Flowers From Al 02

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The reason my hope for the future and my hope for the internet are bound up is that it's hard to imagine how we can meaningfully change the world if we don't have the possibility of a free and open internet to use to organize that change.


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January 13, 2014



MP3 ( MB)


Cory starts off this episode by sounding totally heartbroken about Mozilla's decision to add DRM to Firefox. That's the important thing about this episode. He later wrote an article on that topic, which he read in the episode Firefox’s adoption of closed-source DRM breaks my heart.

You can find an audio file with only this part of the episode here, or listen to it in the embed above.

Otherwise: «Here’s the second, concluding part of my reading of my 2003 short story “Flowers From Al,” written with Charlie Stross for New Voices in Science Fiction, a Mike Resnick anthology (Here’s part one). It’s a pervy, weird story of transhuman romance. »


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The year has not been a good one for internet liberty. And you might have seen something I posted on Tumblr, We are huxleying ourselves into the full orwell, which was a kind of nacant thought about the way DRM, Digital Rights Management, is worming itself into webstandards, thanks to the World Wide Web Consortium, the W3C opting to put it into Scope, and that leading other institutions, notably the Mozilla Foundation deciding that DRM is something they need to support too, and so DRM is now coming to Firefox, I think. I think that's a safe bet based on my discussions with them. I don't know that they've said that exactly, but when you read between the lines I think it's kind of inevitable.

And when DRM arrives, open source ends. Free Software can't coexist with Digital Rights Management, because Digital Rights Management, it has to be illegal to modify it, or tell people how to modify it. Otherwise they'll just take away the restrictive elements of it. Digital Rights Management is there to stop you from doing something you'd otherwise want to do. If the tool is modifiable by you, then you will modify it to let you do the thing you want it to do and that the tool is stopping you from doing. That seem pretty self evident to anyone who's ever thought about it.

I don't know that anyone really claims that user modifiability and auditability and transparency can ever peacefully coexist with a tool that treats the computers owner as someone who's not trusted. And that's a really big deal because of where we are at the moment. The Snowden revelations jump started a global conversation about the requirement that our tools be transparent, auditable, free and open, so that we can be sure that they're not being exploited to attack us, to surveil us, to compromise us in lots of ways.

Once the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) [says it's ok] to try and control the users computer to do things that the user doesn't want it to do, and to prevent it from doing things the user does want it to do, then it no longer will be possible, I believe, for us to have auditability in software and transparency in software. And I think that it's unreasonable to expect that once this is standardized that people will opt not to use it.

For one thing I think that once it's standardized and widely available we can expect things like YouTube to start adopting Digital Rights Management. And once YouTube adopts DRM, it's really implausible that there's any widely used browser that doesn't support DRM, and that is to say no widely used browser that isn't opaque to users and illegal to audit and report vulnerabilities in. And therefor no browser in wide use that wouldn't allow for widespread surveillance, either by the NSA or other government agencies, or by criminals who gained access to its vulnerabilities. So I think that's a really, really dangerous state of affairs.

The W3C is now hearing petitions from other groups that want DRM, and I think they're going to be hard pressed to reject them. So the e-book people have turned up and said why can't we have DRM for e-books on the web, if you can do it for video? Functionally it's hard to understand what the distinction would be between DRM on an e-book and DRM on a web page.

After all an e-book is just a text file with some formating, which is what a web page is too. And again, I think it would be naïve to expect there to… if there was facility available by default to stop people from copying text from their browser windows, from using text from their browser window in ways that they choose to, from saving it, it would be unreasonable to expect that a lot of publishers wouldn't adopt it. I could easily see the New York Times and the other newspapers with paywalls adopting it. I can't imagine why they wouldn't adopt it if it where available in the browser. And at that point, again, no one is going to make a browser which you can't use with the New York Times.

And I don't think that the New York Times or Netflix or Hollywood want to abet the NSA, I don't think they want to make it easy for people who run remote access trojans, the software that lets them spy on you trough your webcam, I don't think they want to abet those people in their surveillance of their victims. I just think that they're indifferent to it, indifferent to the possibility that that's what's going to arise from it.

So I'm going to be writing this up more formally soon, and if I sound down that's why.

I'm really kind of running out of hope for the internet, and for the future. The reason my hope for the future and my hope for the internet are bound up is that it's hard to imagine how we can meaningfully change the world if we don't have the possibility of a free and open internet to use to organize that change. The rich and the powerful already enjoy the facility to organize themselves. That's how they got to be rich and powerful.

But for anyone else, for anyone hoping to upend the order of things, to have a more egalitarian, democratic society, I can't conceive of how that would work if there wasn't a free and open infrastructure on which to organize it. And that free and open infrastructure is incompatible with the idea that owners of computers are treated as untrusted by those computers. And the law prohibits telling people when their computers are doing things that they don't want them to do, or telling people about vulnerabilities in their computers that might allow some third party to exploit their computer against their owners interests.

That's pretty wonkish, I know. And not entirely coherent, I know. That's why I haven't written it up yet. But I'm going to. And I hope maybe we can start joining up the dots here. That the institutions we rely on to keep the internet safe and free, like the World Wide Web Consortium, like the Mozilla Foundation, will understand that no matter what the cost to their wider relevance to the wider internet that this is not worth it…

It, it can't be worth it. That there's nothing that is worth participating in the creation of a mandate that makes it illegal to tell people when their computers are not trustworthy. There just isn't.



See the comments bellow.