The digital imprimatur and the right to read

Now that I have finished all the pesky non-dissertation requirements of my degree, I’m settling in to the research/fieldwork phase. This is the phase directly before the writing of my dissertation. While completing my comps and writing my thesis proposal, I did not have much time to keep up with nor dig deep into the current literature relevant to my research topic. It’s great to have more solid foundations – the purpose as I see it of the comprehensive exams – but one of my streams of research – open source/copyleft – keeps developing at an alarming pace. You know how that Internet operates – no sooner is something released/discovered/innovated than it is obsolete, yesterday’s news, oh so passé.

So one of  my current objectives is to catch up on what I’ve missed this last year-and-a-half. And also to shore up my historical knowledge of the topic. Today I finished reading John Walker’s lengthy essay, The Digital Imprimatur: How Big Brother and Big Media can put the Internet Genie Back in the Bottle, which I chased with Richard Stallman’s except, The Right to Read.

Walker lays out all the current and developing technologies for the “consumer internet”, all of which, when combined, will lead to an ominous, closed internet. He begins by offering a brief summary of the early Internet, which promised the chance to “roll back government and corporate encroachment on individual freedom by allowing information to flow past the barriers erected by totalitarian or authoritarian governments and around the gatekeepers of the mainstream media.” Walker goes on to discuss the current scenario (well, in 2003) wherein the internet where been segmented into 2 unequal categories of users: consumers and producers. This distinction, Walker argues, has eroded the equalitiy of users by undermining the true peer-to-peer architecture of the internet. The technologies he outlines – certificates (for people – incl. minors and employees, companies, computers, and content), micropayment, digital rights management – are all wrapped up in the interlinked concepts of Trusted Computing and the Secure Internet.

The implications are foreboding: “Just as a Trusted Computing system will load neither programs nor data files without a validated certificate whose signature matches their contents, neither will the Secure Internet transfer any document, in any standard protocol without such a certificate accompanying it.” Any number of social ills will be prevented or drastically reduced by this: copyright violation; identity theft and fraud; scams and securities fraud; spam; worms and viruses; plagiarism; child pornography/exploitation; terrorist activity; employee abuse (!).

You can see what an easy sell these technologies could be, if correctly propagandized. And some of their objectives are valid and valuable. But at what expense? This, I think, is the question that guides Walker. His answer is clearly, at the expense of certain liberties that we today take for granted. Withholding or constraining these liberties will be the digital imprimatur – the authority that decides who has the right to publish.

In the old days, before the emergence of copyright, this right was granted by church or state: “A document’s certificate, its imprimatur, identifies the person (individual or legal entity) responsible for its publication, provides a signature which permits verifying its contents have not been corrupted or subsequently modified, and identifies the document registry which granted the imprimatur and which, on demand, will validate it and confirm that it has not been revoked.” In the (near?) future Trusted Computing systems and the Secure Internet will perform these functions automatically.

If internet users don’t become aware of the potential threat of the convergence of all these technologies in the hands of powerful actors (mostly of the corporate or government flavour), the result will be a radically different internet from the one we enjoy (despite its social problems) today.

“More than any innovation in the last century, the internet empowers individuals to spontaneously teach, learn, explore, communicate, form communities and collaborate. Measured relatively, this individual empowerment comes at the expense of the power of governments and large commercial enterprises, thereby reversing a trend toward concentration of power more than a century old which has acted to reduce free citizens and productive individuals to mere subjects and consumers.”

Stallman’s essay, The Right to Read, proved a nice companion to The Digital Imprimatur. Essentially a parable, it presents a dystopic future where basic freedoms have been eliminated via digital rights management and electronic surveillance. Higher education is priced out of reach for all but the upper classes. All those less financially robust are doomed to excessive debt in order to learn. Reading is restricted – laughable perhaps in 1997 when this essay was published – in much the same way as certain online copyrighted material is today (e.g. music, academic journal articles). “Like everyone, he had been taught since elementary school that sharing books was nasty and wrong – something that only pirates would do.”

It seems fine (to some) to restrict the sharing of music, and to demonize music file-sharing online. But books? Isn’t that what the public library movement was all about – making ideas freely accessible? In Stallman’s tale, people have to pay to read – they cannot graduate otherwise. More than sharing books is illegal. Debugging tools to skip over the copyright monitor code is outlawed, as is installing modified system kernals (never mind it is impossible without knowing the computer’s root password – controlled, naturally, by the FBI and Microsoft).

In the author’s note that follows (updated 2007), Stallman asserts that the right to read is a very real battle being waged today – though it might take half a century for it to be settled. The Digital Millelnium Copyright Act legally established the basis to restrict the reading and lending of e-books (and other works too) in 1998. Other world jurisdictions have followed similar suit. Trusted Computing – the idea that users won’t have control over their machines – but companies will – didn’t emerge until 2002. This concept has been implemented in Microsoft’s Vista, where Microsoft retains a signature and encryption key to make a DRM that users cannot overcome.

So put all that in your pipe and smoke it.

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