers are astounding. They're so astounding that our society still struggles to come to grips with them, what they're for, how to accommodate them, and how to cope with them. This brings us back to something you might be sick of reading about: copyright.

But bear with me, because this is about something more important. The shape of the copyright wars clues us into an upcoming fight over the destiny of the general-purpose computer itself.

In the beginning, we had packaged software and we had sneakernet. We had floppy disks in ziplock bags, in cardboard boxes, hung on pegs in shops, and sold like candy bars and magazines. They were eminently susceptible to duplication, were duplicated quickly, and widely, and this was to the great chagrin of people who made and sold software.

Enter Digital Rights Management in its most primitive forms: let's call it DRM 0.96. They introduced physical indicia which the software checked for—deliberate damage, dongles, hidden sectors—and challenge-response protocols that required possession of large, unwieldy manuals that were difficult to copy.

These failed for two reasons. First, they were commercially unpopular, because they reduced the usefulness of the software to the legitimate purchasers. Honest buyers resented the non-functionality of their backups, they hated the loss of scarce ports to the authentication dongles, and they chafed at the inconvenience of having to lug around large manuals when they wanted to run their software. Second, these didn't stop pirates, who found it trivial to patch the software and bypass authentication. People who took the software without paying for it were untouched.

Typically, the way this happened is a programmer, with possession of technology and expertise of equivalent sophistication to the software vendor itself, would reverse-engineer the software and circulate cracked versions. While this sounds highly specialized, it really wasn't. Figuring out what recalcitrant programs were doing and routing around media defects were core skills for computer programmers, especially in the era of fragile floppy disks and the rough-and-ready early days of software development. Anti-copying strategies only became more fraught as networks spread; once we had bulletin boards, online services, USENET newsgroups and mailing lists, the expertise of people who figured out how to defeat these authentication systems could be packaged up in software as little crack files. As network capacity increased, the cracked disk images or executables themselves could be spread on their own.

This gave us DRM 1.0. By 1996, it became clear to everyone in the halls of power that there was something important about to happen. We were about to have an information economy, whatever the Hell that was. They assumed it meant an economy where we bought and sold information. Information technology improves efficiency, so imagine the markets that an information economy would have! You could buy a book for a day, you could sell the right to watch the movie for a Euro, and then you could rent out the pause button for a penny per second. You could sell movies for one price in one country, at another price in another, and so on. The fantasies of those days were like a boring science fiction adaptation of the Old Testament Book of Numbers, a tedious enumeration of every permutation of things people do with information—and what might be charged for each.

Unfortunately for them, none of this would be possible unless they could control how people use their computers and the files we transfer to them. After all, it was easy to talk about selling someone a tune to download to their MP3 player, but not so easy to talk about the the right to move music from the player to another device. But how the Hell could you stop that once you'd given them the file? In order to do so, you needed to figure out how to stop computers from running certain programs and inspecting certain files and processes. For example, you could encrypt the file, and then require the user to run a program that only unlocked the file under certain circumstances.

But, as they say on the Internet, now you have two problems.

You must now also stop the user from saving the file while it's unencrypted—which must happen eventually— and you must stop the user from figuring out where the unlocking program stores its keys, enabling them to permanently decrypt the media and ditch the stupid player app entirely.

Now you have three problems: you must stop the users who figure out how to decrypt from sharing it with other users. Now you've got four problems, because you must stop the users who figure out how to extract secrets from unlocking programs from telling other users how to do it too. And now you've got five problems, because you must stop users who figure out how to extract these secrets from telling other users what the secrets were!

That's a lot of problems. But by 1996, we had a solution. We had the WIPO Copyright Treaty, passed by the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization. This created laws that made it illegal to extract secrets from unlocking programs, and it created laws that made it illegal to extract media (such as songs and movies) from the unlocking programs while they were running. It created laws that made it illegal to tell people how to extract secrets from unlocking programs, and it created laws that made it illegal to host copyrighted works or the secrets. It also established a handy streamlined process that let you remove stuff from the Internet without having to screw around with lawyers, and judges, and all that crap.

And with that, illegal copying ended forever, the information economy blossomed into a beautiful flower that brought prosperity to the whole wide world; as they say on the aircraft carriers, “Mission Accomplished".

That's not how the story ends, of course, because pretty much anyone who understood computers and networks understood that these laws would create more problems than they could possibly solve. After all, these laws made it illegal to look inside your computer when it was running certain programs. They made it illegal to tell people what you found when you looked inside your computer, and they made it easy to censor material on the internet without having to prove that anything wrong had happened.

In short, they made unrealistic demands on reality and reality did not oblige them. Copying only got easier following the passage of these laws—copying will only ever get easier. Right now is as hard as copying will get. Your grandchildren will turn to you and say “Tell me again, Grandpa, about when it was hard to copy things in 2012, when you couldn't get a drive the size of your fingernail that could hold every song ever recorded, every movie ever made, every word ever spoken, every picture ever taken, everything, and transfer it in such a short period of time you didn't even notice it was doing it."

Reality asserts itself. Like the nursery rhyme lady who swallows a spider to catch a fly, and has to swallow a bird to catch the spider, and a cat to catch the bird, so must these regulations, which have broad general appeal but are disastrous in their implementation. Each regulation begets a new one, aimed at shoring up its own failures.

It's tempting to stop the story here and conclude that the problem is that lawmakers are either clueless or evil, or possibly evilly clueless. This is not a very satisfying place to go, because it's fundamentally a counsel of despair; it suggests that our problems cannot be solved for so long as stupidity and evilness are present in the halls of power, which is to say they will never be solved. But I have another theory about what's happened.

It's not that regulators don't understand information technology, because it should be possible to be a non-expert and still make a good law. MPs and Congressmen and so on are elected to represent districts and people, not disciplines and issues. We don't have a Member of Parliament for biochemistry, and we don't have a Senator from the great state of urban planning. And yet those people who are experts in policy and politics, not technical disciplines, still manage to pass good rules that make sense. That's because government relies on heuristics: rules of thumb about how to balance expert input from different sides of an issue.

Unfortunately, information technology confounds these heuristics—it kicks the crap out of them—in one important way.

The important tests of whether or not a regulation is fit for a purpose are first whether it will work, and second whether or not it will, in the course of doing its work, have effects on everything else. If I wanted Congress, Parliament, or the E.U. to regulate a wheel, it's unlikely I'd succeed. If I turned up, pointed out that bank robbers always make their escape on wheeled vehicles, and asked, “Can't we do something about this?", the answer would be “No". This is because we don't know how to make a wheel that is still generally useful for legitimate wheel applications, but useless to bad guys. We can all see that the general benefits of wheels are so profound that we'd be foolish to risk changing them in a foolish errand to stop bank robberies. Even if there were an epidemic of bank robberies—even if society were on the verge of collapse thanks to bank robberies—no-one would think that wheels were the right place to start solving our problems.

However, if I were to show up in that same body to say that I had absolute proof that hands-free phones were making cars dangerous, and I requested a law prohibiting hands-free phones in cars, the regulator might say “Yeah, I'd take your point, we'd do that."

We might disagree about whether or not this is a good idea, or whether or not my evidence made sense, but very few of us would say that once you take the hands-free phones out of the car, they stop being cars.

We understand that cars remain cars even if we remove features from them. Cars are special-purpose, at least in comparison to wheels, and all that the addition of a hands-free phone does is add one more feature to an already-specialized technology. There's a heuristic for this: special-purpose technologies are complex, and you can remove features from them without doing fundamental, disfiguring violence to their underlying utility.

This rule of thumb serves regulators well, by and large, but it is rendered null and void by the general-purpose computer and the general-purpose network—the PC and the Internet. If you think of computer software as a feature, a computer with spreadsheets running on it has a spreadsheet feature, and one that's running World of Warcraft has an MMORPG feature. The heuristic would lead you to think that a computer unable to run spreadsheets or games would be no more of an attack on computing than a ban on car-phones would be an attack on cars.

And, if you think of protocols and websites as features of the network, then saying “fix the Internet so that it doesn't run BitTorrent", or “fix the Internet so that no longer resolves," sounds a lot like “change the sound of busy signals," or “take that pizzeria on the corner off the phone network," and not like an attack on the fundamental principles of internetworking.

The rule of thumb works for cars, for houses, and for every other substantial area of technological regulation. Not realizing that it fails for the Internet does not make you evil, and it does not make you an ignoramus. It just makes you part of that vast majority of the world, for whom ideas like Turing completeness and end-to-end are meaningless.

