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Sunday, June 6 2010

Human Rights Eroding in the Name of Copyright Protection

(Invited submission for the Taiwan Branch of The Association of World Citizens.)

Human rights are gradually eroding at several fronts as international interest groups lobby and pressure governments all over the globe to "protect copyright" using big-brother-like information and communication technologies (ICT).

Microsoft's WAT component for Windows 7 validates a user's computer, every 90 days, against its constantly updated database. The motivation looks innocent -- it's just a technical measure deployed against potential piracy. After all, people who respect Microsoft's copyright have no need to worry, right? Yet Microsoft's track record of disrespecting users' fair use right (g: "fairuse4wm controversy") and disrespecting users' will not to upgrade (g: "windows stealthy update") indeed provide reasons for us to be worried. Imagine that a world-wide government installs tiny robots at everybody's home, constantly watching for wrong-doings of your family. And the software of the robots can be remotely upgraded by the government whether you like it or not. If we can accept WAT, we can certainly also accept such invasion of human right and privacy by the government.

Apple's customers cannot exercise their rights over their own physical properties -- the iPhones for which they have paid Apple. Apple forbids its customers to install software programs other than those provided by Apple's iTunes App Store. (g: "eff jailbreak") Imagine buying a house and being forbidden to put any furniture into it except those explicitly allowed by the construction company. If we can accept Apple's control over its customers, we can certainly also accept such invasion of human right by the construction company.

Amazon's Kindle e-book has a piece of software that not only sends user's information back to Amazon but also sends Amazon's commands to Kindle whenever the user connects to its online bookstore WhisperNet. What commands have been sent? Instructions to delete books (with a corresponding refund), for example, in the name of Amazon's respect for the publisher's copyright. (g: "kindle Orwell") Imagine that the Big Brother collects everyone's reading habits and notes as well as deleting any books/articles/forwarded emails that he deems "ungood" and harmful to the society. If we can accept Kindle's remote removal of already-purchased books, we can certainly also accept such invasion of human right and privacy by the Big Brother. Speaking of Big Brother, the books deleted happen to be George Orwell's "1984" and "Animal Farms".

The blu-ray discs employ a complicated but vulnerable DRM (digital rights/restrictions management) encryption system called AACS as a measure of copyright protection. A user who has lawfully bought such a disc and who uses a less popular operating system such as GNU/Linux will receive no supports as to how to play the disc on her system. So such users collaborate to help each other play blu-ray discs on their computers. When a user posted a 16-byte number beginning with "09 F9" on a news site Digg, the AACS Licensing Administrator demanded Digg to take it down. (g: "09 F9 controversy" also search for "09 F9" images) Imagine that a publisher sells you books whose printed words are only readable when you wear their special glasses. You figure out how to bypass this restriction and share your knowledge on the internet, and then the publisher harasses you and the internet forum with legal threats. If we can accept AACS LA's censorship of such a short number, we can certainly also accept such censorship of speech by the publisher.

Can we accept all of these? We already do, even happily paying for the privilege of possessing these beautiful golden handcuffs and diamond leg irons. The Universities are largely silent about these incidents and the damages to human rights that they bring. They have left the education business to the creators of these technologies, and the latter have, through advertisement and propaganda, focused on teaching consumers about the enjoyable aspects of these technologies while leaving out the inconvenient aspects about their conflict with human rights.

drm 'security' model In fact the majority of the ICT professors may have even given up their academic integrity by remaining silent to the DRM scam artists' global-scale endeavors. In a normal security model, the information flowing from A to B is assumed to be exposed to the interception of eavesdroppers. An important rule "Kerckhoffs' principle" states that a cryptosystem should be secure even if everything about the system, except the key, is public knowledge. Yet the DRM "security model" treats the receiver of the information (the consumer) as one and the same as the eavesdropper. This necessarily requires the DRM system to give up the Kerckhoffs' principle, thereby rendering it breakable regardless of the technology it employs. (g: "Kerckhoffs drm" and "obscurity drm")

In non-technical terms, the DRM supporters know that the system is destined to be broken and yet they mislead the copyright holders to believe that their work can be "protected" by DRM. The ICT professors largely remain silent. To save their destined embarrassment, the DRM supporters went along to pressure the USA government to pass human-right-invading laws such as DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act), and then to force its variants in the form of ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Act) upon other governments. (g: "eff dmca" and "acta secret") The net effect is that these broken technologies along with their supporting laws can be used by these ICT companies to play the role of the Big Brother in George Orwell's dystopia "1984" (only more efficiently), to censor speech for example, while failing to deliver their promise of copyright protection.

