The U.S. government and large corporations use the DMCA to monopolize information. Here’s how we beat them:
Sci-fi author and information rights activist Cory Doctorow appeared out of the dusty heat of the 2015 Burning Man in a gray jumpsuit and a pair of Adbusters Black Spot sneakers. In his hand he held a small black moleskin, which he glanced at intermittently while delivering an electrifying, albeit head-spinning talk on the future of the Internet of Things.
Doctorow, who recently re-joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), contextualized the Internet of Things as an information rights struggle that requires an end to patent laws that forbid jailbreaking digital locks. Concordantly, he and the EFF have an ambitious plan: To dismantle the draconian Digital Rights Management (DRM) laws currently protected by the DMCA Section 1201. Doctorow and the EFF seek to counter this oppressive legislation with the Apollo 1201 initiative, by which they will strategically pick cases that can clearly demonstrate Congress violated the Constitution when it passed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998.
The Internet of Things Vs. the Inkjet Printer Model
Doctorow began his Burning Man presentation describing the dubious nature of our current computer-controlled landscape. Increasingly, we own and inhabit devices completely dependent on computers, from coffee makers and respiration devices to houses and airplanes. Without computers, the very house in which you live could become virtually uninhabitable; an unserviced Boeing air jet carrying you home could fall right out of the sky.
Hyperbole aside, the real danger of this computerized grid is that it is restricted by the corporatist clutch of the ink jet printer model, which Doctorow says represents the very worst of technology — a “covenant” by which customers become the product, and patent holders, such as mobile carriers and companies like John Deere — ruthlessly leverage aftermarket consumables that prohibit the use of 3rd party parts (including tractor circuit boards!) and disallow tethering. Even the lowly light bulb is now fully protected as patented intellectual property.
The dystopian nature of our computerized landscape includes, of course, the reality of ubiquitous surveillance. Doctorow also mentions the specter of subprime car lending, which he says will become the new housing bubble: computerized cars with location-aware ignition kill switches — if you’re late on a payment, the manufacturer just shuts off the car’s mainframe.
DMCA Restricts Innovation & Protects Corporate Control of Information
Most gadgets that contain digital content also contain digital locks. The DMCA Section 1201 prohibits removing these locks. Whether piracy is involved or not, it’s still a felony punishable by up to 5 years in prison and $500,000 in fines. In other words, it’s a felony to ascertain and disclose information — including potentially life-altering bionic innovations— people could use to improve the world and the conditions of our lives.
Doctorow goes so far as to call the enforcement of the DMCA “deadly.” In order to enforce it, the government “makes it a felony to disclose information about defects, errors and vulnerabilities in systems that have software locks. So if there’s a bug in a system you rely on, it’s against the law to tell you about that bug because if you knew about that bug you might be able to jailbreak the system.”
A ruling against the DMCA Section 1201 could destroy the legal efficacy of digital locks, which according to Doctorow, don’t even work. After all, he says, “you wouldn’t put a safe in a bank robber’s house.”
Doctorow maintains this legal struggle goes far beyond entertainment piracy. Patent locked devices include computer-controlled respiration systems and heart defibrillators. Interestingly, Doctorow notes that in 2007 Dick Cheney’s defibrillator was made wireless so that no one could hack into his heart and assassinate him. Of course, doctors discourage the average patient from doing this because medical providers use telemetry, which is useful in treatment and may or may not also be valuable to data miners.
Destroying DRM laws and DMCA Section 1201 involves freedom of information; it’s a 1st amendment issue, which, Doctorow professes, is critical to startups that want to break out of the inkjet model. It is also critical in democratizing the Internet of Things.
The major obstacle in mounting a legal attack on the DMCA is that there is almost no litigation history because very few judges have issued rulings on it. Doctorow noted a few rare examples, one being a case where 2600: The Hacker Quarterly published source code that could crack copyright protections on DVDs. The journal’s lawyers failed to obtain a declaratory judgement. A 2004 case saw two companies bring legal action against Skylink over anti-circumvention provisions in the DMCA.
The problem with regard to DRM and patent law litigation is that the government only chooses cases they know they will win. In response, Doctorow and the EFF are currently vetting cases the government will feel compelled to defend, cases that constitute “impact litigation,” which could issue structural blows to the DMCA.
Why is This Important to the Future of Free Information
It’s highly likely Congress didn’t intend the DMCA to allow coffee maker manufacturers to prevent device modification. The original purpose was to protect Hollywood plaintiffs from piracy. Now, the law is exploited to allow all platform vendors to control digital locks and restrict practical jailbreaking activities.
No turf is more foundational than free and open Internet use, Doctorow says. His plan for a legal “Six Sigma event” aims to protect the future of progressive crypto alongside the evolution of the Internet of Things. Why is this important? This is the first time in history, he says, that normal humans outside the elite circles of oligarchy can proliferate uncrackable messages.
A new patent case, Lexmark v. Impression, presents a disturbing but related new twist to the Apollo 1201 initiative. IBM division Lexmark is arguing that DRM patent laws give them and other corporations the right to restrict how you use your devices after you buy them. This case looks like it will seek to permanently cement restrictive patent laws into place. According to Doctorow,
“This represents an unprecedented grab over your property rights to the things you own. It makes section 1201 of the DMCA — which makes it a felony to change the configuration of your electronics — look unambitious by comparison.”
Contact Doctorow at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have a case you believe can challenge the DMCA.
This article (How Hacktivists Will Break Corporate Control of Information Within a Decade) is free and open source. You have permission to republish this article under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Jake Anderson and theAntiMedia.org. Anti-Media Radio airs weeknights at 11pm Eastern/8pm Pacific. Image credit: Lexein. If you spot a typo, email email@example.com.
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