So, our regulators go off, they blithely pass these laws, and they become part of the reality of our technological world. There are, suddenly, numbers that we aren't allowed to write down on the Internet, programs we're not allowed to publish, and all it takes to make legitimate material disappear from the Internet is the mere accusation of copyright infringement. It fails to attain the goal of the regulation, because it doesn't stop people from violating copyright, but it bears a kind of superficial resemblance to copyright enforcement—it satisfies the security syllogism: “something must be done, I am doing something, something has been done." As a result, any failures that arise can be blamed on the idea that the regulation doesn't go far enough, rather than the idea that it was flawed from the outset.

This kind of superficial resemblance and underlying divergence happens in other engineering contexts. I've a friend, who was once a senior executive at a big consumer packaged goods company, who told me what happened when the marketing department told the engineers that they'd thought up a great idea for detergent: from now on, they were going to make detergent that made your clothes newer every time you washed them!

After the engineers had tried unsuccessfully to convey the concept of entropy to the marketing department, they arrived at another solution: they'd develop a detergent that used enzymes that attacked loose fiber ends, the kind that you get with broken fibers that make your clothes look old. So every time you washed your clothes in the detergent, they would look newer. Unfortunately, that was because the detergent was digesting your clothes. Using it would literally cause your clothes to dissolve in the washing machine.

This was, needless to say, the opposite of making clothes newer. Instead, you were artificially aging them every time you washed them, and as the user, the more you deployed the “solution", the more drastic your measures had to be to keep your clothes up to date. Eventually, you would have to buy new clothes because the old ones fell apart.

Today we have marketing departments that say things such as “we don't need computers, we need appliances. Make me a computer that doesn't run every program, just a program that does this specialized task, like streaming audio, or routing packets, or playing Xbox games, and make sure it doesn't run programs that I haven't authorized that might undermine our profits."

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea: a program that does one specialized task. After all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don't worry if it's still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that's not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We're not making a computer that runs only the “appliance" app; we're taking a computer that can run every program, then using a combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn't want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer—it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.

We don't know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of running any program except for some program that we don't like, is prohibited by law, or which loses us money. The closest approximation that we have to this is a computer with spyware: a computer on which remote parties set policies without the computer user's knowledge, or over the objection of the computer's owner. Digital rights management always converges on malware.

In one famous incident—a gift to people who share this hypothesis—Sony loaded covert rootkit installers on 6 million audio CDs, which secretly executed programs that watched for attempts to read the sound files on CDs and terminated them. It also hid the rootkit's existence by causing the computer operating system's kernel to lie about which processes were running, and which files were present on the drive. But that's not the only example. Nintendo's 3DS opportunistically updates its firmware, and does an integrity check to make sure that you haven't altered the old firmware in any way. If it detects signs of tampering, it turns itself into a brick.

Human rights activists have raised alarms over U-EFI, the new PC bootloader, which restricts your computer so it only runs “signed" operating systems, noting that repressive governments will likely withhold signatures from operating systems unless they allow for covert surveillance operations.

On the network side, attempts to make a network that can't be used for copyright infringement always converge with the surveillance measures that we know from repressive governments. Consider SOPA, the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act, which bans innocuous tools such as DNSSec—a security suite that authenticates domain name information— because they might be used to defeat DNS blocking measures. It blocks Tor, an online anonymity tool sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and used by dissidents in oppressive regimes, because it can be used to circumvent IP blocking measures.

In fact, the Motion Picture Association of America, a SOPA proponent, circulated a memo citing research that SOPA might work because it uses the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and Uzbekistan. It argued that because these measures are effective in those countries, they would work in America, too!

It may seem like SOPA is the endgame in a long fight over copyright and the Internet, and it may seem that if we defeat SOPA, we'll be well on our way to securing the freedom of PCs and networks. But as I said at the beginning of this talk, this isn't about copyright.

The copyright wars are just the beta version of a long coming war on computation. The entertainment industry is just the first belligerents to take up arms, and we tend to think of them as particularly successful. After all, here is SOPA, trembling on the verge of passage, ready to break the Internet on a fundamental level— all in the name of preserving Top 40 music, reality TV shows, and Ashton Kutcher movies.

But the reality is that copyright legislation gets as far as it does precisely because it's not taken seriously by politicians. This is why, on one hand, Canada has had Parliament after Parliament introduce one awful copyright bill after another, but on the other hand, Parliament after Parliament has failed to actually vote on each bill. It's why SOPA, a bill composed of pure stupid and pieced together molecule-by-molecule into a kind of “Stupidite 250" normally only found in the heart of newborn stars, had its rushed-through SOPA hearings adjourned midway through the Christmas break: so that lawmakers could get into a vicious national debate over an important issue, unemployment insurance.

It's why the World Intellectual Property Organization is gulled time and again into enacting crazed, pig-ignorant copyright proposals: because when the nations of the world send their U.N. missions to Geneva, they send water experts, not copyright experts. They send health experts, not copyright experts. They send agriculture experts, not copyright experts, because copyright is just not as important.

Canada's Parliament didn't vote on its copyright bills because, of all the things that Canada needs to do, fixing copyright ranks well below health emergencies on First Nations reservations, exploiting the oil patch in Alberta, interceding in sectarian resentments among French- and English-speakers, solving resources crises in the nation's fisheries, and a thousand other issues. The triviality of copyright tells you that when other sectors of the economy start to evince concerns about the Internet and the PC, copyright will be revealed for a minor skirmish—not a war.

Why might other sectors come to nurse grudges against computers in the way the entertainment business already has? The world we live in today is made of computers. We don't have cars anymore; we have computers we ride in. We don't have airplanes anymore; we have flying Solaris boxes attached to bucketfuls of industrial control systems. A 3D printer is not a device, it's a peripheral, and it only works connected to a computer. A radio is no longer a crystal: it's a general-purpose computer, running software. The grievances that arise from unauthorized copies of Snooki's Confessions of a Guidette are trivial when compared to the calls-to-action that our computer-embroidered reality will soon create.

Consider radio. Radio regulation 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 baby monitor and interfere with other signals. But powerful software-defined radios (SDRs) can change from baby monitor to emergency services dispatcher or air traffic controller, just by loading and executing different software. This is why the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) considered what would happen when we put SDRs in the field, and asked for comment on whether it should mandate that all software-defined radios should be embedded in “trusted computing" machines. Ultimately, the question is whether every PC should be locked, so that their programs could be strictly regulated by central authorities.

Even this is a shadow of what is to come. After all, this was the year in which we saw the debut of open source shape files for converting AR-15 rifles to full-automatic. This was the year of crowd-funded open-sourced hardware for genetic sequencing. And while 3D printing will give rise to plenty of trivial complaints, there will be judges in the American South and mullahs in Iran who will lose their minds over people in their jurisdictions printing out sex toys. The trajectory of 3D printing will raise real grievances, from solid-state meth labs to ceramic knives.

It doesn't take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it's really important to make sure that computers can't execute programs which cause specialized peripherals to output custom organisms which literally eat their lunch.

Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or hysterical fears, they are, nevertheless, the political currency of lobbies and interest groups far more influential than Hollywood and big content. Every one of them will arrive at the same place: “Can't you just make us a general-purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can't you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?"

There will be programs that run on general-purpose computers, and peripherals, that will freak even me out. So I can believe that people who advocate for limiting general-purpose computers will find a receptive audience. But just as we saw with the copyright wars, banning certain instructions, protocols or messages will be wholly ineffective as a means of prevention and remedy. As we saw in the copyright wars, all attempts at controlling PCs will converge on rootkits, and all attempts at controlling the Internet will converge on surveillance and censorship. This stuff matters because we've spent the last decade sending our best players out to fight what we thought was the final boss at the end of the game, but it turns out it's just been an end-level guardian. The stakes are only going to get higher.

As a member of the Walkman generation, I have made peace with the fact that I will require a hearing aid long before I die. It won't be a hearing aid, though; it will really be a computer. So when I get into a car—a computer that I put my body into—with my hearing aid—a computer I put inside my body—I want to know that these technologies are not designed to keep secrets from me, or to prevent me from terminating processes on them that work against my interests.

Last year, the Lower Merion School District, in a middle-class, affluent suburb of Philadelphia, found itself in a great deal of trouble. It was caught distributing, to its students, rootkitted laptops that allowed remote covert surveillance through the computer's camera and network connection. They photographed students thousands of times, at home and at school, awake and asleep, dressed and naked. Meanwhile, the latest generation of lawful intercept technology can covertly operate cameras, microphones, and GPS tranceivers on PCs, tablets, and mobile devices.

