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How to save the CBC, making it a global online participatory leader



In my latest Guardian column, What Canada's national public broadcaster could learn from the BBC, I look at the punishing cuts to the CBC, and how a shelved (but visionary) BBC plan to field a "creative archive" of shareable and remixable content could help the network lead the country into a networked, participatory future.

The CBC, at least, has only limited delusions about the importance of commercialising its archives, especially when that comes at the expense of access to the archives for Canadians. Canada is a young nation, and the CBC has been there with Canadians for about half of the country's short life. The contents of the CBC's archives are even more central to the identity of Canadians that the BBC's is to Britons.

If the CBC is to be cut and remade as a digital-first public service entity, then a Canadian Creative Archive could be one way for it to salvage some joy from its misery. There's nothing more "digital first" than ensuring that the most common online activities – copying, sharing, and remixing – are built into the nation's digital heritage.

What's more, the CBC's situation is by no means unique. In an era of austerity, massive wealth inequality, industrial-scale tax-evasion and totalising market orthodoxy, there's hardly a public broadcaster anywhere in the world that isn't facing brutal cuts that go to the bone and beyond.

All of these broadcasters have something in common: they produced their massive archives at public expense, for the public's benefit, and have made only limited progress in giving the public online access to those treasures.

What Canada's national public broadcaster could learn from the BBC


How Hachette made the rope that Amazon is hanging it with


In my latest Guardian column, "How Amazon is holding Hachette hostage," I discuss the petard that the French publishing giant Hachette is being hoisted upon by Amazon. Hachette insisted that Amazon sell its books with "Digital Rights Management" that only Amazon is allowed to remove, and now Hachette can't afford to pull its books from Amazon, because its customers can only read their books with Amazon's technology. So now, Hachette has reduced itself to a commodity supplier to Amazon, and has frittered away all its market power. The other four major publishers are headed into the same place with Amazon, and unless they dump DRM quick, they're going to suffer the same fate.

Under US law (the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act) and its global counterparts (such as the EUCD), only the company that put the DRM on a copyrighted work can remove it. Although you can learn how to remove Amazon's DRM with literally a single, three-word search, it is nevertheless illegal to do so, unless you're Amazon. So while it's technical child's play to release a Hachette app that converts your Kindle library to work with Apple's Ibooks or Google's Play Store, such a move is illegal.

It is an own-goal masterstroke. It is precisely because Hachette has been so successful in selling its ebooks through Amazon that it can't afford to walk away from the retailer. By allowing Amazon to put a lock on its products whose key only Amazon possessed, Hachette has allowed Amazon to utterly usurp its relationship with its customers. The law of DRM means that neither the writer who created a book, nor the publisher who invested in it, gets to control its digital destiny: the lion's share of copyright control goes to the ebook retailer whose sole contribution to the book was running it through a formatting script that locked it up with Amazon's DRM.

The more books Hachette sold with Amazon DRM, the more its customers would have to give up to follow it to a competing store.

How Amazon is holding Hachette hostage

(Image: Noose, Old Austin County Jail, Bellville, Texas 0130101348BW, Patrick Feller, CC-BY)


Interviewing Leila Johnstone about Hack Circus


My latest Guardian column is an interview with Leila Johnston about her Hack Circus project, which includes a conference, a podcast and a print magazine, all with a nearly indefinable ethic of independence and art for its own sake.

The opposite of useful is not always useless, as such. The opposite of reportage is not always silliness, and the opposite of consumer messaging is not always fooling around. Playboy is one of the most successful media enterprises of all time, so presumably people don't want entertainment for functional reasons. Perhaps fooling around can be a very effective business model.

The events are fun, but they are reality-distorting rather than "comedy". They are funny because the clever, strange people who like Hack Circus are naturally funny and have done such wonderfully surprising things, not because they've written a routine. I don't want to do a science comedy night for sceptics and atheists – there's plenty of that around. I'm far more interested in, and identify far more strongly with, the credulous than the sceptical, and I'm consciously working against the resistance to imagination that scepticism presents.

