Blocking The Fields

Dry stone walls in the Yorkshire Dales

There are people walking over the beautiful spring meadows. Most are just enjoying the beauty of it all, but some are going visiting to each other’s houses. Of those, you discover one or two of them doing things you and your supporters don’t like when they arrive, so you want to stop them.

You issue an instruction to block the fields. Your objective is just, so it must be possible, right? Your bureaucrats get to work on your demand.

They can’t block an open field, so they build a road and block that.

But people go round the roadblock, so they build a fence along the sides of the road too.

But people go round the fence, so they add a fence all around the field.

But people go round the field, so they mandate fences across the whole country. That bad thing you want to stop justifies all the expense and inconvenience, doesn’t it? Building the fences takes several years, but the whole country is now covered in obstacles of various kinds.

But there are now so many miles of fences that they are mostly out of sight of your staff. People just jump over them, so you tell the police start to arrest people who do. That bad thing is so bad you have to act tough, even though most of those people they are arresting are just trying to work round the inconvenience you have caused them for innocuous reasons.

But there aren’t enough police to patrol every fence, so you hire more and more.

But they still can’t arrest everyone, so they recruit informers.

You can’t rely on the informers, so you get them to spy on each other as well.

Turns out you can’t rely on spies, so you add security cameras as well.

You now need an army of spies, analysts and police to watch the security cameras, check on the spies and watch for people jumping fences. This is not about the bad thing you first objected to any more. It’s now about respecting the law for the sake of the law. So your people are arresting everyone regardless of their motives, checking on spies for telling lies, dealing with corruption among your informers, suppressing all the “SJW”s who whine about the loss of freedom and undermining your political opposition who are equally clueless about blocking fields but can see that what you are doing is hugely unpopular.

Congratulations! Your attempt to stop something your supporters disapprove of by mandating the impossible has created a police state. It doesn’t matter how bad the thing you were trying to stop is; people probably agree that it’s a bad thing.

By mandating the impossible, you caused collateral damage that outweighed any benefits, and by associating it with a thing no-one dares defend in public you were able to accidentally destroy society without opposition. And you didn’t notice because you never go for walks in the fields.

Artificial Scarcity

When there’s no legitimate way to make money, dinosaur publishers resort to digital vandalism to create scarcity artificially. Technical measures that prevent reading digital books or listening to digital music are as ridiculous as this chair:

It’s Not Just The Hugos

DRM farces are like London buses. You wait for ever, and then several come along at once. After writing my story for ComputerWorld about the blackout of the Hugo awards by a copyright enforcement robot with no concept of “fair use”, along came an even more stunning story. Yes, the big rally to reselect Barak Obama as candidate for the upcoming US elections was hit by a shoot-first-ask-questions-afterwards bot claiming to be protecting just about every content provider imaginable.

So I’ve updated and expanded the story for InfoWorld – take a look. The key quote:

“When a technologist embodies their or their employer’s view of what’s fair into a technology-enforced restriction, any potential for the exercise of discretion is turned from a scale to a step, and freedom is quantized. That quantization of discretion is always in the interest of the person forcing the issue.”

When you assign algorithms to make subjective judgements, they can’t. Instead, they impose the biases of the people who created them. The content distributors, like UStream and YouTube have a bias, created by US law, to block anything that might turn out to be infringing, because that’s how they get “safe harbor”. Thus the technology they wrote or bought from snake-oil suppliers is imposing their bias.

We fix it not by getting the suppliers to do better bots – they can’t, algorithms are incapable of subjective judgement – but by fixing the law so it doesn’t incent the providers to have this bias.

“Fair Use” Robots Are Science Fiction

The black-out of the Hugo Awards by a “robot” that thought the clip of Doctor Who shown just before Neil Gaiman spoke was proof positive of piracy is educational. My article on ComputerWorldUK today explains why.

☆ ebooks – You Can’t Take Them With You…

Civic library, Newcastle, 18/9/1957, Hood collectionDigital books are loaned, not sold, so why aren’t they described that way? There’s a big market for digital books, but I think they’re being sold badly, almost to the point of dishonesty. I think it’s time the way their vendors talk about them was changed.

First some illustrations:

  1. My father just finished reading an e-book and was asking me how he could now pass it on to his nephew. He called to ask how, assuming there had to be an easy way. But there’s no way he can do it without paying for it again (and even then he will find buying an e-book for someone else challenging).
  2. When my wife and I go on holiday, we often like to read the same books. With paper books it’s pretty easy; all we have to do is use two different bookmarks and make sure we’ve a choice of books so we don’t have to argue about who gets to read! But with e-books, that’s not possible. We either have to share the same e-book account, or we have to buy the book twice.
  3. Our family are all huge fans of Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman series and of Terry Pratchett‘s Discworld books. We have a complete library of them in the house and everyone who lives here (and a few regular guests!) eagerly read and re-read them. If we had bought e-book versions, none of this would be possible (and the fan-base for both authors would be smaller as we’ve hooked several with strategic book loans).
  4. More than that, some of our books will definitely be bequeathed to our children sooner or (hopefully) later. We’re sure they will want to share some of those with their own children too. Some of the books here are transient but some are definitely here to stay.