We as a free society have to challenge this trend of erosion if we care about privacy, physical property right, freedom of speech, and other human rights in general. All this happens due to lack of public awareness. Interestingly, the best tool we have against this suffocating trend also happens to be an ICT artifact -- the Internet. By disseminating online (and offline) the above stories, facts, and search keywords, we can bring the public to be aware of what basic rights they are giving up as they purchase DRM-infected technologies. By disseminating online (and offline) the ideas about creative commons, free culture, and attention economy (each of which requires at least an entire article to discuss), we can bring the public to be aware of the new possibilities and benefits for the society as well as for each individual writer/artist/creator if s/he chooses to share her/his creative works with the world instead of guarding them as "intellectual properties". Hopefully we can not only stop the erosion of human rights but also empower digital consumers to take advantage of the read-write nature of the web 2.0 world, becoming an informed, dignified, and influential prosumer.

* Note: 'g: "abc xyz" ' means 'please google "abc xyz" (without the quotes)'.

Sunday, December 7 2008

Which is More Important? Open File Format or Free Software?

For the sake of free software, please help defend Taiwan from Microsoft's docx file format invasion. Please help odf plugin for firefox more than you do with the docx plugin. Otherwise, you could be hurting open file format as you contribute to one controversial piece of free software, and ultimately hurt the entire FS landscape as a whole.

* * * * *

This title sounds like a silly question. Open file formats serve everybody (except the monopolist), free software users and proprietary software users alike. Free software typically support open file formats by default, and then maybe also some popular proprietary file format by necessity. Is there ever a situation where supporting/writing free software hurts open file format?

Indeed there might just be one very interesting example: the docx plugin for firefox. I will leave the debate as to whether MS PL counts as a free software licnese to the philosophers. What I would like to argue is, whether this license is free enough, or even if this license is free enough, this particular piece of software is hurting us.

I have been writing a series of articles against the spread of docx file format by unconscious docx victims onto more new victims. Considering

  1. that most people are still using the old doc format,
  2. that switching to MS Office 2007 from old versions of MS Offices may require more training than switching to OO.o,
  3. that globally governments choose odf over ooxml,
  4. that the economy is down,
  5. that Taiwan government is under strong BSA pressure to fight piracy,
  6. that searching for office 2007 amusingly invites google and yahoo to suggest keywords related to office 2007 piracy searches,
  7. that docx is not even 100% the same as ooxml which barely passes thru the compromised ISO process as an international standard under controversies and with warnings from legal experts,

... considering all these reasons against adopting docx, you would think that my task cannot be too difficult. Difficult it really is. Taiwan is a country

  1. where computer is a synonym for Microsoft Windows,
  2. where IIS is far more popular than apache as web servers,
  3. where hardly anybody questions the fact that the nation-wide University entrance exam website demands the students to use IE (the registration page, which is now removed because the exam takes place in July).

That's fine. We will deal with these challenges with the wonderful technologies provided by the entire FS community as our support. Communities such as OFSET (of which I am a member) and technologies such as usb key booting have been greatly helpful to our advocacy endeavors. But now there is one little problem for which I have to explicitly beg for help: Can we have a better odt support than docx support in Firefox, please? I will omit a dozen or more criticisms on my anti-docx articles that I was able to counter. I will just present you this one small dialogue in which I end up wordless:
"Please, don't spread docx." (zh_TW)
"You act like a dictator, like a wolf cloaked as a sheep." (zh_TW)
"OK, whatever you feel like calling me. (zh_TW, with a funny picture explaining the difference between open file format and FS) But tell me, please, which is more like a dictator? Spreading docx or spreading odt?"
"Spreading odt is more like a dictator. With docx, I can view it with firefox."

I would like to ask the firefox docx plugin developers, bug reporters, document writers, and blogger who promote this plugin, to ponder these questions: Which is more important -- open file formats or free software? Would you rather develop and/or help spread FS at the price of hurting open file formats? Is there a more urgent need for docx or for odt compatibility in FF considering that docx [as offered by MS Office 2007 now] will be phased out even by Microsoft in favor of true OOXML? Would you please consider devoting your talents and efforts to help perfect and spread the odt plugin rather than the docx plugin? Of course I know you meant well when you joined such efforts. Besides, it is you, not me, who made more contributions to firefox. You get to decide how to spend your voluntary efforts. I would just like to ask you to consider the possibility that might have never occurred to you, that helping one specific piece of FS may actually hurt the entire FS landscape as a whole.

