“Utopia is our willingness to look after each other”
Cory Doctorow is one of the leading advocates for reform of the global copyright system. He is also a science fiction writer, co-editor of the influential blog Boing Boing, and special advisor to the digital civil liberties organization Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
His is an intense personality, but not unpleasantly so, and he talks at length about the issues he cares about at a speed that can leave a non-native English speaker desperately trying to hold on to his ideas.
I met him at the Click Festival in Helsingør, where we spoke about the ways politics can be shaped by scientific evidence as well as by science fiction. Our conversation ranged from mass surveillance, the lack of evidence informing digital policy, and what a real utopia looks like.
A central issue in his most recent book, Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free, is digital rights management, or DRM. These ‘digital locks’ are protected by copyright laws that make it illegal to circumvent them.
When iTunes first launched the Music Store in 2003, the downloaded music was protected with Digital Rights Management, or DRM. This was supposed to protect the file from being copied and shared with people who hadn’t bought it. But it also prevented users from playing the file on computers or music players that knew how to unlock it.
While this is simply annoying, it is also deeply problematic. Users who want to extract the information and use it on a different device are forced to break the law to do so. This is because of laws such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act that criminalises breaking DRM locks.
While DRM always fails to protect against copying — software for unlocking DRM, as well as unlocked works, are freely and readily available — the laws protecting DRM help keep the market power for vendors that use DRM, such as Amazon, Spotify or Netflix. It is not the DRM that protects copyright, but vice versa.
Without the protection of DRM in copyright law, it would be useless both for its stated purpose of protecting copyrighted works, as well as its intended purpose of protecting the business models of the distributors who rely on DRM for maintaining market power.
As a creator, you get locked into the distributor’s ecosystem, which makes it impossible for users to bring works already paid for onto competing platforms. This gives distributors a strong position when negotiating with creators, since they have already locked in the audience.
Today, DRM is the standard business model of online entertainment like bookstores, music and movie streaming services, hindering competition and locking both creators and their fans to DRM-based middlemen.
If DRM protects a copyrighted work, it means that, for practical purposes, DRM vendors can write their own copyright law. For example, it is illegal to break the DRM on a Blu-ray disc, even for legal purposes like making a backup or watching the film on a device other than a Blu-ray player. This prevents the user from accessing other legal uses of the copyrighted work.
DRM may be bad for both creators and users of creative works, but it poses even greater problems. Because it is not only illegal to break DRM, but also to disclose how to break it, DRM leaves gaping holes in the security of computers.
Today, digital security is not only about keeping data safe, it is about physical and infrastructural security as well. It is about protecting cars and planes, hearing aids and pacemakers, water works and electrical plants. If the software controlling these systems is protected by digital locks, it becomes illegal for researchers to report their security flaws, leaving the systems open to attacks.
Doctorow’s call to action against this problem is meant to persuade ordinary people to reconsider their support of the kinds of services that rely on DRM, and re-prioritise a bit of that money to the cause of digital freedom.
You want people to set aside money from their DRM-purchases and give it to organisations that fight for digital civil rights. But is that enough? Are there other ways civil society can act against DRM?
“Making good choices is a big deal, but nobody can make good choices everywhere. I don’t want people to despair, and I don’t want them to feel that because they can’t be pure, they might as well do nothing. I think there are ways that we can fight against it.”
“In terms of activism that’s meaningful, the EFF and other groups like Fight for the Future are always developing new tactics. The mass phone calls into the Senate on the Stop Online Piracy Act and network neutrality made a huge difference. Joining up for those actions makes a huge difference.”
But these digitally locked services offer a convenience that most people are unwilling to give up?
“You know what’s interesting about the proliferation of DRM? If we can get rid of the laws protecting DRM, and make it legal to break a lock for a legal purpose, then the more DRM there is in the field, the better — because every one of those is an opportunity to start a business unlocking value that’s been locked up by the DRM. Making personal video recorders for Netflix, for example: if everybody uses Netflix, and it’s legal to make a digital video recorder for Netflix, that’s ideal, right? That’s perfect!”
“The thing we’re targeting with the EFF is legal reform through impact litigation, through a lawsuit. The good news is that if the US doesn’t keep the law on the books, then all of the countries that have bilateral obligations with the US are ripe to abandon their own DRM protections.”
One of the problems in the copyright debate is that the arguments on the side of people who want stronger copyright laws are not based on evidence, but rather on ‘common-sense’ assumptions. Is there a way to make it more evidence-based, besides just presenting more evidence?
“That’s not unique to entertainment policy, though. That’s surveillance policy and security policy, climate policy. One after the other, every policy domain has become dominated by firms that see commercial advantage in ignoring the evidence. They then lobby for ignoring evidence, and they make enough money so that they can pay to continue lobbying.”
