In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay “A Cycle of Renewal, Broken: How Big Tech and Big Media Abuse Copyright Law to Slay Competition”, published today on EFF’s Deeplinks; it’s the latest in my ongoing series of case-studies of “adversarial interoperability,” where new services unseated the dominant companies by finding ways to plug into existing products against those products’ manufacturers. This week’s installment recounts the history of cable TV, and explains how the legal system in place when cable was born was subsequently extinguished (with the help of the cable companies who benefitted from it!) meaning that no one can do to cable what cable once did to broadcasters.
In 1950, a television salesman named Robert Tarlton put together a consortium of TV merchants in the town of Lansford, Pennsylvania to erect an antenna tall enough to pull down signals from Philadelphia, about 90 miles to the southeast. The antenna connected to a web of cables that the consortium strung up and down the streets of Lansford, bringing big-city TV to their customers — and making TV ownership for Lansfordites far more attractive. Though hobbyists had been jury-rigging their own “community antenna television” networks since 1948, no one had ever tried to go into business with such an operation. The first commercial cable TV company was born.
The rise of cable over the following years kicked off decades of political controversy over whether the cable operators should be allowed to stay in business, seeing as they were retransmitting broadcast signals without payment or permission and collecting money for the service. Broadcasters took a dim view of people using their signals without permission, which is a little rich, given that the broadcasting industry itself owed its existence to the ability to play sound recordings over the air without permission or payment.
The FCC brokered a series of compromises in the years that followed, coming up with complex rules governing which signals a cable operator could retransmit, which ones they must retransmit, and how much all this would cost. The end result was a second way to get TV, one that made peace with—and grew alongside—broadcasters, eventually coming to dominate how we get cable TV in our homes.
By 1976, cable and broadcasters joined forces to fight a new technology: home video recorders, starting with Sony’s Betamax recorders. In the eyes of the cable operators, broadcasters, and movie studios, these were as illegitimate as the playing of records over the air had been, or as retransmitting those broadcasts over cable had been. Lawsuits over the VCR continued for the next eight years. In 1984, the Supreme Court finally weighed in, legalizing the VCR, and finding that new technologies were not illegal under copyright law if they were “capable of substantial noninfringing uses.”
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay “Interoperability and Privacy: Squaring the Circle, published today on EFF’s Deeplinks; it’s another in the series of “adversarial interoperability” explainers, this one focused on how privacy and adversarial interoperability relate to each other.
Even if we do manage to impose interoperability on Facebook in ways that allow for meaningful competition, in the absence of robust anti-monopoly rules, the ecosystem that grows up around that new standard is likely to view everything that’s not a standard interoperable component as a competitive advantage, something that no competitor should be allowed to make incursions upon, on pain of a lawsuit for violating terms of service or infringing a patent or reverse-engineering a copyright lock or even more nebulous claims like “tortious interference with contract.”
In other words, the risk of trusting competition to an interoperability mandate is that it will create a new ecosystem where everything that’s not forbidden is mandatory, freezing in place the current situation, in which Facebook and the other giants dominate and new entrants are faced with onerous compliance burdens that make it more difficult to start a new service, and limit those new services to interoperating in ways that are carefully designed to prevent any kind of competitive challenge.
Standards should be the floor on interoperability, but adversarial interoperability should be the ceiling. Adversarial interoperability takes place when a new company designs a product or service that works with another company’s existing products or services, without seeking permission to do so.
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay “IBM PC Compatible”: how adversarial interoperability saved PCs from monopolization, published today on EFF’s Deeplinks; it’s another installment in my series about “adversarial interoperability,” and the role it has historically played in keeping tech open and competitive. This time, I relate the origin story of the “PC compatible” computer, with help from Tom Jennings (inventor of FidoNet!) who played a key role in the story.
All that changed in 1981, when IBM entered the PC market with its first personal computer, which quickly became the de facto standard for PC hardware. There are many reasons that IBM came to dominate the fragmented PC market: they had the name recognition (“No one ever got fired for buying IBM,” as the saying went) and the manufacturing experience to produce reliable products.
Equally important was IBM’s departure from its usual business practice of pursuing advantage by manufacturing entire systems, down to the subcomponents. Instead, IBM decided to go with an “open” design that incorporated the same commodity parts that the existing PC vendors were using, including MS-DOS and Intel’s 8086 chip. To accompany this open hardware, IBM published exhaustive technical documentation that covered every pin on every chip, every way that programmers could interact with IBM’s firmware (analogous to today’s “APIs”), as well as all the non-standard specifications for its proprietary ROM chip, which included things like the addresses where IBM had stored the fonts it bundled with the system.