We haven't lost yet, but we have to win the copyright war first if we want to keep the Internet and the PC free and open. Freedom in the future will require us to have the capacity to monitor our devices and set meaningful policies for them; to examine and terminate the software processes that runs on them; and to maintain them as honest servants to our will, not as traitors and spies working for criminals, thugs, and control freaks.

167 Responses to “Lockdown: The coming war on general-purpose computing”

  1. parrotboy says:

    Well written.

    • ablestmage says:

      I’m sure the writing is splendid, but the font is giving me serious eye strain!

    • nymble says:

      Yes – on very very important topic for the future of our communications and computing devices.  Hopefully the public at large will become more familiar with these issues to push for more open models.
      Having “locks” and checks on the integrity of information is actually a very good thing – the problem is with the control of who you trust.  We have developed a far to simple minded view that the “trust” is given to use by the provider of a product.  End users need to be educated that there may be other models and that we should all be able to have open control of the keys used to lock-down our systems.
      Fully “open” is problematic in not having any assurances (e.g. web identity, malware, etc.).  Fully closed and locked down has the risked described in this excellent document.  Somehow we need to reach a mature model where users can make choices on the source of the “trust” in a computing device or in their communications.  This is not just for computing or software, but even our current Internet security model (different rant – trusting browser certificates and the difficulty in user control of these “locked down” trust points).

      • Bug menot says:

        You mean like the keys to your house?  UEFI and Windows 8 comes to mind.  Just give us a way to self-sign or make a whitelist for the boot file of the OS we just installed/updated the kernel on! 

  2. Summed up my own feelings quite nicely.

  3. Abe Lincoln says:

    How do I get off this planet?

  4. coffee100 says:

    Lest anyone falsely conclude this is a recent phenomenon, just remember the millions (yes, millions) of software developers and high technology employees whose careers were utterly and irrevocably destroyed in the late 90s and early 21st century.  Many of those people (some would argue the majority of them) have yet to recover.  Some may never recover.

    That event sealed Generation X’s legacy as the first in U.S. history to have a lower standard of living.There hasn’t been a single truly new and unique (think Visicalc or TurboPascal or Flash level innovation) PC software product released since.  Not one.   The only real progress has been made on free platforms like Linux or annexed by mobile platforms, all of which are proprietary and tightly controlled.   The PC has been stagnant for ten years.  No wonder people are losing interest!

    Is anyone really surprised those who see themselves as the “grown-ups” in this country want to take computers and the Internet away from who they see as delinquents?   Aren’t these ultimately the same people who fired all those “delinquents” ten years ago over “costs” and unplugged the technology revolution in the process?

    • Bill says:

      The only real progress has been made on free platforms like Linux

      Haha what?  Linux was irrelevant to desktop users when it was first created, and it’s still irrelevant today.  The majority of people who try it abandon it.

      For servers, sure, but it’s completely useless for home users.  “Stagnant”, as you say.

      • Spoken like somebody who truly doesn’t know the first thing about computers. Well done.

        • Bill says:

          Nothing but the truth.  Sorry if it hurts.

          • Mike says:

            It’s only “truth” as you imagine it to be. Linux powers most of the backend systems running in the world. Do you have any idea how frequently packages get updated? The software is being updated so frequently, with so many improvements and fixes that it can be challenging to keep libraries up to date. Hardly stagnant, unless this is bizarro world and you mean the exact opposite of the conventional definition.

            Nothing personal, but it’s pretty clear you have no clue how all this infrastructure works, or you wouldn’t say it’s stagnant.  Sorry if it hurts.

        • Nouda says:

          We’re talking about the “average” guy on the street. They’re not likely to use Linux (with perhaps the exception of Ubuntu) due to the difficulties in transitioning or even getting things “done”. We’re talking about the do-everything-for-me generation here.

  5. Excellent. I really like “Stupidite 250″

    • stan kwiatkowski says:

      Help! I’m trying to translate this great piece, but I’m not a native speaker and have trouble figuring out the “Stupidite 250″ ref.

      Optimally, the whole sentence put in other words would be great :)

      this part: “pieced together molecule-by-molecule into a kind of “Stupidite 250″ normally only found in the heart of newborn stars”


      • Thomas Shaddack says:

        It is a made-up name of a fictional product/substance. E.g. “Araldite 250″ is a type/brand of epoxy. Stupidite 250 is a pun on such product names. Try to make the same kind of pun product-name in your local language, using the product naming conventions local to you.

        • stan kwiatkowski says:

          Thanks a lot! 

          How about the “newborn stars” part? Is it about stars as  cellestial bodies, and the rare particles found inside newborn stars?

          Or am I not geting something?

          • Thomas Shaddack says:

            Newborn stars, as celestial bodies – stars newly coalesced from the gas and dust, pulled together with their own mass into high density (additional pun on “dense” as stupid, I think) sufficient to light up thermonuclear reaction.

          • Zander Pease says:

            it’s a double entendre: as thomas said, it riffs on the physical process of celestial star formation. but i think it also makes fun of how stupid new Hollywood stars can be.

  6. Luigi Rosa says:

    I and Paolo Attivissimo (more Paolo than me) translated this amazing speach in Italian. I put the text on a fixed page of my blog:

  7. Jody Durkacs says:

    So what you’re saying is “Don’t buy Apple products.” Got it! :)

    • Will Traxler says:

      *Claps* Only 30 minutes to the first flame bait, congratulations, you’ve missed the point of standing together, to further your own opinion on a company that pretty much invented the home PC as you know it.

      • devon_jones says:

        And today sells piles and piles of general purpose computers that are traitors as Cory puts it who serve Apple’s interests not yours.  If you don’t have root on your counter, you don’t own it.

        • Matt Fellows says:

          Weird – I own 4 Apple products – all of which I have root access on. 3 of them came with root access out of the box. Of the 3 Samsung products I also own (TV, Android Phone, PC) only 1 gave me root access by default, and one (The T.V.) I can’t get root access to at all.

        • SubstrateUndertow says:

          Most  people don’t need, want or even understand what you’re talking about when you say “root”. 

          All they need to know is that the manufacturer is in their corner making sure no other nefarious agent is hiding in there pulling their interests out by the roots!

          • Mike says:

            Substrate, I get what you are saying, most people don’t care about root. But I think you’re missing the point. Are you going to trust the manufacturer to tell you when they put nerfarious agents on the machine in question? It’s likely that independent verification needs to be done by smart, independent, concerned (paranoid?) individuals. That’s how the Sony rootkit and several others were discovered. We may not all need root, but it should be available to everyone so these enlightened, concerned guardians can operate.

    • You know, Android products are only MARGINALLY more open than Apple’s :)

      • phantomash says:

        if by “marginally”, means I can do whatever I want on it, including side loading apps, transferring files into my device without a proprietary software, and sharing between devices via open standard interface, install whatever plugins that is available, then that is already way better than what Apple offers :)

        • Tose Nikolov says:

          Develop what I want, and where I want on whatever machine I want. Change what I want to be changed and don’t be dependent on a company that decided that my half a year old phone is deprecated and will not get updates anymore.

    • SubstrateUndertow says:

      Don’t be foolish!

      Zoom out – Zoom way out!

      In the big picture Google is far more closed and controlling than Apple.

      Apple just wants to sell you products with some quality control over malware.

      Google wants to sell you and your privacy as the product to their real customers the advertisers !

      In fact they are both huge corporate profit machines.

      Don’t go getting all google eyed. It is just a corporate facade.

      Nobody here but us puppets and them fools.

      • modevs says:

        Yes and no… Someone paying Google a nice sum of money so that males ages 18-24 watching YouTube see one advertisement while females 30-40 see a different one, or showing ads based on search terms is hardly selling “you and your privacy”. 

        There is a point where this goes too far… Facebook for example gives all manner of third parties direct access to your information via apps. They don’t know or even care in most cases what those third parties do with the info. The less they know the better.

        The alternative is a pay-per-feature/use service. So do you want to pay for your Google/Facebook by letting them show you targeted information, or cash per search/status update?

        • SubstrateUndertow says:

          Everything the advertisers pay for is ultimately paid for by us the consumers.

          In a network based economy it is now possible for us to collectively pay for those services and disinter-mediate both the control and annoyance those advertisers and their agents(read Google/Facebook) push on our eyeballs.

