The curse of ones and zeros

Analog books

I love books. I often have several books next to my bed that I'm reading through (to great annoyance of my wife, who hates the clutter). Currently I'm reading Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson, Eric and Equal Rites, both by Terry Pratchett. I love to go to book-stores and browse their collections. I like to go to those tiny shops that sell used books. And if I wnted to, I could loan someone my books, and I could swap books with someone, and maybe even sell my used books. But what it that wasn't possible?

What would you do if the next time you bought a book and started to read it, you would get a announcement in thick German accent saying "Achtung! You vill zit on ze chair when reading this book, not no ze couch!". Selling, swapping and borrowing the book would be prohibited.

People would not stand for it.

Books contain data. That data might be fiction or non-fiction, but it's still data. In case of books, the data is in analog form (text and images on the pages). But if we transform that data in to digital, in to ones and zeros, the rules change entirely. When it comes to digital data, the usage-limitations I mentioned above are the norm (without the German accent, though). For some reason, with digital data, we have to accept litany of rules and limitations. And, for some strange reason, people accept them.

There is one area where these limitations are facing opposition: music. That's because music, even in digital form, started out in similar way as books are today. There was no artificial limitations to your rights. If you wanted to copy the music (which in itself is perfectly legal) you could do so. In recent years those rights have been eroded. And many people are opposing this change.

Now, what's not surprising is the fact that people are opposing these limitations. It's how FEW people are opposing. Most people seem to accept the limitations of user-rights just fine, which is very sad. And quite often those that oppose, are labeled as "weirdoes", "pirates" or something else. As we started the new year, Finland got a new copyright-legislation. And many citizens have opposed the legislation. Thousands of people wrote to their MP's to tell them that they oppose the law. The government dismissed these complaints as "machination". And as the new year progressed, people continued to oppose. There was an act of civil-disobedience, where people willfully broke the new law (by discussing methods of bypassing copy-protection. Discussiong those methods is illegal. We can discuss details of blowing up the parliament-building, but discussing circumventing copy-control is verboten) and then turned themselves in. Many mainstream-journalists labeled these people as "thieves" and "pirates". I think they would have called Rosa Parks and Gandhi "criminals" as well. After all, Rosa Parks sat on a bench she wasn't supposed to sat on, and Gandhi made salt.

People have the moral obligation to resist and break laws that are wrong. Rosa Parks did it. Gandhi did it. And today we praise them both.

It seems to me that the Finns obedience to authority is biting us in the ass here. Mainstream journalists think that the government knows best. None of them seem to remember that these activists are not demandind more rights, they are holding on to the rights they already have (or rather, had).

We must destroy the data, in order to save it

The moment when data moves from the world of the analog, to the world of the digital, it crosses some kind of threshold. The actual data might be exactly the same, but the moment it's represented in ones and zeros, people start to think that we need to strip law-abiding people from their rights, in order to protect those ones and zeros. Analog data is something we can understand, deep down. The things we see with our eyes is analog data. Things that we hear with our ears is analog data. But digital data seems to go beyond the comprehension of people. And when some politician or "expert" tells them that those ones and zeros are endangered, people believe them. And when they build walls around the data, they are making it harder and harder for people to access that data. Is data that can't be accessed still data?

We (Finland, and other countries as well) already have legislation that deals with copyrights. We have law that deal punishments to those who break other people's copyrights. I'm a strong believer in copyrights. But I believe that removing the rights of law-abiding citizens is utterly and completely wrong way to handle this "problem"! It just boggles the mind that some people actually present that as a solution to this problem, and I'm dismayed that politicians actually believe them, and make legislation that removes rights from the citizens! And what's the saddest part of this? In the next elections, 95% of people are going to vote the exact same people, the exact same parties. They directly harmed the voters, and voters thank them by voting them back in.

Sure, some might say that this legislation is peanuts in the grand scheme of things. Maybe. But once rights are taken away, it's very difficult to get them back. And this isn't just about music, this is about accessing data. And data could be anything.

Invisible shackles of software

This brings me to another area of data: software. In a way, the situation in software is a lot better and alot worse, than it is with music. It's better because we have a thriving community of free software. In free software the creators of the software go out of their way to give the users of the software as much rights as possible. But most people don't care about software. And that's why it's worse than it is with music. There are people who feel strongly about users rights when it comes to software. And in case of music many people feel that user-right advocated are "weirdoes", it's even worse with software. Music is part of the "bread and circuses", and if someone tampers with the circus, people will notice and complain. Software isn't really part of that equation, so most people don't care.

But they should care. Software is everywhere. We create our data with computers and software, we access data created by others with computers and software. And most people just want to "use" computers and software, and they don't care about the rights they have (or lack of thereof). To them, it's just not important. many people are voluntarily giving up their rights. And they do so because they never even knew that they had them, and they see no reason to hold on to them. I don't know which is sadder.

Next time you install a piece of software, you will come across an EULA (End-User License Agreement). Have you ever read what it says? Most of us just click "Accept" without bothering to read what they are accepting. And I can't really blame them, those EULA's are full of legalese and they are LONG. I know I never bother to read them, but I do know what they contain. For those interested, here is the EULA for Windows XP. It contains stuff like "Microsoft reserves the right to discontinue any Internet-based services provided to you or made available to you through the use of the Product.". Uh, OK.

Many people use Microsoft Word to create text (data). And in a way, I can't blame them. MS Word is a fine tool to write text. And when they do so, they are in a way giving Microsoft control on how and with what they can access that data. Could you access that data 15 years from now? Odds are that you could not. Something like that could not happen with free software, where the USER has the rights, not the corporation. I could access data created 20 years ago if I wanted to. If I created some data today with those free tools, I would still be able to access them 20 years from now.

I'm free of those digital shackles. I choose to maximise my liberties and freedoms as an user. And because of that, many people will think that I'm a "weirdo", "zealot" or something else not so nice. But, we live our values through the choices we make. And I admit: sometimes buying that shrink-wrapped box of software with all that sugar-coating would be the easy way. But just because it's the easy way, it doesn't mean that it's the right way.

When I get back home today, I'm going to keep on reading my book.

1 comment:

dr witmol said...

I do actually read the EULA and I believe I'm one of the few who do. Unfortunately, even if you don't agree with everything, you can't get a refund for your software because one of the conditions is that you can't have used the software, which is invalidated the minute you tear the shrinkwrap and insert the CD into your computer.