The Digital Age: Ending the Right to Read?

February 5th, 2013
in Op Ed, syndication

Written by Jerrit Erickson

I recently read an editorial titled "Richard Stallman Was Right All Along". In it, the author describes the ways in which the open source community leader's warnings and predictions about assaults on freedom and access to information, which were deemed paranoia by many of his contemporaries, have gradually become reality.

Stallman's pessimistic vision of the future was far from a certainty 30, or even 15, years ago. It's worth taking a look back at some of his more specific predictions and remembering how we ended up proving him right.

One of his most noteworthy pieces which deals with both free software and with copyright is "the right to read".

Follow up:

If you haven't read it before, it's worth the time. The gist of the story is that it's a dystopian future where books are totally replaced with digital copies, which must be licensed per-user. In the past, one student might have lent a book to another. In his future, the students risk criminal punishment for attempting to share digital works.

When he wrote it in 1997, it was the height of Napster and the other first waves of popularized file sharing (as opposed to things like newsgroups that had been too obscure for most casual internet users). One could be excused for thinking that the world was heading in the opposite direction, where copyright was virtually unenforceable when it came to digitized works. Music, textbooks, movies (problematic in these dialup days, but it was a start), magazines and journals, whatever you could dream of. Why, those students in his example could just download their digitized textbooks using direct connect!*

Then Napster was shut down and sued into oblivion. The other filesharing services that sought to replace it with a model that legally indemnified them became loaded down with fake copies planted by media companies to discourage users. The same companies started hiring security firms to track users and would then sue a handful for ludicrous punitive damages, which was purely to make an EXAMPLE of them. The odds of getting caught trading copyrighted works were extremely low, but if your number came up your life could be all but ruined. The damages awarded in one famous case: $675,000 for 30 songs, or $22,500 per song. Another case saw $1.5 million for 24 songs. Financial and legal terrorism, you might call it. These cases dragged on for years and at least one went all the way to the supreme court on the grounds that the fines applied to individuals under the law were unconstitutionally excessive, and that the lawmakers never intended these fines to be applied to individuals in this context. The court declined to hear the case, without comment. Colleges were contacted seeking their help in shutting down local filesharing systems that existed within their networks. Some cooperated fully, others flat-out refused. None of these efforts succeeded in stopping file sharing and did a lot of damage to the reputation of the music and movie industries.

The only good to come out of this was the grudging acceptance that consumers wanted digital distribution and lower prices, not just "free stuff" like the industry had been accusing them off, but the first steps by industry still operated under the assumption that consumers would steal if the content wasn't locked down somehow. They attempted to secure content with Digital Rights Management, DRM for short, limiting access to only the purchaser, in theory. The problem with this is that licensed copies burdened with DRM are usually less convenient for the consumer than a pirated copy. Finally, services like Amazon began offering DRM-free content, starting with music, and sales went up considerably. This should have been a victory for everyone, a compromise where content creators, distributors, and consumers all benefit from easy access and low costs, but the focus shifted from locking down the content to locking down the devices on which the content would be viewed.

There's been a flood of e-book readers, tablets and smartphones, more or less closed platforms that can only run apps in their respective "app store", ebooks with DRM, and individual apps controlling access to a particular magazine, newspaper or other periodical publication. The adoption rate of these things has been staggering. On these platforms, you don't get a file-sharing service unless it's in the app store, which isn't going to happen. Even if someone snuck one in somehow by making those features non-obvious, it would be removed as soon as someone caught on. The majority of general-purpose computer users are savvy enough to download and run file sharing programs. Are the majority of smartphone or tablet users savvy enough to "jailbreak" their closed device in order to gain the ability to install unapproved apps? Will they even bother?

Platform and content are increasingly locked down in much the way that Stallman predicted in the story. It took about 15 years to happen. It's important to note that users still have a choice to opt into the closed ecosystem, and can still choose to use a fully functioning general purpose computer running whatever software they want. Having access to both for now gives us the best of both worlds so it's hard for us to see the problem. Given the direction things have been heading, I wouldn't be surprised at all if the "war on general purpose computation" really is coming.

Many people will voluntarily give up their "right to read" in exchange for convenience. The next step will be to take it from the stubborn remainder by varying degrees of legal coercion and eventually by force. It sounds crazy since today, you can buy computer hardware cheaply, slap on some free software, and then get down to writing code, but who knows what the world will be like 15 years from now.

* Direct Connect is a file sharing service which was especially popular on the local networks found on many college campuses. The typical setup explicitly avoided passing any traffic over the public internet, but due to the large student population involved, the selection of content could be just as vast. Speeds were much faster and it was much harder (if not impossible) for the media companies to remotely monitor who was sharing what. They attempted to enlist the help of the schools themselves, with mixed success.

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