Leila Johnston: 'Digital culture has created a new outsider'


Talking with APM’s Marketplace about the Disneyland prospectus

I was on American Public Media’s Marketplace yesterday talking (MP3) about our posting of a rarer-than-rare Disney treasure, the never-before-seen original prospectus for Disneyland, scanned before it was sold to noted jerkface Glenn Beck, who has squirreled it away in his private Scrooge McDuck vault.


Mozilla breaks our hearts, adds DRM to Firefox


For months, I've been following the story that the Mozilla project was set to add closed source Digital Rights Management technology to its free/open browser Firefox, and today they've made the announcement, which I've covered in depth for The Guardian. Mozilla made the decision out of fear that the organization would haemorrhage users and become irrelevant if it couldn't support Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Video, and other services that only work in browsers that treat their users as untrustable adversaries.

They've gone to great -- even unprecedented -- lengths to minimize the ways in which this DRM can attack Firefox users. But I think there's more that they can, and should, do. I also am skeptical of their claim that it was DRM or irrelevance, though I think they were sincere in making it. I think they hate that it's come to this and that no one there is happy about it.

I could not be more heartsick at this turn of events.

We need to turn the tide on DRM, because there is no place in post-Snowden, post-Heartbleed world for technology that tries to hide things from its owners. DRM has special protection under the law that makes it a crime to tell people if there are flaws in their DRM-locked systems -- so every DRM system is potentially a reservoir of long-lived vulnerabilities that can be exploited by identity thieves, spies, and voyeurs.

It’s clear that Mozilla isn’t happy about this turn of events, and in our conversations, people there characterised it as something they’d been driven to by the entertainment companies and the complicity of the commercial browser vendors, who have enthusiastically sold out their users’ integrity and security.

Mitchell Baker, the executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation, told me that “this is not a happy day for the web” and “it’s not in line with the values that we’re trying to build. This does not match our value set.”

But both she and Gal were adamant that they felt that they had no choice but to add DRM if they were going to continue Mozilla’s overall mission of keeping the web free and open.

I am sceptical about this claim. I don't doubt that it’s sincerely made, but I found the case for it weak. When I pressed Gal for evidence that without Netflix Firefox users would switch away, he cited the huge volume of internet traffic generated by Netflix streams.

There's no question that Netflix video and other video streams account for an appreciable slice of the internet’s overall traffic. But video streams are also the bulkiest files to transfer. That video streams use a lot of bytes isn't a surprise.

When a charitable nonprofit like Mozilla makes a shift as substantial as this one – installing closed-source software designed to treat computer users as untrusted adversaries – you’d expect there to be a data-driven research story behind it, meticulously documenting the proposition that without DRM irrelevance is inevitable. The large number of bytes being shifted by Netflix is a poor proxy for that detailed picture.

There are other ways in which Mozilla’s DRM is better for user freedom than its commercial competitors’. While the commercial browsers’ DRM assigns unique identifiers to users that can be used to spy on viewing habits across multiple video providers and sessions, the Mozilla DRM uses different identifiers for different services.

Firefox’s adoption of closed-source DRM breaks my heart


Against the instrumental argument for surveillance


In my latest Guardian column, 'Cybersecurity' begins with integrity, not surveillance, I try to make sense of the argument against surveillance. Is mass surveillance bad because it doesn't catch "bad guys" or because it is immoral? There's a parallel to torture -- even if you can find places where torture would work to get you some useful information, it would still be immoral. Likewise, I've come to realize that the "it doesn't work" argument isn't one that I want to support anymore, because even if mass surveillance did work, it would still be bad.

One thing that parenting has taught me is that surveillance and experimentation are hard to reconcile. My daughter is learning, and learning often consists of making mistakes constructively. There are times when she is working right at the limits of her abilities – drawing or dancing or writing or singing or building – and she catches me watching her and gets this look of mingled embarrassment and exasperation, and then she changes back to some task where she has more mastery. No one – not even a small child – likes to look foolish in front of other people.

