Digital rights and wrongs

Have you ever watched a porn movie on DVD? Did you do it on your Windows XP computer? I'll know if you're lying. No, really, I'll know. I'm in touch with a hacker who has access to a server in Redmond.

Have you ever watched a porn movie on DVD? Did you do it on your Windows XP computer? I’ll know if you’re lying. No, really, I’ll know. I’m in touch with a hacker who has access to a server in Redmond.

Industry wisdom has it that every time you play a DVD on your XP-based PC the details of the disk are sent to this server at Microsoft.

It’s bad enough that your privacy is being invaded like this, isn’t it? Having to worry about my friend the hacker must be much worse; after all, if you did lie to me then I’d have to tell your boss -- it was probably his computer you used -- though I’d rather you read the rest of the article before you rush off to install Linux.

It’s your computer, right? You can install whatever software you like, can’t you? As part of its digital rights management (DRM) suite Microsoft is developing software that will stop certain other software working. The software in question is anything capable of violating copyright.

Well, that’s just about everything then.

Of course, other big software-houses will follow suit, and implement DRM measures in their software in an attempt to stop Windows XP from breaking it, so a lot of software from big companies is bound to be okay.

There are a number of issues here. First there’s this thing about implementing DRM measures. Doing so is currently beyond the ability of small software houses, and well beyond the ability of open source companies, so they’ll all have to withdraw from the market. There will never be another WinAmp.

But the really big problem is the criminalisation of society.

This software policy assumes that you’re a bad person. It assumes that you’re not going to simply make copies of your own music for personal use. It assumes that you’re going to make illegal copies of copyrighted material for your own gain. It then treats you as a criminal by curtailing your rights.

In a number of countries, this one included, there is a principle adhered to by the government and judiciary that goes something like this: you are innocent until proven guilty. Microsoft’s software policy is in direct violation of this principle, and is rightly viewed as unethical.

Now, before you stamp your copies of Windows XP into dust and install Linux, I’d like to just mention the really big problem with this scenario: representation.

This policy has been dictated by large companies with significant investment in copyrighted property. Generally speaking, this category does not include very many individuals. We, as individuals, and as a community, have no representation in these policies. We have no control over this, because we have no voice. They can do whatever they like to us, and we can’t even shout loud enough for them to hear us.

If the government tried something like this we’d be writing letters to our MP, and pretty soon the party-political balance of the house would change, and these unethical ideas would go away. Anyone remember "You can’t ban video recorders because it’s possible to copy movies using them"?

Unfortunately, because this is being driven by big companies we can’t do any of that. We can’t vote Bill Gates off the Microsoft.

Without representation we can’t stop this spreading any further. Today it’s DRM, where do you want to go tomorrow? Well you can’t, Microsoft won’t let you. What if it decides that certain websites are out of bounds. Isn’t that interfering with freedom of speech? What if it decides that you can only listen to music that’s been released on one of its clients’ labels -- no more independent artists? What if it decides it doesn’t like blacks, or Maori? It isn’t that far-fetched; think about it. Maori have set up an independent government, claiming (correctly) that the "government" is illegal in international law. Doesn’t that make them political dissidents?

There is something we can do, though. Although, Microsoft is betting that we’re too stupid to do it. We can uninstall Windows, and install Linux in its place.

We have consumer power to counter unethical companies with. I’d rather have the powers of democracy, but when the governments of the world fall down and allow unethical, unrepresentative practices, the market must step up and take their place.

We’re all going to be victims of this, unless you opt out. You’re only a victim if you agree to be a victim. Microsoft’s licensing agreement should read, "You agree to be victimised by us on behalf of the commercial interests of large corporations. You agree to be considered a criminal, and have no forum in which to prove your innocence. You agree to have us monitor your every move, and to offer no warranty as to the safety of that information, nor to the uses to which it will be put, nor to the people we choose to disclose it."

When you install Linux there is no licensing agreement. Nobody cares. It’s free software (free as in freedom, not free as in beer). Nobody will watch you. Nobody will tell you what software you can and can’t run. Nobody will tell you what you can and can’t do. You’re an adult, free to do as you will, and ready to accept the consequences of your actions.

And, if you think that Microsoft’s position is bad for you as an individual, what do you think of it being able to discover your private business information through its software. What is it doing to your company?

But that’s not the biggest problem. Oh no, the most frightening thing by far is that this is the software of choice, of our government.

Dollery is a Wellington IT consultant. Send letters for publication in Computerworld to Computerworld Letters.

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