When Good Technology Finishes Last
According to Linus Torvalds, the so-called "father" of Linux and noted proponent of both Opern Source Software (OSS) and the General Public License (GPL), "good technology" will ultimately prevail in a contest between good and bad. I wished I had his faith. With the wanton assault on the rights of individuals to freely distribute information hitting every corner of the Internet; with the Canadian government getting ready to introduce legistlation paralelling the US’s DCMA, mandating ISPs to virtually spy on their customers, and with DRM technology worming its way into every new device created to protect media distribution – it’s hard through it all to see the bright, free future Torvalds does.
To his credit, Torvalds is doing something about it. And he obviously cares enough about the issue to have put himself in a position to. But I don’t agree with him using that position to paint a rosier picture than one that fits the reality of the sitution. And it’s not at all clear to me he knows the issue better than anyone else – it’s pretty straightforward to see what the intent and impact of the various modern media control measures are. He’s a year older than me – so he’s from the same generation that witnessed the good ‘ol days when Apple made devices for its comptuers that worked only with its own hardware (at an inflated price). (In fact, Apple’s still at it with some of its devices.) He’s seen the impact that so-called "anti-piracy" tarrifs on casette tapes applied, sucessfully, in countries like Canada and the US (perhaps Finalnd too). And then, perhaps most important of all, there’s how the Internet has changed over the past 15 years. If it isn’t obvious to anyone who’s used the Net that long that changes that restrict the free flow of information haven’t been introduced – they’ve had their head in the sand. The introduction of proxies, rules governing mandatory logging and a variety of measures to track people using the web, most notably HTTP cookies, are all examples.
Almost none of these measures existed when I first started using the Internet – and I gotta expect that Torvalds could report the same thing. The fact is, his example of DRM technology simply making things more difficult for people can be applied to a whole host of technolgoies that are becomming commonplace today. (See my earlier article concerning the (mis)appropriation of XML standards used for creating healthcare technologies.) And it’s getting worse, not better.
While GPL is a valuable means of keeping the sharks of media/information control at bay, I suspect it might not be enough as the big technology vendors pursue solutions which allow for control measures. Microsoft, for example, didn’t embed DRM into Windows Media Player (WMP) because customers wanted it. In order to get entertainment producers to use the technology ahead of other products, Microsoft decided to offer DRM as a "feature" of WMP. This exemplifies that the source of the control isn’t the manufacturer of any given technology – it’s the record labels and the entertainment producers that are desperately trying to put the genie back in the bottle: taking to suing average people suspected of downlading using apps like eDonkey, setting either RIAA or the MPAA to shutting down websites and getting compliance via the "old ways" of distribution – technology be damned. It’s this force that needs to be reckoned with, and the free flow of information that’s a product of Internet technologies is, as we all know, what is presenting that opportunity.
Hopefully, Torvalds’ assertion that technolgies which introduce artifical tolls or difficulty to the consumer will eventually end up on the big virtual trash-heap in the sky is realized. But while GPL is a really solid line of defense in the struggule, it’s not gonna win the war.