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)
I gave a talk last month in Cambridge at the Tedxoxbridge event called How to break the Internet, about how urgent it is that the Internet is fundamentally broken, and why we should be hopeful that we can fix it.
I'm honoured and delighted to learn that my novel Homeland has been shortlisted for Canada's Sunburst Award, a juried prize for excellence in speculative fiction. I've won the Sunburst twice before, and this is one of my proudest accomplishments; I'm indebted to the jury for their kindness this year. The other nominees are a very good slate indeed -- including Nalo Hopkinson's Sister Mine and Charles de Lint's The Cats of Tanglewood Forest.
Here's a reading (MP3) of a short story I wrote for the July, 2014 issue of Wired UK in the form of a news dispatch from the year 2024 -- specifically, a parliamentary sketch from a raucous Prime Minister's Question Time where a desperate issue of computer security rears its head:
Quick: what do all of these have in common: your gran's cochlear implant, the Whatsapp stack, the Zipcar by your flat, the Co-Op's 3D printing kiosk, a Boots dispensary, your Virgin thermostat, a set of Tata artificial legs, and cheap heads-up goggles that come free with a Mister Men game?
If you're stumped, you're not alone. But Prime Minister Lane Fox had no trouble drawing a line around them today during PMQs in a moment that blindsided the Lab-Con coalition leader Jon Cruddas, who'd asked about the Princess Sophia hacking affair. Seasoned Whitehall watchers might reasonably have expected the PM to be defensive, after a group of still-anonymous hackers captured video, audio and sensitive personal communications by hijacking the Princess's home network. The fingerpointing from GCHQ and MI6 has been good for headlines, and no one would have been surprised to hear the PM give the security services a bollocking, in Westminster's age-old tradition of blame-passing.
Nothing of the sort. Though the PM leaned heavily on her cane as she rose, she seemed to double in stature as she spoke, eyes glinting and her free hand thumping the Dispatch Box: "The Princess Sophia affair is the latest installment in a decades-old policy failure that weakened the security of computer users to the benefit of powerful corporations and our security services. This policy, the so-called 'anti-circumvention' rules, have no place in an information society.
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'
I'm about to hit the road again, starting in Salt Lake City, where I'll be a Guest of Honor at Westercon (Jul 3-6), and will follow it up with an appearance at the SLC library (Jul 7); then I'm doing a three-day library tour around PDX, with stops in Beaverton (Jul 8), Tigard (Jul 9) and Hillsboro (July 10) (here's a complete list of my scheduled upcoming public events).
This morning, I gave the keynote speech the 2014 conference of The Literary Consultancy in London, about the future of publishing. They got the audio up with lightning speed (I'm in the auditorium, listening to the follow-on panel).
My ZOMGTERRISTSGONNAKILLUSALLRUNHIDE TSA tee-shirt (of Poop Strong fame) is available in tote-bag form, a fact I had somehow missed!
Here's a reading (MP3) of a recent Guardian column, 'Cybersecurity' begins with integrity, not surveillance, in which I suggest that the reason to oppose mass surveillance is independent of whether it "works" or not -- the reason to oppose mass surveillance is that mass surveillance is an inherently immoral act:
The Washington Post journalist Barton Gellman and I presented an introductory session at SXSW before Edward Snowden's appearance, and he made a thought-provoking comparison between surveillance and torture. Some of the opponents of torture argue against it on the ground that torture produces low-quality intelligence. If you torture someone long enough, you can probably get him to admit to anything, but that's exactly why evidence from torture isn't useful.
But Gellman pointed out that there are circumstances in which torture almost certainly would work. If you have a locked safe – or a locked phone – and you want to get the combination out of someone, all you need is some wire-cutters, a branding iron, some pliers, and a howling void where your conscience should be.
The "instrumental" argument against torture – that it doesn't work – invites the conclusion that on those occasions where torture would work, there's nothing wrong with using it. But the primary reason not to torture isn't its efficacy or lack thereof: it's that torture is barbaric. It is immoral. It is wrong. It rots societies from the inside out.
For the first time, one of my books has been challenged. The students at Booker T Washington High in Pensacola, Florida were to be assigned Little Brother for their summer One School/One Book read. At the last instant -- and over the objections of the head of the English department and the chief librarian -- the principal reversed the previous approval and seems to have cancelled the One School/One Book program outright. My amazing publishers, Tor Books, have volunteered to send 200 copies to the school for the students to read, and I'll participate in a videoconference with the students in the coming school year. Read all about it on Boing Boing.