Ming the Mechanic:
The Battle for the Net

The NewsLog of Flemming Funch
 The Battle for the Net2003-12-15 08:17
picture by Flemming Funch

Paul Hughes at Planet P talks about the battle for the freedom of the Internet. As a starting point there is The Digital Imprimatur by John Walker, which is a rather pessimistic view. "How big brother and big media can put the Internet genie back in the bottle". Indeed, there are a number of powerful, well-funded groups, backed up by corrupt politicians, that are working very hard on making the Internet subservient to their wishes and their economic interests. That covers everything from the U.S. government's insistence that they should be able to eavesdrop on anything, to big media companies implementing DRM, "Digital Rights Management", which is a euphemism for technology that will control 100% how, when, where and by whom a given piece of media is used, down to the chip level. The equivalent of self-destructing CDs, just more pervasive. It all looks pretty grim what such folks have in mind. Some of what Paul has to say is:
"Currently the internet is very centralized. People say it isn't, but all the main functions, the DNS servers, and the main pipes all go thru major carriers and companies pipelines. The protocols for this network are governed by ICANN and soon possibly the UN itself. More and more people are getting online thru large cable and telco carriers, making access all the more centralized and controlled by the biggest players. All this is adequately described in the Digital Imprimatur above. There are good and bad reasons for the lockdown, but it still will be that - a lockdown. And there is probably little any one of us can do to stop it's inevitable occurence.

However, what is to stop you, me or anyone else from setting up our own seperate but parallel adhoc local network in our neighboorhoods?


Using very cheap off-the shelf hardware available at radio shack anyone will soon be able to build a GNU Radio that will be able to communicate with anyone else's GNU Radio. These radios will be general purpose wireless computing devices that communicate over the open airwaves. Regulated or not, these devices will flourish underground rapidly as there power to connect and network become apparent. It's only a matter of time before a general purpose GNU Radio ends up in the hands of anyone who wants to get one. While the internet gets more locked down, Microsoft implements strong DRM, and even more ominious lockdowns are put in place along the network itself, more and more hobbiest will be computing and communicating with these handheld units and modified laptops and other devices. The chips running from them will also be modified, cheap and out of control. Certainly they will not be as powerful as the latest Intel or AMD processors with all the DRM built into them, but they will function as general purpose devices without any of those restrictions. Their range could easily extend beyond a mile, and I also suspect you'll start seeing people add rogue (maybe at some point illegal) solar powered repeaters and routers on mountains tops to help one commuity of GNU users communicate with another community."
OK, so let's fight. Big money is going to put restrictive technologies in place that will keep them holding the strings, and us holding the short end of the bargain. We need alternative technologies to match whatever they come up with.

Proprietary Software vs. Open Source: That is looking pretty good there. Companies like Microsoft are trying hard to convince governments that open source is somehow dangerous and insecure and that it should preferably be outlawed. That is not working, as it just isn't true. And even many Big Companies are looking more and more towards open source. Economic views tend to favor open source, as it is generally a lot cheaper.

Chips with DRM vs. Generic Chips: Will we be forced to use processors that have a built-in backdoor owned by BigMedia? If it were up to Intel and Microsoft we would. But as long as there is a clear choice, that kind of features would tend to be shunned. Intel introduced Pentium IIIs that had a built in ID, so one could track the activity of people's computers. Nobody seemed to like it, people were reluctant to buy it, and I don't think they repeated it in the following processors. Would they really be able to get all chip production plants to agree on designs with such features? I doubt it. Even if it became a law in the U.S. I don't believe that chip plants in Taiwan would just go along with it.

Operating Systems with DRM vs. Operating Systems owned by you: Well, lots of people have actually bought and paid for Windows XP, despite that it has a mind of its own and might stop your access to your own computer based on instructions from Redmond. Why? Well, it is the next version and lots of it looks nice. Apple has gotten away with sneaking DRM into iTunes. Which is accepted because they've done it fairly reasonably and it is a very useful program. The operating system arena is tricky, because people tend to get attached to their OS, and will upgrade to the next version even if it happens to include something oppressive and undesirable.