          Why pay twice!

          The two big things that will be disinter-mediate in short oder over the next decade will be

          Advertisers & Political Control Mechanisms

    • That is funny. I’m over 50 and have a hard time hooking up a DVR. But I can hack Apple anything. I think Apple makes thier hardware sound like a closed system to keep the “content owners” off their backs, but it’s weak. Com’on, Apple openly allows users to run Windows OR Mac OSX. Your choice – and they charge less than $100 for 5 computers with a new OS. Pirating is easy, but a new OS is so cheap – why?

      • Tose Nikolov says:

        Because apple doesn’t sell OS it sells hardware, the OS is a compliment to the hardware. 

        On the other hand Microsoft sells OS that is their primary product. They make deals with other companies and promote their hardware if they put their OS in their hardware. That hardware, to Microsoft, is a compliment.

        Here is a good read from Joel Spolsky on the subject

  8. James Molien says:

    I find it amusing to note that Ashton Kutcher is also against SOPA, and you mention him alongside reality TV.

  9. Devine Lu Linvega says:

    I hope some kickstarter will make a open computer or something along these lines. It’s the right time.

    • David Germanico says:

      People have been building their own computers since Alan Turing. What we need is an open internet.

    • Ben Bogart says:

      Can you make an open computer from closed parts? What if the microprocessors themselves start having hardware DRM, then what will we make open computers from? Of course the makers of chips want them to be general purpose so they can be used (sold) in as many devices as possible, so all this DRM stuff would not be very attractive… unless the price is right. 

      • Thomas Shaddack says:

        If the CPU has hardware DRM, then we can still likely write programs that will emulate the functionality we want. Check out the various javascript libraries for in-browser processing, including pretty heavy-duty cryptography or digital signal processing, as a tame example of the possibilities. 
        Once there is any sort of advanced scripting capability, we can have everything. Any kind of two-way communication can be used for transferring of any data; see all the sorts of IP tunneling (including DNS requests, ICMP payload, or even AIM messages). The only real problem then is the overhead, and in the age of gigahertz CPUs and dozens-megabit bandwidth we can afford wasting even 99% of it and still get decent basic functionality considered state-of-the-art not so many years ago.

      • ejes says:

        There are open computers.  From what I recall the Arm7TDMI is a pure open architecture.

        • Eric Rucker says:

          It’s open in the “fully documented” sense.

          For open and free (as in beer and freedom), you need OpenRISC, OpenSPARC, or LEON, for anything resembling modern. I think there’s also a couple open and free MIPS implementations, too, actually.

          • Bug menot says:

             Irony:  The original Apple II was pretty dang open other than a lack of source code.   Companies published schematics and used software that was trivial to disassemble by today’s standards.  I mean, something like 2KB for the majority of a computer’s built-in software functionality.  You could literally figure out how it worked by using a printout of the disassembly…

  10. Eugen Lenghel says:

    Remember, there are companies wanting to put under copyright laws animal genome, and eventually human genome. We shall live by licensing our natural genome? So that is the final danger of patenting and copyright laws – to attack on our innermost property.

    • Ben Bogart says:

       Maybe “property” is the problem itself. You don’t own your own your own genome, because most of its is the same as everyone else, hell lots of it is the same as in other animals! Maybe we need to rethink “property”…

      • Melissa Gemmel says:

        I agree with the idea that “property” must be carefully re-evaluated.  I watched a show on PBS which examined “globalization” and “property laws” in developing countries.  The producers promoted the idea that these governments’  laws had not defined and monetized property and personal identity in a way that would allow the people to participate in “globalization.”   They noted that most property exchanges and businesses were done with cash, informally and “off-the-books” and that this must change for them to prosper in our western fashion.   It seems that to be part of one world economy, we all must be willing to submit ourselves and our property to being controlled, numbered, and examined by those in power – bankers, governments, corporations.  I am quite disturbed by this, as I am not sure that more than 1% of the population will truly prosper, while the rest will continue to labor for debt payments that can never be paid.  I also think we must review our western desire for all to prosper according to our definitions, and if we do not agree, speak out.

      • Bill says:

        “He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.” — Thomas Jefferson

        • Bug menot says:

          Exactly – No one tries to take credit for stuff like electricity or pH or geometry or calculus anymore.  The problem is that the current ladder-pullers are trying to hold unto credit for common ideas.  Imagine if every time a musician used ABBA or ABAB for example, they got accused of plagiarism!
           Genetics is more like a tree (in cryptographic/information theory sense) where some branches are effective at solving some problems.  Once you catalog enough leaves and branches of the tree, it makes less and less sense to think of individual leaves instead of the map _between_ each leaf.

  11. Great article, excellent introduciton to the issues at hand. Would love to see it more thoroughly annotated with links to sources and references though. I know what ‘numbers that we aren’t allowed to write down on the Internet’ refers to, but I don’t think the general public does. And I think it would go a long way towards convincing the readers of the importance of the issues if they could easly find about stuff like the fiasco that CSS encryption turned out to be.

      • Andrew Singleton says:

        Thirded. Annotations are fun, especially when you’re like me and sorta understand ever7ything but want the background material anyhow.

    • J S says:

      “One of the earliest illegal prime numbers was generated in March 2001 by Phil Carmody. Its binary representation corresponds to a compressed version of the C source code of a computer program implementing the DeCSS decryption algorithm, which can be used by a computer to circumvent a DVD’s copy protection.”

      • Melissa Gemmel says:

         How can a prime number be illegal?  Who made it illegal, based on what?

        • digi_owl says:

          That it holds a compressed version of DeCSS is a good hint. This because DeCSS allows the decryption of DVD movies, circumventing their DRM. And so is in violation of DMCA. And the DMCA makes it illegal to provide information or tools that allow DRM circumvention, something a certain Russian learned when entering USA to attend DEFCON. He had before then unveiled a program that could circumvent Adobe Ebook DRM, and was supposed to make a presentation about the technical details of program.

  12. Thanks for the great article, Cory.  What have you posted that explains the upside to all of this;  

    It’s not enough to say, “they made everything digital, and then they had two problems”
    The internet doesn’t just create problems for Media Producers, it creates solutions; content distributors have to recognize that digital production also guarantees that any instance of the content cannot be unique; By the definition, this solves a problem that necessitated copyright, it also means that create once, earn-forever is a dead idea: they’ll be working for the rest of their lives.  This is also not a bug.

  13. I had this odd thought that what people really want is to press software physically into chips, thus killing their general purpose’ness and regulating them to being physical again. That is, you don’t buy software, you buy tiny chips that only have that specific software etched into them (and aren’t general at all).  And they can only execute what is etched into them. They’ll be small and cheap enough that you just toss them away when you upgrade.  In that way you can lock up you’re code and only distributed what has been etched (and make money from everything that you’ve etched). The trick I guess is to have some type of bizarre circuits that are not general purpose (and can’t be emulated with something general purpose) if that is possible …

    • Heteromeles says:

      Ummm, isn’t that what Gibson talked about in Neuromancer?  Or old-fashioned video games?  Are we going back to the future, or where the cyberpunks right all along?

      • Tinned_Tuna says:

        More like some sort of FPGA that is write-once, it seems to me. But you can always get hold of dev boards for FPGAs and write your own processor.

      • It’s been a long time since I read Neuromancer, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that this sort of idea has surfaced thousands of times since the dawn of computing. These days it’s getting significantly harder to have an original thought :-)

        Back to the future :-) Special limited-use computers that are manifested in hardware and are so hard to copy that it is rarely done. And likely only for a percentage of the actual program is on the chip (so that it’s updatable to some degree).  Lots of stuff exists like this already, but I was thinking that the code and static data are executed directly off the chip (and thus hidden from the general processor) and there are use-once circuits that fry after they have been triggered.

        That would mean that you might get a 10,000 song chip that only works with music from a specific catalog (like some collection on iTunes). Once all of the ‘plays’ are fried, you’d toss it away and get a new one. But you’d still be able to download any song in a big set (and they could still track it, although a download would not necessary mean a play), and copy it wherever you liked. However, each song in the catalog would have to have some stuff missing from it that only exists on the chip (thus preventing a general purpose computer from using the digital information).

        It would be awkward, but with the size of chips these days, possibly doable …

    • digi_owl says:

      Cartridge based games consoles worked that way, and if one take a look online that did not stop people from turning them into easy to distribute files.