“Having said that, I think the rise of the Pirate Parties, particularly in European states with proportional voting systems, has really scared at least the left-wing parties, and has made them adopt better information policy. Across Europe, the Greens and the Liberal Democrats have become a lot more switched on about IT policy, and have produced much better IT policies in their platforms.”
“Competition doesn’t solve everything, but in this case it seems to be doing something very good.”
Does the lack of evidence-based policy also explain the rise of mass surveillance?
“The fact that mass surveillance doesn’t catch crooks definitely demonstrates a lack of evidence-based policy. But mass surveillance does produce procurements. You have to buy stuff to do mass surveillance, so there are firms that lobby for mass surveillance, just like they lobby for private prisons and for other sources of what the economist Max Keiser calls ‘gulag wealth’. They lobby for gulag wealth not because they are ideologically committed to gulags, but because they are ideologically committed to wealth. I think in the case of mass surveillance, you can see it particularly with the CIA.”
“The CIA has historically been a human intelligence agency. They dressed people up in fancy costumes and gave them putty noses and false moustaches, and sent them off to go, “Hey comrade, you wanna buy some blue jeans? Hey, what’s going on in the Kremlin?” That’s been their historic role. But these days, the CIA is an almost entirely signals intelligence entity. And the US already has this really big signals intelligence organization called the NSA. So why is the CIA doing signals intelligence?”
“I think it’s because nobody lobbies for fake moustaches. You don’t need explicit corruption. All you need is a finite budget. If you have a finite budget and continuous pressure towards signals intelligence, more and more of the budget will be pulled towards signals intelligence and away from human intelligence, until human intelligence is effectively starved off — and then you have another signals intelligence agency. I think that mass surveillance can in large part be explained by that kind of procurement.”
“I also think that, historically, wealth disparity has produced social instability, and the way that social instability has been corrected has been through a combination of redistribution — social programs, and coercion — guard labour. Carrots and sticks. What happened with mass surveillance is that the stick got a lot cheaper.”
“So, the point at which it’s economically rational to build schools or hospitals or roads instead of CCTVs and prisons — that point shifted significantly when surveillance got a lot cheaper. The Stasi used to use one informant to spy on sixty people. Today the NSA can use one spy to spy on ten thousand people.”
So when we look at our mass surveillance society, it’s not a conspiracy of people wanting to keep us all under surveillance, it’s a convergence of economic forces?
“Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. It’s corruption driven by self-interest, whose incidental outflow is control. But the self-interest is unchecked greed.”
And the control is self-reinforcing?
“Yeah, because the more that greedy people are allowed to control things, the more unstable society becomes.”
Most of the science fiction I grew up with — Alien and Blade Runner for example — was dystopian, and when I read about mass surveillance and climate change and so on, it all seems to be converging towards that kind of future. You’ve written more utopian science fiction. Do you think we need better models?
“I think the way to think about science fiction’s relationship to the future is that you have all the possible futures articulated by all the science fiction writers, including the ones that never get published. They are all winnowed through a fitness function that reflects the fears and aspirations of science fiction readers, and the publishers who have their fingers on the pulse of the readers.”
“So it’s not that science fiction writers are oracles, but the system of all science fiction being written — plus all of the fears and hopes of all the people who make the collective decision about which science fiction is successful — is a really good insight into what we fear and aspire to.”
“But I also think that what science fiction does do in relationship to the future is that it tells us how to expect that our neighbours will behave when things go bad. And I think this is a really important contribution to the future.”
“This really does impact our future, because if you believe that when disaster strikes, your neighbours will come over to kill you, then what you should do when the lights go out is go kill your neighbours.”
“But if you believe that when disaster strikes, your neighbours will come over with the contents of their freezer for a barbecue, because there’s no power and you better cook it now, then when the lights go out you make potato salad.”
“Even if you have a utopian society that has solved all of its problems, it would still be subject to exogenous shocks — meteor strikes, other societies, tsunamis, whatever.”
“Even if we lived in an egalitarian utopia, the tsunami still would have hit. It may have been different. If we had evidence-based policy, we might have had better water breaks, not so many people living on the shore, more resilience and so on, but we still would have had the tsunami. No Utopia is static.”
“What is Utopian is the belief that when the disaster comes — and it will come — your neighbours will look after you, and so you should go look after your neighbours. And if you believe that, then it becomes self-fulfilling.”
“I think that Utopia is a theory of human action, about our willingness to look after each other in times of extremis, and not a political system that describes what we must and must not do, or can and cannot do.”
Originally published by The Murmur