Pros and Cons

Personally I have purchased very few e-books. They are usually priced near the cost of the physical book, yet come with few of the benefits. I do understand their attraction though – we have several Kindles in the family and I’ve used them on holiday. There are some compelling capabilities that aren’t present in the ink-on-paper book.

One is the ability to read using the device I happen to have with me (at least in Amazon’s case – Apple only support their own devices so there’s no Android or web readers for their books). Another is the ability to make marginal notes in the book that are non-destructive and reusable. But there are significant down-sides as well. For example, I can’t share e-books with others; I can’t pass them on; I can’t re-sell them; I can’t bequeath them.

e-books as library

There’s another source of books our house uses like this. It’s the public library. Even the books I get there are more shareable than e-books, but the serial use pattern of the public library seems to me a better analogy for the usage I’m able to gain from e-books. In addition, the rights I have to an e-book are closer to those I have to a library book than to one I have purchased. For example, Amazon’s Kindle store does not sell me a book; rather, it gives me a perpetual right to borrow it for personal use, a right they can revoke at will but which I can reasonably assume I’ll be able to exercise when I want to read the book again.

If the e-book stores had framed their business as a super digital lending library (with prices to match) I might be an avid customer by now. Instead, by saying I am buying the book, and charging prices that are a delta on the cover price rather than a delta on the cost of a lending library, they draw my attention increasingly to all the things I can’t do – lend, share, resell, bequeath – and I usually order the paper version. Perhaps it’s time for some reframing? Maybe for app stores too?

[First published on ComputerWorldUK]

☆ GagaGate, DRM and How To Cripple The Cloud

I’ve been watching the music marketing stunt that Amazon have pulled today with some interest. The story is that Amazon US are selling the new Lady Gaga album Born This Way in digital-only form for $0.99 today only – the whole album for the price of a track (no luck in the UK where the album is £3.99). As the news has spread, it’s obviously being bought in huge quantities – it’s currently the #1 purchase – and transferred straight to Cloud Drive, Amazon’s new online music locker and player.

Except it’s not. Customers have now been reporting for several hours that it’s not showing up in their accounts – only the digital booklet and in some cases one or two tracks are showing up. Amazon admits there’s a problem – their PR folk are churning out responses (clearly cut and paste from Twitter) to press inquiries saying

We’re experiencing high volume and downloads are delayed. If customers order today, they will get the full @ladygaga album for $0.99. Thanks for your patience.

That text has also replaced the bold claims about being able to listen to the album straight away on the product page. What could possibly be going wrong? After all, it’s very straightforward to add a pointer to a shared file into a directory, and I think that’s all Cloud Drive does with purchased music (which is why storing it there is free – symbolic links are virtually free). Amazon is clearly embarrassed by it – they are busily deleting customer comments from the product if they even mention the outage, regardless of the star rating.

One clue is the product details of the album. They include the text “Record Company Required Metadata: Music file contains unique purchase identifier. Learn more.”  Follow the link and you’ll find:

Embedded in the metadata of each purchased MP3 from this record company are a random number Amazon assigns to your order, the Amazon store name, the purchase date and time, codes that identify the album and song (the UPC and ISRC), Amazon’s digital signature, and an identifier that can be used to determine whether the audio has been modified.  In addition, Amazon inserts the first part of the email address associated with your Amazon.com account

I think that’s the answer. My hunch is that the GagaGate meltdown is all the fault of DRM. Rather than just adding a pointer to a shared file to the Cloud Drive, Amazon are required by the record company to create a unique copy of the file for every customer, watermarked digitally signed to show who bought it. What’s more, the unique copy includes at least one MD5 hash that has to be computed on a per-file basis. So Amazon has both an enormous computing task and potentially an enormous storage bill (assuming it doesn’t just compute the watermark signature on the fly at download, which is possible but doesn’t help with the compute bill).

All for what? Removing the metadata is unlikely to be massively challenging (albeit illegal under the DMCA). This means the record label is crippling their retailer’s business just so it can express its mistrust and low esteem for its paying customers while doing pretty much nothing to actually protect revenues –  that it already knows will be enormous – from serious criminals. Congratulations to the label, you’ve managed to turn a great example of how to compete with “free” into a bad experience for your customers.

One more observation: The Amazon UK digital download does not mention watermarking/signing. I wonder whether it’s because the record label trusts the British, or whether it’s just not disclosed?

[Updated to reflect information I received that the file has a uniquely-computed digital signature added, rather than a watermark. Lower (still significant) compute burden but even easier to remove]

☝ DRM Is Toxic To Culture

It’s possible that you think that unauthorised use of copyrighted music, films and books is such a serious problem that it’s worth giving away a little of your convenience and freedom in exchange for stopping it. I’d like to suggest you think again. Digital Restriction Methods (DRM) aren’t just a nuisance that treats all customers as if they had stolen what they actually paid for. They also threaten our future cultural heritage.

Continued on ComputerWorldUK

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