    • Bug menot says:

      This is in fact very much possible, especially with analog or optical/magnetic/RF (not obvious circuit traces) features.  This will ironically become practical to do in mass, once 3D printers get advanced enough to replicate most complex matter.  Might happen in my lifetime.  ;)

      Of course, if you can make that complex matter, it means there’s going to be ways to reverse-engineer said matter.  Something like the old Nibble-copier programs of the 1980′s comes to mind.  It’s kind of like taking a ‘photograph’ (in practice special microscope) of the recording on a CD and then making an optical copy instead of using your CD burner.  Of course, no one used analog copying methods for floppy disks – but it’s pretty close to the same idea.  Due to the nature of solid-state matter, it would in fact be pretty much a digital copy of the custom 3D-printed chip.  Now fluids on the other hand…  Would be very different challenge entirely!

  14. artbyjcm says:

    Very good writing here.

  15. Andrew Singleton says:

    As usual Mr Doctorow I can think of nothing to say here.

    Shared where I can because people need to see this.

  16. vruz says:

    I think “Lockdown” may well end up becoming an important milestone in history, on the level of Richard Stallman.

  17. Keith George says:

    Oh God, OF COURSE they want to take computers away from us!  OPf course!

  18. Bryan Wolf says:

    The only solution is complete openness.  Everything that can be shared must be shared. 

    • SubstrateUndertow says:

      Say like ?

      How to use a 3D printer to produce deadly viruses ?

      As in that kind of everything?

      There are no absolutes. Even for the good guys!

      • Thomas Shaddack says:

        At the moment there is a RNA/DNA printer out there, there will be a way how to print deadly viruses. One such machine can wreak a lot of havoc.

        The other side of the coin is that there will also be a way to analyze the viruses in-the-wild in real time and to “print” vaccines or gene-silencing sequences. For effective defense, these machines have to be in every doctor’s office, perhaps even in every other garage, to minimize the response time.

        If you want to keep such tech closed, you will only give more power to the bad guys.

      • Bug menot says:

        It could have the AV program from hell that you’d have to be pretty much insane to bypass, even if practical.  Otherwise, just one malware infection and you’re dead.

  19. thixotropic says:

    I disagree with only one thing: that legislators are unaware of the ramifications of laws like SOPA. The copyright battle is partly an excuse for the increase in social control long-sought, especially in America. In other words, breaking the internet isn’t a bug, it’s a feature.

    • SoItBegins says:

      “The Internet interprets censorship as damage, and routes around it.”

      That’s also a feature.

      • SubstrateUndertow says:

        Who’s internet would that be?

        I thing the point is that they are trying to remake the internet in their own image. As an unfettered corporate profit machine.

    • SubstrateUndertow says:

      You have a good point for sure.

      But still, I thing you may be ascribing more conscience intelligence to the process that is warranted.

      That or they are all experts at disguise and misdirection.

      • thixotropic says:

        It likely isn’t entirely conscious on their part of all pro-SOPA legislators — but I do believe it is on the part of those who buy their votes.

        If the very wealthy are not themselves experts at disguise and misdirection, they are at least smart enough to hire those who are.

        Speaking of misdirection? SOPA/PIPA were too easily routed… and today ACTA is apparently being signed into law in both the EU and US.

  20. wesmorgan1 says:

    Might we please have this article in PDF format – the better to spread it far and wide?

  21. SoItBegins says:

    Bravo! Bravo!

  22. Shay Guy says:

    The idea that the state of copyright legislation might be caused by politicians not knowing better than to apply the “special-purpose heuristic” hadn’t occurred to me. Interesting.

  23. Heteromeles says:

    Just for lulz, I’m running the thoughts in this essay against the systemic limits proposed by the Peak Oil crowd.  The permutations are somewhere between fascinating and scary, depending on whether you believe it’s all true on both sides, or that parts of it are true.

  24. William Uther says:

    This is a really interesting article/speech.  I think it is an important contribution.

    Having said that, I think there is a problem with one of the analogies.  In particular an analogy is made between a “law prohibiting hands-free phones in cars” and “fix the Internet so that it doesn’t run BitTorrent”.  I think a better analogy would be to compare a “law prohibiting hands-free phones in cars” and one to “prohibit the use of BitTorrent on the Internet”.  If you want an analogy for “fix the Internet so that it doesn’t run BitTorrent” then you need to go to “fix cars that you can’t use hands-free phones in them” (install jammers in all cars?).

    The difference is between outlawing a certain behaviour, and requiring a technological fix that makes the behaviour impossible.  Lots of stupid laws are made that outlaw behaviours – the war on drugs springs to mind.  There are very few other domains where people seem to think that technological fixes are required, and hence where technological fixes are legislated.

    This desire for technological fixes is a major part of what we should be fighting.

    • The difference is that what they are proposing is to jam all unauthorized radio-frequency voice-data transmission on freeways … e.g.  RF Jamming Equipment.  If  such a solution was passed, law enforcement wouldn’t be able to do its job.   They would be outraged.

      Why is it not O.K. to ignore the cops, but O.K. to ignore the nerds?

  25. @google-bd6b6eac8faf01c9391e34f26de83645:disqus Thanks for that―something was really bothering me about those analogies, but your observation / suggestion makes the whole thing make a little more sense.

  26. I call it the _Tower of Babel_. This must be what it looked like then. Our politics have reached a convergence with the limits of imagination. And now we must scatter.

    “General-purpose network” will become a definition for terms we use to identify actual communities. 

    Things like 1337speak need new gods. “Filesharing as a religion” is an indicator. Perhaps the powers that be see a problematic in effects of information density?

    What are the casualties of this new kind of war, the cyberwar? What are their affects on the general-purpose media network?

    What are our causalities now? The U.S. government wants us to understand something, and I’m not quite sure what it is. But I feel they are telling me that I haven’t been safe from what they are trying to take control of. As an American citizen, one must face, it seems, an issue of trust. _Who_ is prepared to talk in terms of war when the traditional weapons bring no weight? When ssh is a rifle? 

    What are the causalities in this kind of war?

  27. Timothy Done says:

    Hey, government.  Leave the Internet alone.

  28. It’s not just about content and function, it’s about data and privacy too:

    there’s a big political debate coming, and the essence is about personal freedom and liberty vs technology (through companies and governments) owning us

    • SubstrateUndertow says:

      We own your dataset.

      Now sit down on your assigned stool and stand up for the principal when called upon.


  29. Mr. Doctorow should concentrate on the network side. Regarding acceptance of SaaS, I do not think people will use general purpose computers or software in the future. SaaS moves power from the customer to the producer so the war may already be lost.

  30. atimoshenko says:

    The government, and the corporations it serves, are out of control because there is no easy and legal way to spy on them. The biggest threat is not a war on general-purpose computing (which would never be winnable without the use of general purpose computing), but the deployment of the full power of general purpose computing towards nefarious ends. Power will always be abused to the extent (and only to the extent) of the power asymmetry that exists. Banning power (like banning knowledge) never works very well. Instead, we should be pushing to make sure that citizens gain power in lock-step with governments and businesses.

    • SubstrateUndertow says:

      I agree !

      The real measure of a democracy is the degree to which it can create and maintain mechanisms that enforce well distributed participation in wealth , power, education and control.

      We citizens are indeed in a preverbal monkey in the middle situation.

      We must find ways to divid and conquer both the government and the corporations so that neither can gain the kind of sweeping powers that would endanger our democratic community values.

  31. Mariusz says:

    Interesting article with many points to ponder however the font is ugly and difficult to read.  I almost got a headache after reading the entire thing.

  32. A while back (May 2010) I put together this illustration

    … which provides a high level view of the points where the lockdown exist.

  33. Thank you for a very informative (and entertaining!) read.

    Control freaks – the worst kind of freaks there are.

  34. eponyme says:

    The interesting question here is : are laws like SOPA a response to copyright infringement or is it the result a long-term plan destined to control information over the internet? 

    Internet offers a lot of distractions for people and governments love this part; The dumber we get, the happier they get. But it also offers free information and it’s a bad thing for them. People might eventually realize that they are making fun of and revolt against governments. 

    What the governments seek is power; And control IS power. 

  35. I just posted my Estonian translation of this article at

  36. Zachery Dean says:

    All I hear is that SOPA is bad, wrong, unAmerican, etc… which is fine.  I understand the principle,  and I can’t say that I disagree.  However, offer solutions!  You obviously understand that legislators have a job and responsibility.  You understand their conumdrum, their M.O.  I’m also sure you understand the ramifications if our legislators no nothing.  You are saying a lot but I don’t hear anything.  What are your solutions?  What would you like to see changed or modified or remove from SOPA?   You’re article was well written, well thoughtout and full of sense but you stopped short of completion. 

