Google tries to define a valid family. Predictable awfulness ensues.

Ten years ago, a group of engineers and media executives sat down to decide what was, and was not, a real family. The results were predictably terrible.

The effort resulted from a trendy idea in DRM circles: the "authorized domain," which would be a "family's worth" of devices that could be authorized to share content. The first attempt to implement this was in European digital TV standardisation at the DVB's CPCM working group.


I was at those meetings, and we had some absurd arguments that would have been hilarious if they hadn't been so grotesque. I'll never forget trying to explain why it was just as important to accommodate families where the mother worked overseas as a domestic servant as it was to figure out how a family could share its media with the screens in its private yacht, summer home, and personal vehicles.

The "family unit" is one of those deceptively simple ideas that get more complicated the harder you look at them (other examples: good words and bad words, street addresses, names of people, and even more people's names). That's OK: things that are foundational to our identities have to cover a lot of ground -- the idiosyncrasies of everyone who's ever lived and ever will live, for starters.

The problem is when programmers set out to proscribe what is, and is not, a valid form of human existence: to exhaustively list all the rules for what is a gender, or a name, or a home, or a family. Then, the extremely WEIRD experience of programmers and their bosses becomes a straitjacket they apply to everyone else in the world.

So when I was at the DRM standardization meetings where we were attempting to define a valid family, the following were all dismissed as "edge cases":

* Children who live with two or more families through joint custody arrangements

* Elderly people who live on a ward with many other elderly people

* Families where one or more members works overseas as a construction or domestic laborer

One solution proposed for these was that there could be a toll-free number you could call up to explain your living arrangements to, and the person at the call center would decide whether you were in a real family or not (a rep for a major operating system vendor explained that this system "worked well" for his company's products, which led me to believe that he'd never had to use it) -- this was such shitty science fiction I was moved to write a short story about it.

However, the following family arrangements were all featured prominently in the spec's use cases, and great pains were taken to make sure it could cover them:


* A family has screens in multiple homes, as well as vehicles


* A family has a member who travels for work and stays in fancy hotels

* A family goes overseas together for regular holidays

Well, bad ideas never die, they just re-emerge at Google. The Google Play store has just defined a "family" who can share their apps, and along with this, they've set out the criteria for who can be a "family manager," recapitulating every stupidity of CPCM and then some, including:

* Family managers can only be members of one family


* Family managers can only swap families every 12 months

* Family managers need to live in the same country as their families

Terence Eden's got screenshots of the terms of service, with the pithy caption, "File under 'Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Families.'"

File under "Falsehoods Programmers Believe About Families." [Terence Eden/Twitter]

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