Might is right in IT world

Dan Gillmor takes a look at vendor lock-in

When I consider the big issues in the world of IT and policy, I invariably return to a single word: control.

Control encompasses any number of things. But, as we move into an era of increasing digital content in our everyday lives and jobs, at the top of the list is the question of who’s in charge of information.

At one time we imagined that we were. We’d buy a product and if we wanted to tinker with it that was no one’s business but our own. Now, as ones and zeroes become embedded in everyday products and services, we answer to the sellers as much as they answer to us.

Technology vendors strive for lock-in. They lock us in with obvious tricks, such as Microsoft with its file formats — a monopoly mechanism as pervasive as its Windows desktop control. Vendors control us with digital rights management schemes that force us to break the law to make backups or even to quote from other works.

They forbid us from tweaking or substituting — such as ink-jet printer companies try to do when they misuse copyright laws to make life hard for other companies that want to sell us cheaper ink.

Companies also create cartels and impose rules like the DVD regional coding scheme, which keeps us from watching a movie we buy in Europe on a DVD player bought elsewhere.

Governments do their part, too. They use regulations to keep vital technology from becoming ubiquitous, such as the US government’s export-control restrictions that still give most email messages all the data security of postcards. It just goes on and on.

The most onerous controls are being exerted against the least powerful players in this game: end-users, who have the least individual leverage against big companies and governments. IT has more leverage because it’s a bigger customer.

No doubt some in the IT community have used their leverage wisely, although the typical outcome seems to be a price reduction from vendors not any serious divesting of vendor control. It’s not hard to understand why. The path of least resistance is always alluring when budgets and time are constrained. It was once true that no one got fired for buying IBM partly because IBM, for all its monopolistic reach at the time did a pretty good job.

Likewise, for all its ruthless business practices, Microsoft has been steadily improving products aimed at enterprises.

The move towards open source software has been one of the truly heartening occurrences of recent times. IT has seen the financial advantages, which may not be as overwhelming as open-source advocates claim they are, but are nonetheless real in many, if not most, cases.

More important is the open source advantage in the freeing of data and choice. Portability is the most essential escape valve in any data relationship — if you can move it without incurring massive costs, you have leverage. If you can’t, you don’t. With open source products, you do.

I have no religious attachment to open source versus proprietary software and I use both.

However, I consider my data to be mine, period. Just as I consider it my right to back up what I buy and to quote from others’ work — with appropriate citation — in creating new works of my own.

The technology and entertainment industries don’t believe in such rights. For everyone’s sake, I hope IT will fight back — and hard.

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