Putting whole populations – the whole human species – under continuous, total surveillance is a profoundly immoral act, no matter whether it works or not. There no longer is a meaningful distinction between the digital world and the physical world. Your public transit rides, your love notes, your working notes and your letters home from your journeys are now part of the global mesh of electronic communications. The inability to live and love, to experiment and err, without oversight, is wrong because it's wrong, not because it doesn't catch bad guys.

Everyone from Orwell to Trotsky recognised that control over information means control over society. On the eve of the November Revolution, Trotsky ordered the Red Guard to seize control over the post and telegraph offices. I mentioned this to Jacob Appelbaum, who also works on many spy-resistant information security tools, like Tor (The Onion Router, a privacy and anonymity tool for browsing the web), and he said, "A revolutionary act today is making sure that no one can ever seize control over the network."

'Cybersecurity' begins with integrity, not surveillance


How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance



In my latest Locus column, How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance, I tell the story of how I explained the Snowden leaks to my six-year-old, and the surprising interest and comprehension she showed during our talk and afterwards. Kids, it seems, intuitively understand what it's like to be constantly monitored by unaccountable, self-appointed authority figures!

So I explained to my daughter that there was a man who was a spy, who discovered that the spies he worked for were breaking the law and spying on everyone, capturing all their e-mails and texts and video-chats and web-clicks. My daughter has figured out how to use a laptop, phone, or tablet to peck out a message to her grandparents (autocomplete and spell-check actually make typing into an educational experience for kids, who can choose their words from drop-down lists that get better as they key in letters); she’s also used to videoconferencing with relatives around the world. So when I told her that the spies were spying on everything, she had some context for it.

Right away, we were off to the races. ‘‘How can they listen to everyone at once?’’ ‘‘How can they read all those messages?’’ ‘‘How many spies are there?’’ I told her about submarine fiber-optic taps, prismatic beam-splitters, and mass databases. Again, she had a surprising amount of context for this, having encountered digital devices whose capacity was full – as when we couldn’t load more videos onto a tablet – and whose capacities could be expanded with additional storage.


How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance


Gutting Net Neutrality also guts innovation, fairness and democracy


My latest Guardian column, Internet service providers charging for premium access hold us all to ransom, explains what's at stake now that the FCC is prepared to let ISPs charge services for "premium" access to its subscribers. It's pretty much the worst Internet policy imaginable, an anti-innovation, anti-democratic, anti-justice hand-grenade lobbed by telcos who shout "free market" while they are the beneficiaries of the most extreme industrial government handouts imaginable.

The FCC promised a fix, and here it is: FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee and former cable lobbyist, has drawn up rules to allow ISPs to decide which communications you can see in a timely, best-effort fashion and which services will be also-ran laggards. In so doing, Chairman Wheeler sets the stage for a further magnification of the distorting influence of money and incumbency on our wider society. Political candidates whose message is popular, but who lack the budget to bribe every ISP to deliver it in a timely fashion, will be less equipped to reach voters than their better-financed rivals. A recent study looked at 20 years' worth of US policy outcomes and found that they exclusively responded to the needs of the richest 10% of Americans. Now the FCC is proposing to cook the process further, so that the ability of the ignored 90% to talk to one another, network and organise and support organisations that support their interests will be contingent on their ability to out-compete the already advantaged elite interests in the race to bribe carriers for "premium" coverage.

If you think of a business idea that's better than any that have come before – if you're ready to do to Google what Google did to Altavista; if you're ready to do to the iPod what the iPod did to the Walkman; if you're ready to do to Netflix what Netflix did to cable TV – you have to start out with a bribery warchest that beats out the firms that clawed their way to the top back when there was a fairer playing-field.

The FCC and its apologists will shrug and say that the ISPs are businesses and they own their lines and can do what they want with them. They'll say that we can't expect the carriers to invest in next-generation networks if they can't maximise their profits from them.