Once IBM’s PC became the standard, rival hardware manufacturers realized that they had to create systems that were compatible with IBM’s systems. The software vendors were tired of supporting a lot of idiosyncratic hardware configurations, and IT managers didn’t want to have to juggle multiple versions of the software they relied on. Unless non-IBM PCs could run software optimized for IBM’s systems, the market for those systems would dwindle and wither.
I was incredibly gratified and excited to read Paul Di Filippo’s Locus review of my latest book, Radicalized; Di Filippo is a superb writer, one of the original, Mirrorshades cyberpunks, and he is a superb and insightful literary critic, so when I read his superlative-laden review of my book today, it was an absolute thrill (I haven’t been this excited about a review since Bruce Sterling reviewed Walkaway). more
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay Adblocking: How About Nah?, published last week on EFF’s Deeplinks; it’s the latest installment in my series about “adversarial interoperability,” and the role it has historically played in keeping tech open and competitive, and how that role is changing now that yesterday’s scrappy startups have become today’s bloated incumbents, determined to prevent anyone from disrupting them they way they disrupted tech in their early days.
At the height of the pop-up wars, it seemed like there was no end in sight: the future of the Web would be one where humans adapted to pop-ups, then pop-ups found new, obnoxious ways to command humans’ attention, which would wane, until pop-ups got even more obnoxious.
But that’s not how it happened. Instead, browser vendors (beginning with Opera) started to ship on-by-default pop-up blockers. What’s more, users—who hated pop-up ads—started to choose browsers that blocked pop-ups, marginalizing holdouts like Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, until they, too, added pop-up blockers.
Chances are, those blockers are in your browser today. But here’s a funny thing: if you turn them off, you won’t see a million pop-up ads that have been lurking unseen for all these years.
Because once pop-up ads became invisible by default to an ever-larger swathe of Internet users, advertisers stopped demanding that publishers serve pop-up ads. The point of pop-ups was to get people’s attention, but something that is never seen in the first place can’t possibly do that.
In tech, “network effects” can be a powerful force to maintain market dominance: if everyone is using Facebook, then your Facebook replacement doesn’t just have to be better than Facebook, it has to be so much better than Facebook that it’s worth using, even though all the people you want to talk to are still on Facebook. That’s a tall order.
Adversarial interoperability is judo for network effects, using incumbents’ dominance against them. To see how that works, let’s look at a historical example of adversarial interoperability role in helping to unseat a monopolist’s dominance.
The first skirmishes of the PC wars were fought with incompatible file formats and even data-storage formats: Apple users couldn’t open files made by Microsoft users, and vice-versa. Even when file formats were (more or less) harmonized, there was still the problems of storage media: the SCSI drive you plugged into your Mac needed a special add-on and flaky driver software to work on your Windows machine; the ZIP cartridge you formatted for your PC wouldn’t play nice with Macs.
Jim Rutt — former chairman of the Santa Fe Institute and ex-Network Solutions CEO — just launched his new podcast, and included me in the first season! (MP3) It was a characteristically wide-ranging, interdisciplinary kind of interview, covering competition and adversarial interoperability, technological self-determination and human rights, conspiracy theories and corruption. There’s a full transcript here.
In my latest podcast (MP3), I read my essay Occupy Gotham, published in Detective Comics: 80 Years of Batman, commemorating the 1000th issue of Batman comics. It’s an essay about the serious hard problem of trusting billionaires to solve your problems, given the likelihood that billionaires are the cause of your problems.
A thousand issues have gone by, nearly 80 years have passed, and Batman still hasn’t cleaned up Gotham. If the formal definition of insanity it trying the same thing and expecting a different outcome, then Bruce Wayne belongs in a group therapy session in Arkham Asylum. Seriously, get that guy some Cognitive Behavioral Therapy before he gets into some *serious* trouble.
As Upton Sinclair wrote in his limited run of *Batman: Class War*, “It’s impossible to get a man to understand something when his paycheck depends on his not understanding it.”
Gotham is a city riven by inequality. In 1939, that prospect had a very different valence than it has in 2018. Back in 1939, the wealth of the world’s elites had been seriously eroded, first by the Great War, then by the Great Crash and the interwar Great Depression, and what was left of those vast fortunes was being incinerated on the bonfire of WWII. Billionaire plutocrats were a curious relic of a nostalgic time before the intrinsic instability of extreme wealth inequality plunged the world into conflict.
Today’s dystopian fiction seems to be closer to reality than the dystopian fiction of the past. Brooke and Grant explore this new reality with Cory Doctorow, whose socially conscientious science fiction novels delve into topics of political consequence. From the ways in which anxieties fuel science fiction writers to how fiction has the power to change the way we think and operate in the world, today’s episode emphasizes the importance of dystopian fiction for its capacity to shed light on what is true, and what might happen, ideally, as Cory suggests, so that we might fix things before it’s too late.