In Taiwan, we have made some progress in FF adoption, little progress in OO.o adoption, and virtually none in GNU/Linux desktop adoption. Now FF providing better docx compatibility than odt compatibility may hurt Taiwan's odf adoption, and ultimately hurt Taiwan's difficult escape from Microsoft's complete dominance. Admittedly Taiwan is but a small country. Yet it has a high concentration of hardware manufacturers. For example, if only hardware manufactures in Taiwan could be convinced to ship diskless computers, the debate about which OS to preload would become moot. Or even if only they could be convinced to ship motherboards that boot usb keys as its first priority, there could be some visibile changes in the awareness of GNU/Linux. (Please, urge your people to demand such computers when buying in large quantities.) Stopping the unconscious spread of docx and raising the adoption of both FF and OO.o at the same time, is crucial to the escape of Taiwan from Microsoft's control for the next few years.

I would also like to take this opportunity to ask for a legal/technical help. Can someone knowledgeable about both ooxml and DRM please enlighten me: How is it possible for a file format having backward compatibility with its DRM-enabled predecessor to have an implementation that is released under an OSI-approved license? I could not find enough relevant and deep discussions over this issue by searching "ooxml drm". What baffles me is simple logic: how can FLOSS ever be compatible with DRM, which operates under the principle of security by obscurity? I would appreciate if you don't bash OSI because of this and if you refrain from digressing into the debate between OSI and FSF over the name of Libre Software. I am most interested in debates over the oxymoron "open source DRM" using docx and its open source implementation as an example.

At the same time, I would also like to ask Sun and IBM and other big companies to devote a tiny bit of your resources to the odt plugin for firefox. As you both know very well that OO.o alone is not the most important driving force behind odt adoption. Choice is. Star Office and Lotus Symphony are among the list of software that supports odt. How about helping FF get into that list, or at least into the "readonly" list? Google, how about making chrome read and display odt? If so, we may even advocate chrome over firefox. Because, to me, open file format is more important than free software, if I ever have to make a choice. Because without true open file format free of DRM legal threat, there can be no competition, and there can be no free software.

Monday, October 22 2007

1984 in the Making, or Getting to Know Big Brother in Six Pictures

I wrote an article "1984 in the Making: Stealthy Invasion of Consumer Rights and Privacy by ICT Corporations" and submitted it to a conference in Taiwan to be held Nov 11, 2007. (A suitable translation of the conference name could be "Information Science and Society".) The paper talks abou ....

Original post on

1984 in the Making, or Getting to Know Big Brother in Six Pictures

I wrote an article "1984 in the Making: Stealthy Invasion of Consumer Rights and Privacy by ICT Corporations" and submitted it to a conference in Taiwan to be held Nov 11, 2007. (A suitable translation of the conference name could be "Information Science and Society".) The paper talks abou ....

Original post on

1984 in the Making, or Getting to Know Big Brother in Six Pictures

1984 in the making, or getting to know the Big
Brother in 6 pictures I wrote an article "1984 in the Making: Stealthy Invasion of Consumer Rights and Privacy by ICT Corporations" and submitted it to a conference in Taiwan to be held Nov 11, 2007. (A suitable translation of the conference name could be "Information Science and Society".) The paper talks about the well-known analogy of comparing the current state of computing to George Orwell's dystopian novel 1984 and explains the interplay of Digital Rights Management, Trusted Computing, and the anticircumvention provision of Digital Millennium Copyright Act. I don't get a chance to talk but will have a poster space to display my article, or some picture related to it.

I spent an entire day to draw this picture using inkscape. I think it would be a pity if I show it only to the conference attendees. So here it is. I am grateful to have found nice drawings from wikimedia, such as Butters, squirrel, and kiwi, to include in my drawing. I never got good grades in drawing in the elementary school, and I had seldom drawn between then and 1996, when I started advocating FLOSS and the danger of proprietary file formats. By that time I was too old to learn good drawing. So please excuse the crude quality. I hope you enjoy the ideas in the drawing, especially the text in the underwear of the Lord of Authors. You need to save the svg file and zoom in in inkscape in order to read it. But then you would give him a very good reason to shoot you using the DMCA gun. You have been warned. BTW, I feel a strong urge to draw a handcuff on the male genital instead of on the hand. because it really rings very well with Big Brother's command: "Thou Shalt not Reproduce without permission". But I don't have the guts to do so. :-)

This picture is distributed under the creative-commons attribution share-alike license. You are invited to improve on it. I would appreciate if you let me know. Please also show it to the poor souls who don't know that their computers report back to the Big Brother once every two weeks. Your voice (and her voice, and his; our voices together) is the key to unlock the handcuffs that the Big Brother has placed on the consumers' and programmers' hands.