The future of control over your own device

I’m not quite sure why this article form ArsTechnica about a 10-year old white paper from some folks at microsoft on DRM vs piracy, considers it newsworthy now — especially because they leave out the thing that I think does make it worth another look now — the rise of iOS essentially as a “trusted computing” environment.

 Outside Microsoft, critics charged that Biddle’s project represented the beginning of the end for the PC as an open platform. They feared that Microsoft would use the technology to exert control over which software could be executed on Windows PCs, freezing out open source operating systems and reducing users’ freedom to run the software of their choice.

Wow, that’s pretty much what iOS has actually accomplished, isn’t it?

But on an open PC, the user has the ability to inspect and modify essentially all data stored on the device, so DRM schemes are inherently insecure.

Yep, on an open PC, but not on iOS — unless you ‘jailbreak’, likely violating your warranty, possibly making it challenging to upgrade to future versions of the OS (and in general, running a ‘jailbroken’ device requires a higher level of technical expertise than running an officially supported device, I think nobody disagrees), and possibly even breaking the law in the US (on an iPhone? The Librarian of Congress currently says jailbreaking is an allowed exception to the DMCA, but may not always. On an iPad? Illegal. And actually providing people with the software to do so is illegal either way, even if doing so isn’t. See the EFF in re this please. ).

What people were worried Microsoft was trying to do with Windows…. Apple seems to have succeeded in doing with iOS, somehow without the ‘evil empire’ outcry. (In fact, somehow mainstream media has been convinced that iOS represents a turn to openness for Apple, setting an industry standard for openness — the exact opposite of what iOS actually does for consumer computing!)

And ‘mobile’is probably the future of consumer computing (both literally, and more mobile-like experience even in stationary environments), and iOS’s closed garden is probably the future of consumer computing.

While Biddle and his colleagues didn’t succeed in allaying the fears of Palladium’s critics, the paper’s central arguments have held up well. The authors predicted that the emergence of the darknet would produce a technological and legal arms race. They thought content companies and law enforcement would attack those aspects of the darknet that were most centralized, but that the darknet would adapt through greater decentralization. And they predicted that efforts to build secure DRM schemes would continue to fail. All of their predictions have continued to hold true over the last decade.

But I wonder if we’re at a tipping point; their arguments on DRM ultimately failing are maybe true only in a world of actual open computing, before the iOS coup to get people used to controlled platforms.

To be sure, the ‘darknet’ won’t go away, pirated content will continue to be available, shared by and among the most technically competent users. But it (the acts of both sharing and the receiving) may be essentially inaccessible to the majority of computer users, using locked-down systems.  (And I wonder if effective DRM was in fact one of the main motivations of Apple’s strategy here).

To be sure, “it’s harder to get pirated content” is not something that flies as an argument against the new regime in mainstream circles (although I think there’s an argument to be made about social value here).

But we give up a lot if this new regime of vendor-controlled “trusted” computing takes over.

I wonder if the idea that an owner of a device would have the right and ability to run whatever software she wanted on that device… will be seen as a quaint relic of a more naive age, 10 years from now.

And what this does, this rise of locked down computing platforms and our acculturation to accept them — is help cement a change that is of course happening anyway in all of our relationship to technology and it’s social role: From ‘makers’ to ‘consumers’, our computers are not tools for us to use as we wish, to experiment with and play with and ‘hack‘ in the best, most creative, sense (something that the Apple II’s and Commodore 64’s of our childhood were) —  but have reached the end of that trendline, and become instead simply conduits for corporate vendors to give us exactly the content and capabilities they choose for us to receive, the ones which they think will most maximize their profits and never threaten those profits, with all of us locked into a disposable material culture of planned obsolescence.


One thought on “The future of control over your own device”

  1. I worry daily about these closed gardens and what that means for our freedom. Can’t stop the signal… I hope.

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