    Every sector has a beef.  Every professional has a referee.  Every individual has their opinion.  You sound like the Wall Street crowd, please don’t regulate us leave us be.  Ironic huh?

    • eponyme says:

      More solutions like netflix will solve the problem. People will be happy to pay if the price is reasonable and if the service offers the same choice as the p2p does.

      • B_P_G says:

        Exactly.  The problem is that when the price charged is so much greater than the cost then 1. profit margins are high (and they are for most of what gets pirated) and 2. people find other ways to obtain the stuff. 

        So my solution?  I’m not sure there needs to be one.  We seriously need to reform copyright law in this country.  Read the constitution.  Copyrights are allowed in order to promote the useful arts.  Nobody has some guaranteed right to make as much money on anything they ever write or produce forever.  Patents are only good for 14 years or something.  Why are they limited but copyrights aren’t?  Copyright-holders in many fields get very rich very quickly and don’t need this level of protection anymore. 

        In my opinion music copyrights should be eliminated entirely.  The cost of producing and distributing music is far cheaper than it was years ago.  If everybody and their brother copies your song free off the net then that’s a huge audience for you.  You can capitalize off of it by giving concerts, licensing it out to TV shows and movies, and doing other public appearances.  The potential market is so large for today’s musicians that even with all the piracy that currently goes on most are far richer than in previous generations. 

        As far as films and TV shows – you can probably dump the copyrights on those too or at least limit them to a few short years.  Who are you really hurting?   Most of a movie’s revenue comes from the theatres.  And even there its the first weekend that makes or breaks the thing.  Aggressively go after people who illegally distribute early releases and those who do illegal public showings but other than that let people copy for their own use as they wish.  Most people would still rather have a proper DVD of a film they like but they aren’t willing to pay $30 for it when the marginal cost to produce it is probably $2 or less.  So basically get rid of excess profits from DVD sales.  Studios can make their money in the theaters and on TV.  So long as you let them have a monopoly on the content for a year or so people will still go see it in theatres or get it on Netflix. 

        And as far as software – it should be treated exactly as patents are treated – since most of it is more functional than artistic.  Whether you keep the protection period at 14 years I don’t know but there should be something there since there’s few other ways to capitalize on that stuff without selling it outright to every user. 

        So I guess my solution is you’ve got to pick your battles.  The government needs to reduce copyright protection in order to focus enforcement on the industries that would be totally dead without it.  And as far as SOPA and DMCA and other such laws go, you need to make sure that you don’t sacrifice peoples’ freedoms in order to make life easier for law enforcement.  If it is impossible to enforce IP law then too friggin bad.  I’d rather live in a free country than one where people can get really rich by writing music or software. 

    • Melissa Gemmel says:

      Is SOPA a fix for a real problem, or is it a response to a few well-moneyed corporate lobbyists that have purchased this law?  I suggest that it is the latter, not the former!  It is time to update many of our laws, not for corporate profit but to reflect our high-tech society.  Sadly, many laws are written based on poorly defined or pre-constructed concepts, or to promote social issues that are desired by the few, and constrain the many. Perfect example is Rick Santorum’s ideas about limiting or eliminating contraception as it leads to social anarchy! Is he going to adopt the millions of unwanted children this will produce? I have lost any faith I may have once had that our leaders have our best interest at heart! And the more control they garner, the less liberty we will enjoy. It’s time to look at these so-called problems, ask if the need is real, and only then, create a solution that benefits the whole rather than the few.

  37. Rick Berry says:

    We’re accustomed to thinking of “The Internet” as a highly infrastructural commodity provided by TPTB.
    I suggest a paradigm shift, from using “The Internet” infrastructure to creating our own self-organizing network of networks, for example, using high-bandwidth RF spectrum abandoned by the move from analog to digital Television. 
    With desktop fabrication of working electronic hardware, FPGA radio transceivers, and open-source instructions for creating and installing nodes that self-organize into a meta-network, we route around governments’ attempts to regulate and control our information and therefore us.
    WE are the masters of our destinies; it’s time to stop assuming what we want will be provided, and to step up and start working on providing it ourselves.
    Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves the peasants in a collective straight out of _Anthem_ by Ayn Rand.

    • Zachery Dean says:

      Rick I began to reply to your comment but it’s really for everyone.  YOU (techies) who think that the world is some free open society where everything should be allowed is:  immature, unrealistic, self serving, obnoxious, unsophisticated and lives in a bubble.  YOU (techies) are just a small percent of any population like any clique or group or organization.  YOU’RE needs do not, cannot and will not dictate the wants and needs of us all. 

      To conclude, I understand your contention, your point has merit but get out of your box and see the world for what it is.  Its about balance.  Incorporate balance into your cause and the world will change.   

      • Rick Berry says:

        So, the essence of your reply is “That won’t work because that’s not the way the real world is”?
        The real world is what we make it. What we decide to make it. 
        Don’t think you can stuff me in a convenient pigeonhole and thereby make me irrelevant.
        I and others like me will make the world what we want it to be (if we wake up and take up the reigns), whether you think we can or should, and whether you like it or not.
        Get on board, if you want to have your say. But stand in the way and you’ll either get run over or left behind.

        • Zachery Dean says:

          Good summation.  But I don’t want to stuff you anywhere, you’re already stuffed.  Whether we like it or not we  are all stuffed.  You and others know what’s right for you and  yours but not for everyone.  I don’t want to get on board because I don’t have your beef.  Boundaries are a part of life.  Learning to navigate the boundaries and playing within the rules can still give you want you want without redesigning the wheel.  I love the fact that those like you inherently want out of the box because the box holds you down.  I dont want to hold you down.  I want to empower YOU  to change the box from within. 

          • Thomas Shaddack says:

            The box is only the result of accepting it. Ignore it and it disappears. Why change it from within when it does not exist?

            A real change usually comes from someone who refused to accept the boundaries, who crossed them instead of navigating them. Who questioned the public wisdom that the Earth is flat.

          • SubstrateUndertow says:

            Now you are just being rude and defensive.

            We need all the help we can get.

            Even help form outside your personal skill set and from outside your subjectively defined boxed landscape ! 

          • Gao Hsia En says:

            Right. Gotta stop this freedom/liberty/First Amendment crap.

          • Melissa Gemmel says:

            Change from within?  Why must I agree with the rules before being allowed in? Most significant changes in history did not come from within, but from those without – without power, money, freedom, etc.  Ask the Romans, European nobility, even the founding fathers!

        • SubstrateUndertow says:

          I think he is saying that we need solutions that come out of the larger democratic process.

          Your solution is ambitious and creative but it too can easily be politically controlled by bureaucratic changed in bandwidth control rules.

          Still I thing you have an important point. Putting pressure on the lockdown crowd using technical innovations like the 

          FreedomBox Foundation’s plug-computers

          will be very productive in the long run.

          Quoting – Eben Moglen

          “Software code is the crucial component
          of everything in the 21st century

          Software is what the 21st century is made of

          What steel was to the economy of the 20 th century
          What steel was to the power of the 20 th century
          What steel was to the politics of the 20 th century
          Software is now

          It is the curial building block
          the component out of which everything else is made

          and when I speak of everything – I mean of course:
          as well as Tyranny
          as well as Business as usual
          as well as Spying on Everyone for free all the time

          In other words the very composition of social life

          The way it works or doesn’t work
          For US
          The way it works or doesn’t work
          For those that Own
          The way it works or doesn’t work
          For those who Oppress

          All now depends on software!”
          - – Eben Moglen

          Three Eben Moglen Videos

      • Thomas Shaddack says:

        Who will determine what the balance is? The Powers That Be who own the political control? Isn’t it only fair to use everything the techies have to the fullest extent to push against this, to actually KEEP the balance?

        Face it, in the real world the needs of the technicians DO dictate the wants and needs of the others: the techies are the ones capable of both thinking up a possibility and then implementing it, and often a single person with an idea and the skills is all that’s needed to make a worldwide difference. (Example: Napster. Another example, PGP.) The unwashed masses then often become coveting the possibilities – or sometimes it serves just the techies (and that’s okay too). People cannot want what they cannot imagine, and, face it, most people’s imagination is rather limited.

        For everything you are using today, there had to be somebody who invented it. That’s how the real world works. Try to limit the possibilities for the tinkerers/creators, and you will only limit your own future because the creators will ignore you (and the politicos pandering to you) with extreme prejudice.

