September 28, 2023

Archives for October 2002

More on the Almost-General-Purpose Language

Seth Finkelstein and Eric Albert criticize my claim that the fallacy of the almost-general-purpose computer can best be illustrated by analogy to an almost-general-purpose spoken language. They make some good points, but I think my original conclusion is still sound.

Seth argues that speech (or a program) can be regulated by making it extremely difficult to express, even if it isn’t strictly impossible to say. I’m skeptical of this claim for human languages, since it seems to me that no usable language can hope to prevent people from creating new words and then teaching others what they mean. I think my skepticism is even more valid for computer languages. If a computer language makes something difficult but not impossible, then some programmer will create a library that provides the difficult functionality in more convenient form. This is the computer equivalent of creating a new word and defining it for others.

Eric argues that advancing technology might make it possible to restrict what people can say online. I’m skeptical, but he may be right that restrictions on, say, porn may become more accurately enforceable over time. Still, my point was not that mega-censorship is impossible, but that mega-censorship necessarily causes huge collateral damage.

There’s another obvious reason to like the 1984 analogy: using it puts the anti-computer forces into the shoes of the 1984 government. (I don’t think they’ll spend a lot of time comparing and contrasting themselves with the 1984 government.)

You may say that this is cheap rhetorical trick, but I disagree. I believe that code is speech, and I believe that its status as speech is not just a legal technicality but a deep truth about the social value of code. What the code-regulators want is not so different from what the speech-regulators of 1984 wanted.

Fritz's Hit List #20

Today on Fritz’s Hit List: audio key chains (like this one).

These key chains play a prerecorded audio track, which presumably is stored in digital form, so they qualify for regulation as “digital media devices” under the Hollings CBDTPA. If the CBDTPA passes, any newly manufactured audio key chains will have to incorporate government-approved copy restriction technology.

Fight piracy – regulate key chains!

[Thanks to Mark Gilb for suggesting this item.]

Schoen: Palladium Can Have an "Owner Override"

Seth Schoen argues that “trusted systems” like Palladium can have a sort of manual override that allows the owner to get all of the data on a machine, even if it is protected by DRM.

As Seth points out, the main implication of this is that it is possible to build a system like Palladium in a way that provides benefits to the user but doesn’t give outsiders the ability to lock the user out of some sections of his own machine. If Seth is right about this, then you don’t have to give up control over your machine in order to have Palladium protect your own interests as a user.

This is a pretty interesting argument, but I suspect that there’s more discussion to be had here. For one thing, Seth suggests requiring physical presence (i.e., pushing a button or the like) to use the give-me-all-the-data feature; but physical presence is not enough, as people other than the machine’s owner often get physical access to it. Nonetheless, this is great stuff, and worth reading for those interested in the implications of DRM and “trusted systems”.

Give Us Analog. No Wait, We Meant Digital.

Remember when Hollywood wanted to ban digital outputs on media devices? The rationale was that digital outputs were uniquely copyable. Here’s Jack Valenti addressing a congressional hearing back in April:

But it is digital piracy that gives movie producers multiple Maalox moments. It is digital thievery, which can disfigure and shred the future of American films. What we must understand is that digital is to analog as lightning is to the lightning bug. In analog, the pirate must be provisioned with equipment, dozens, even hundreds of slave-video recorders, because after repeated copying in analog on one machine, the finished product becomes increasingly un-watchable. Not so in digital format.

Well, now Hollywood is saying they want to ban analog outputs. For example, John Patrick reports a panel of movie industry executives saying:

The hole in the protection scheme is that most of the content is still analog. A DVD starts out as digital but the output of a DVD player is analog and therefore can be easily copied.

Others report privately that they are hearing the same thing, that Hollywood now thinks that analog outputs should be stamped out.

Hmm. Digital is too dangerous to allow. Analog is too dangerous to allow. That puts us in a bit of a tough spot.

White House Cybersecurity Czar Urges DMCA Reform

Today’s Boston Globe reports, in an article by Hiawatha Bray, on comments made at a “town meeting” yesterday by Richard Clarke, the head of the White House’s Office of Cybersecurity:

At the town meeting, Clarke responded to a question about the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The act makes it illegal to publicize the existence of security flaws in computer software, but computer software companies have used the law to threaten legal action against academic researchers who publicize their discoveries of such flaws.

Clarke said such threats were a misuse of the law and that reform is needed. ”I think a lot of people didn’t realize that it would have this potential chilling effect on vulnerability research.”

This is good news for proponents of the recently-introduced Boucher and Lofgren bills, both of which would reform the DMCA. The Boucher bill even includes a specific exemption for scientific research.