Centralized Routing vs. Ubiquitous Mesh: Yes, despite how we usually think about the Net, most of the traffic is traveling through a relatively small number of core routers. I can't send a message from Toulouse to Los Angeles without going through some large ISPs, a very limited number of pipes going under the ocean, and some large routers at key points. These points can both be easily monitored, and they can be filtered, and they could be turned off selectively. There is no grassroots infrastructure for the net. So, that is looking bad.

It would be very nice if we had UltraWideBand packet radios, driven by software, and they could be hooked up in a Mesh network covering the whole planet, and which didn't have central points that most of the traffice went through. Very nice. And there probably isn't any good technical reason why we don't. It is just easier to plug into Covad or France Telecom and pay 39.95 per month and accept whichever way they do things.

Owned Spectrum vs. Public Spectrum: A problem is the antiquated model that the air waves should be owned by specific groups. That means both that they're very badly utilized and that a lot of very useful public benefit activities are hindered. WiFi has taken off in a great way with only a very small piece of bandwidth, which is shared with garagedoor openers and microwave ovens. Lots more could be done if the airwaves were more available. Or if the stops were removed from using UltraWideBand, which uses not one particular frequency, but basically all of them at the same time, which makes the bandwidth practically unlimited.

So, is the answer to just implement these things whether it is legal or not?

Well, I'd say that the strategy ought to be to put technologies in place that are inherently controlled by their users or grassroots groups, rather than central control, and which can be easily configured for a variety of uses. Like that GNU Radio thing. Or mesh network protocols. Or like Linux. Or like file sharing. Or open media formats like OggVobis. Or open encryption standards. Nobody's saying they will be used for anything illegal, but they could, if the climate turns too oppressive.

I think it is essential to share good information about what is going on, and what the alternative efforts are. Important to make the issues known, so that even non-techies know what they are. Anybody who buys a computer or a TV should know what DRM is and what the intention with it is, and what the alternatives are.

Here are a few informative sites from people who work on keeping technology open:

Freedom to Tinker
Abusable Technologies Awareness Center
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Privacy Information Center
The Internet is for Everyone
Lawrence Lessig

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15 Dec 2003 @ 16:07 by Paul Hughes @ : VoIP: Digital Imprimatur in Disguise?
Ming, thanks for the mention and response. I was catching up with the news today, and realized something very odd about the recent announcements of the large telco carriers jumping into the VoIP business. I just posted another entry on my blog, pointing out how there is no way I can see how the Big Telcos could enter the VoIP business without the Internet itself succumbing to the Digital Imrpimatur. As always, I appreciate your reponse and those of your readers.  

16 Dec 2003 @ 18:25 by Jon @ : Awareness
Re: your "Anybody who buys a computer or a TV should know what DRM is and what the intention with it is, and what the alternatives are."

There should be labelling or disclosure by sales people mandated by law, just like the ingredients of food. Privacy and mental health are at least as important as physical well-being. There must be something in the US Constitution, or the Universalk Declaration of Human Rights, that could be invoked to bring greater public awareness to this issue.

Elsewise, hello "Brazil", a la Terry Gilliam.  

16 Dec 2003 @ 18:37 by ming : Brazil
Otherwise we need a lot of Harry Tuttles (Robert de Niro's character in Brazil) to drop in through the ceiling and perform a few unauthorized improvements.

Yes, DRM and copy protection and that kind of stuff should be marked like Genetically Manipulated food. I wish there were some kind of fundamental human rights statement that covered that.  

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2009-06-11 18:53: Blogging/Microblogging and work
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2007-09-18 22:54: Rethinking blogs
2007-07-04 23:59: Scrutiny of Information

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