        • SubstrateUndertow says:

          “the medium is the message”

          Technology is the medium, the substrate, the platform, upon which our message of social evolution is built

      • Gao Hsia En says:

        Right. Next thing you know, they’ll be wanting to vote for Ron Paul or some Libertarian. Can’t let that happen.

      • Avi Lambert says:


        While McLughan was an English professor, his insights into the ‘global village’ and the ‘information economy’ highlight that we are in an information society now.

        Are you at all familiar with the financial meltdown? We got there because of highly technical people hedging loan and credit financials. These people are also sometimes called quants. Quants are techies, so are CFA’s and the guy who hooks up your internet and cable TV. They gloam around each of us.

        On another note, Rick made a good point but perhaps without the specificity needed. Everything should not be free. But some things, as human rights, should be accorded to everyone in societies where taxes are legislated to maintain  infrastructure. for ex, water, waste, radio, education, health care, food… I should say that I live in Canada, not the USA.

        Open-source connectivity can be attained through connecting devices through zigby and whitespace – two registers of the electro-magenetic spectrum that are free of licenses.

        Sign the petition!
        Stop the Squeeze :

      • Vlad Teodor says:

        I don’t think you see the Big Picture here. It might not be obivious for non-technical people, but accepting regulations like SOPA or PIPA will set the founding stone for the Internet Communism. Eventually, everything the Internet has to offer wil have been (dis)approved by a governing body that will eventually be dominated by interest groups. This is the reality. This is where SOPA and PIPA lead us.

        It seems like some americans, beings so used with their Freedom of Speech, tend to forget that hundreds of thousands or probably millions died in Europe to gain their freedom of speech and freedom of information at the end of the 80s.

        This is the difference between us, the techies, and you, the rest of the world: we see the big picture when it comes to stuff like this.

  38. smileoftdecade says:

    another good article about Money.

  39. eponyme says:

    You’re fullish to think that our legislators make choices. They’re puppets 

    • SubstrateUndertow says:

      You don’t need to pay a puppet to do you dirty work?

      These people are not powerless puppets. They are either fools or well paid sellouts!

      We are all puppets to some degree because of forces beyond our control. The true fools among us are not even aware of the hidden strings and thus cannot even try to tug back.

      No body here but us puppets and them fools.

  40. Enric says:

    This is a really interesting post.  

    But on formatting:  I read this on my iPhone and it worked really well.  But it’s not formatted well for larger screens.  What happened to formatting to screen size?

  41. A computer that can run anything – does that include the programme that prevents it from playing anything 
    Self-referential echoes of Doglas Hofstaedter here – Godel Escher Bach , An Eternal Golden Braid.,_Escher,_Bach

    • Thomas Shaddack says:

      If there is an omnipotent god, can he create a boulder so big he cannot lift it?

      There’s a meaningful difference between philosophy and engineering. One is about talking about stuff. The other is about actually doing said stuff.

      • Yup, and if we assume we have something close to Universal Turing Machines, it makes no sense to attempt to de-universalize them, because any subset is likely to either be capable of behaving like a heck of a lot of TMs or almost none at all.

        So the unsophisticated choice  is Universal or Brick – I’d rather keep on the universal end of that scale. 

        As for the commercial rather than practical arguments, I would rather see a little fast and loose behaviour and slightly poorer Hollywood, than mass unemployment and a failed economy.  But then I don’t live in Hollywood ;)

    • SubstrateUndertow says:

      Yes that program is called


      program may require some user input

  42. Joseph Yen says:

    To expand the car analogy for non-techies — it would be like trying to make a car that can’t drive on certain roads; relying on surveillance and a killswitch.  Hopefully, the hearing aid and computing eco-system embedded in future Corey does not become legislated as well…

    • Melissa Gemmel says:

      If you have an interface with another entity, like OnStar, installed in your auto, then your car has a kill-switch already installed. Your car can be totally deactivated at any time by those running the OnStar system.  This was sold under the guise of recovering stolen autos. Hahhhh!

  43. Medicalquack says:

    I agree with keeping the internet open, but the US has to figure out how to keep up with corporate USA and the data miners and start licensing and taxing those who sell data they mine and this is for “sellers” not those who use the data to make browsers better.  I call it the Alternative Millionaires Tax and I think about it every time I pay an excise tax for a tire. 

    It is so out out control with the bots that several states had to buy software to keep the bots out as their servers slow down to a crawl.  Again why should corporate USA make all the money here as the middle class needs something in return.  This would fund a lot of programs and slow down the processes as so much of it now is getting flawed with miners not updating and so on too. 

    It’s the Attack of the Killer Algorithms getting tougher every day.

  44. Bill says:

    “all attempts at controlling PCs will converge on rootk”

    That is not a technical necessity. It is actually possible to construct a general purpose computing device that allows its user to view, review and control all code it runs and at the same time give a 3rd party the option to control _what_ code can run on the device:

    Everything can be open source, hardware, OS and applications. You just need a trusted boot chain, a key embedded in the TCP which is under the control of the 3rd party as well as all binaries signed by said party.

    Such device could be verifyably free of spyware, only let users run aproved software (though it could allow root access) yet let the goverment or vendor control what it is used for.

  45. Someone once said “all property is theft”.  Modern variant, perhaps a truer statement might be “all intellectual property is theft”.  Should people really still get paid for a day’s work they did 50 years ago? Think Cliff Richard and “Living Doll”.  The rest of us don’t….

    • SubstrateUndertow says:

      Even Karl Marx disagreed with Pierre-Joseph Proudhon on that one.

      Still patent time-limit extensions are truly out of control. 

      They do serious damage to the vast reuse potential inherent in our knowledge-based social-capital by dampening the key strengths of a network based, collaborative, economy.

      Remix synthesis is the new engineering catalyst.

      • G_A says:

        When it comes to patent time limits, look no further than the medical companies supporting SOPA to see what it has lead to in practice.

        The U.S. has a patent protection time length for medical patents longer than any other western country. This has lead to massive legal action against legal, Canadian sites and stores selling t.ex. paracetamol to Americans.

        Thus, when the medical corporations claim they will go after “rouge websites”, they mean every site that sells paracetamol no matter how legal it is in the country where the store is placed. As long as it has a .com, .net. .org, or .us they would have taken it down, and refuse PayPal to provide payment to the site.

        That ai’nt right, that’s just legalized cartelmethods. But thta is, I guess, what is to be suspected from the worlds first corpocracy.

    • Proudhon was speaking mainly of real property (what we call real estate, or land, today). He said in the same document, “property is liberty”, and “property is impossible”. More a rhetorical tool upon which to build an essay than a manifesto. Still, he and many of his contemporaries fought against state-granted monopolies, among which was the patent/copy monopoly, and I’m fairly certain he would agree with your rephrasing. : )

  46. Terris Linenbach says:

    I was getting ready to watch Dark Fiber Rising but AT&T U-verse canceled it.

  47. There was a time when no recording devices existed, and you had free reign to repeat any story or song that you’d ever heard. If you did it well, you could even make a modest living from it.

    The film and music industries are not Nobel-winning scientists, they haven’t cured tropical diseases or saved millions of lives. Modern day bards and minstrels have no automatic right to be multi-millionaires, earning vast sums from identical, virtual, repeat performances on tiny screens and tinny speakers as though they were magically playing to us all. Those days are over.They want to stay relevant? Think beyond the copyright and add value. No living room can boast an IMAX 3D or a concert audience, no MP3 has studio-quality sound and a box set of collectibles.

    But it has a computer, and it can copy anything.

  48. Alan Dix says:

    The ignorance behind SOPA and a raft of similar legislation and court cases across the world is deeply worrying.  However, that is no excuse for blinkered views on the other side.  As I read this piece I wondered what would happen if I substituted the word ‘gun’ for ‘computer’ – guns are general purpose shooting machines, restricting in anyway our rights to shoot anyone and anything would therefore take away the fundamental purpose of the gun. The examples towards the end of SONY’s use of rootkits in its DRM and spyware for schoolkids show that somethings can be problematic with the general purpose computer. Would it be deeply wrong to legislate in some way to prevent this sort of malware?  

    In fact the internet is not ‘general-purpose’, I cannot send packets unless they are well-formed IP.  Whether through standards (such as IP), social mores or government law, we all the time limit the potential of general purpose things from iron to words.  The problem is that the internet has meant that the normal means of national legislation are broken by transnational networks, corporations and gangs.  Legislators are struggling to cope with this; if 1/10 of the articles attacking SOPA were to suggest more workable and fair alternatives, then the members of congress may be able to make more informed decisions.  