But this is nonsense. The big US carriers are already deriving bumper profits from their ISP business, while their shareholder disclosures show that they're making only the most cursory investment in new network infrastructure (Americans have been waiting for fast "fiber-to-the-kerb" connectivity for decades, mostly what they're getting is "fiber-to-the-press-release" puff pieces from ISPs who gull uncritical reporters into repeating their empty promises of fast networks, just around the corner).

Internet service providers charging for premium access hold us all to ransom [Cory Doctorow/The Guardian]

(Image: Evidence A: The Ransom Note, Jared and Corin, CC-BY)


Why I don’t believe in robots


My new Guardian column is "Why it is not possible to regulate robots," which discusses where and how robots can be regulated, and whether there is any sensible ground for "robot law" as distinct from "computer law."


One thing that is glaringly absent from both the Heinleinian and Asimovian brain is the idea of software as an immaterial, infinitely reproducible nugget at the core of the system. Here, in the second decade of the 21st century, it seems to me that the most important fact about a robot – whether it is self-aware or merely autonomous – is the operating system, configuration, and code running on it.

If you accept that robots are just machines – no different in principle from sewing machines, cars, or shotguns – and that the thing that makes them "robot" is the software that runs on a general-purpose computer that controls them, then all the legislative and regulatory and normative problems of robots start to become a subset of the problems of networks and computers.

If you're a regular reader, you'll know that I believe two things about computers: first, that they are the most significant functional element of most modern artifacts, from cars to houses to hearing aids; and second, that we have dramatically failed to come to grips with this fact. We keep talking about whether 3D printers should be "allowed" to print guns, or whether computers should be "allowed" to make infringing copies, or whether your iPhone should be "allowed" to run software that Apple hasn't approved and put in its App Store.

Practically speaking, though, these all amount to the same question: how do we keep computers from executing certain instructions, even if the people who own those computers want to execute them? And the practical answer is, we can't.

Why it is not possible to regulate robots


Podcast: Collective Action – the Magnificent Seven anti-troll business-model

Here's a reading (MP3) of a my November, 2013 Locus column, Collective Action, in which I propose an Internet-enabled "Magnificent Seven" business model for foiling corruption, especially copyright- and patent-trolling. In this model, victims of extortionists find each other on the Internet and pledge to divert a year's worth of "license fees" to a collective defense fund that will be used to invalidate a patent or prove that a controversial copyright has lapsed. The name comes from the classic film The Magnificent Seven (based, in turn, on Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai) in which villagers decide one year to take the money they'd normally give to the bandits, and turn it over to mercenaries who kill the bandits.

Why has Warner gotten away with its theft of ‘‘Happy Birthday’’ for so long? Because the interests of all the people who pay the license fee are diffused, and Warner’s interests are concentrated. For any one licensor, the rational course of action is paying Warner, rather than fighting in court. For Warner, the rational course is fighting in court, every time.

In this regard, Warner is in the same position as copyright and patent trolls: the interests of the troll are concentrated. Their optimal strategy is to fight back when pushed. But it’s the reverse for their victims: the best thing for them to do is to settle.

Collectively, though, the victims are always out more than the cost of a defense. That is, all the money made by a troll from a single stupid patent is much more than the cost of fighting to get the patent invalidated. All the money made by Warner on ‘‘Happy Birthday’’ dwarfs the expense of proving, in court, that they weren’t entitled to any of it.

The reason the victims don’t get together to fight back is that they don’t know each other and have no way to coordinate among each other. In economists’ jargon, they have a ‘‘collective action problem.’’

Mastering by John Taylor Williams: wryneckstudio@gmail.com

John Taylor Williams is a audiovisual and multimedia producer based in Washington, DC and the co-host of the Living Proof Brew Cast. Hear him wax poetic over a pint or two of beer by visiting livingproofbrewcast.com. In his free time he makes "Beer Jewelry" and "Odd Musical Furniture." He often "meditates while reading cookbooks."

MP3


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