    It is easy for us in technology to slip, like a sincerely converted Kopimist, into a veneration for the pristine and sacred nature of computation.  However, computers are there to serve us not the other way round.

    A geneticist would laugh at the idea that in some way information technology is more complex than genetics and therefore congress has a right to legislate on the one but not the other.

    And yes, there are things more important than copyright and computers, health and unemployment among them.

  49. mike hampton says:

    You can design an algorithm and record it in some way (that’s how computers work).  This is analogous to recording a signal, this indicates that the signal can then be copied.  There is no way to stop this process, it is fundamental to physics.  The problem has always been there (I recorded music on cassette tapes as a young’un).  The comment above from “Ben Bogart” about the problem being our concept of property might be the root of issue here.  Once you share your intellectual property with the world, the world can, and will, reproduce it.  This is as clear as people hearing an idea, and then agreeing with it and repeating the idea.  Is this theft?

  50. IanLenathen says:

      Smart apps on a dumb pipe will solve many problems…

  51. Avi Lambert says:

    I agree with the comment about the typeface. Also, an executive summary would have been useful – esp. for sharing.

     My question Cory, is this: how do you suggest to proactively effect policy and legislation? On that note, the market signals  for security and surveillance companies are bright green. Shifting policy is then necessarily connected to shifting market signals. Policy and market signals rarely go in opposite directions.

     In other words, SOPA, as a firm, soft and hardware issue is complex: political, economic, socio-technical…It’s an issue that matters to all of us.

    But just take a look at the growth of the ipad and iphone. While Apple has provided something beautiful, that many enjoy, there’s little, if any awareness of the concept of a dumb terminal.  

  52. The war on general-purpose computing has started. Glyn Moody of ComputerWorld UK has reasons to think that Microsoft is trying to use UEFI to block Linux on ARM systems.

    • Melissa Gemmel says:

      Years ago Microsoft tried to solve this problem by buying its competitors, but that’s no longer possible, thank god.  They were one of the first proponents of tech control, and remain it’s leader.

  53. AriTai says:

    re: 3d printing. 

    Well, what I suspect will bring the issue to crisis is protein-printing.  Input amino acids, output arbitrary protien.  Aka drug of the day, good and bad (patented and not, legal and illegal substances.. Who’s to say what I do in the privacy of my kitchen-printer? :-).  To say nothing of every individual being able to hold their neighbors hostage with “treat me better or I’ll see what variant of the plague I can release today.”

    (granted, usually sensors and test equipment progress in advance of new tools – so we’ll know who killed whom..  and/or the antivirus companies will finally earn their name, etc.)

  54. Why can’t we just make a general purpose computer that won’t run the Straumli Blight?

  55. Mark McGuire says:

    The market for “Dumb Terminals” (see Avi Lambert’s comment below) is large, and growing. Many of us will allow our freedoms to be limited in return for “free” services, convenience, and ease of use. Of course, we will want to eat our cake and print it, too. But if too many flock to the walled garden, who will be left to maintain the public square? How many would want to return there if the (privately owned and controlled) replica in the garden appears to be so much cleaner, safer, and alluring?

  56. Juan René Hernández says:

    Hi, I took the liberty of making a spanish translation of this article you can find it here

  57. Avi Lambert says:

    On the one hand it’s a mix between hardware and software. On the other, something I think strongly related to education and demographics. There’s a clear line in the sand between millennials and baby boomers; at the very least in terms of computer knowledge.

    How many schools are losing the workshop for a better computer lab? Will only the elder generation get dumb terminals without any awareness of the difference in value? In the same vain, while more and more people are graduating from computer science and crafting apps on every platform we run the risk of painting all of society with the same brush when we promote the idea that manufacturers will limit smart terminals without any response from geeks, red hats and code-writing-monkeys.

  58. Lorinc Del Motte says:

    Now I get what Stallman is rambling about; seems like the “loony” is the sane one.

  59. stan kwiatkowski says:

    Ok, the Polish translation is available here:

  60. Yes! Music for free! Movies for free!
    What about food for free! Yeah! and medicine!
    And your work for free? ….ehr…hold on a sec…

  61. smashingtech says:

    New Megaupload site here:

  62. Promethean Sky says:

    Great, now I’m terrified in a whole new way.

  63. I think one of the most disturbing aspects of this are the models these industrustries are using to follow are also some of the most repressive nations – and they battle some of those that are the most democratic and free. 

    China’s great firewall began under the context to “stop priracy”. Within the first year, 50% of chinese websites disappeared. That was just 2 short years ago. It’s spine-chilling. China’s internet is one of the “good” examples used by USTR and Chamber of Commerce. So is Iran and Syria’s internet. 

    Corporations don’t have the same definition of “democracy” that I think most of the public does. To them, it’s an economic term that is more like, “freedom for corporations to do business without governmental influemce” (and you can assume influence from the public). 

    That’s why Hollywood boldly threatened Washington DC after SOPA didn’t pass. They don’t fear the public – they have marketing, public relations, big ads, and own the airwaves and newspaper. Our information sources. 

    This really is a war.

  64. pbzzram alam says:

    It’s all about trust. If maximum freedom is desired, the people need to ‘own’ the networks and machines and by ‘own’ I mean that they have to democratically opt to create these systems, not just simply buy them individually. But this isn’t the case at the moment. We have to buy into proprietary systems and we are told (albeit mumbled to in some tedious smallprint) what we can and cannot  legally do with these products. We have to trust ISPs to allow liberal usage of their service which they often don’t supply. It’s a damn shame that there is so little left in the world that the people own in this sense. We don’t own the phone networks and we don’t own the postal system because our democracies exhibit little public control over them. The digital currency, Bitcoin, allows the people to be much closer to ‘owning’ a monetary system (it’s reasonably hard for nefarious individuals to command) by decentralisation thus removing the problem of having to trust banks. Yet to use it one must pay ISPs for access to the Net and run the client programs on a proprietary machine. So the problem will always be that the only people who seem to be able to provide computers and the like, are the large corporations and governments. If you want to use computers like this, you have to trust that the moral intentions of corporations are good, that they have respect for consumers privacy and freedom.  If the people of this world democratically agree to produce and fund a public information infrastructure, one that can suppress the narrow minded aspirations of power hungry institutions and criminals, then we solve a significant number of the problems presented here. We need to construct global networks and computers on the back of preexisting democratic establishments and nothing else so that no individual or closed institution will ever have a mandate to interfere.

    • moderate Guy says:

      “If the people of this world democratically agree to produce and fund a public information infrastructure…” – you mean infrastructure controlled by the governments, with all the control freaks embedded into the structure of these governments, as opposed to corporations, which, for the most parts care only about making money?
      I know which I would rather have in producing and funding things.

  65. nickova says:

    Knowledge is power to be independent. Power needs to be controlled by a few self-interested groups. These groups are _Helping_ the people, so they don’t have to fish for themselves. It’s merely coincidence in the fact that it’s not profitable to teach a man to fish when you can sell him fish every day for the rest of his life.

  66. nate-m nate-m says:

    > Unfortunately, information technology confounds these heuristics—it kicks thecrap out of them—in one important way.
    No they really don’t. The representatives suck at making rules for urban planning and biochemistry just as much as they suck at making rules for technology.

    The major difference is that you don’t know how badly they do at urban planing because they are the only example you have ever seen at urban planing.  You don’t have anything to compare it to. You are not a expert at it, you haven’t seen hundreds of examples of it. The only examples of urban planing is the urban environments you live in and those are governed by the rules created by your elected government. So you see the rules and you see that they do something important so you just assume they must be good rules.  You simply do not know anything else. The idea that you have a urban environment without the rules imposed on you by your government is a foreign and terrifying concept.  It must be similar to how people felt in the middle ages if you told them that they didn’t need to church to rule over them.

      With information technology the government had almost no input on it besides funding some types of research. It was built and designed in a distributed manner by practical people for practical purposes. They didn’t enforce the rules and laws of computing through threats, instead people follow the protocols and rules voluntarily because it is in their self interest to do so. It required the voluntary cooperation of millions of people around the world all using general purpose computers in a harmonious manner. It couldn’t work in any other manner. Now that you see your representatives trying to make up their own rules for information technology you can compare their ideas and rules to what actually works and it is extremely obvious to you how bad they are at their jobs.

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