Information makes itself free

Most people seem to take someone saying “Information wants to be free” as some sort of nerd joke, or as a justification for piracy, theft of trade secrets or some other dubious or illegal activity. The point it entirely missed there: Information not only wants to be free, it makes itself free… or rather, it’s made free by the process of technological innovation. Information wants to be free just like water wants to run downhill… of course you can lift it in a bucket, but it’ll flow downhill again as soon as the bucket is knocked over.

Consider what happened when Napster was put under legal pressure and the system failed? Napster was immediately replaced by newer, distributed systems. Technology leaped to meet this new challenge, and we got Direct Connect and eventually BitTorrent. The only way to get at these technologies was to adopt a broader strategy to prevent people from doing things they want to do… which means new laws, letting just about anyone monitor private communications to find when you’re doing something “wrong” (under their own definition of “wrong”).

Does it sound outrageous? Like something out of 1984? Well, it’s already happening. In Sweden, from the 1st of January 2009 (also known as tomorrow) a new law is in effect that lets the government monitor and save any traffic that passes the border of the country (which, to be honest, is basically every single Internet access).  Technology will find a way around this. The law, supposedly in place to hunt terrorists, will fail in every way to catch those intended as targets, since these people will simply encrypt their communications with a protocol resistant to man in the middle attacks.

So will the law not have any effect at all then? Of course it’ll have an effect — it can be used against people who don’t bother to encrypt their transmissions because they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. Like people who don’t agree with the authorities about new laws, maybe. Or maybe people who want to organize to have other less abusive politicians elected the next time around? Anyway, I digress.

It gets even better than that. Another law is now being mashed through the “democratic” system (all major parties support it, so the poor citisens have nothing to vote for if they dislike it). This new law will let anyone with slight suspicions about copyright infringement request your personal information from your ISP if they have your IP, and without further proof they’ll be able to issue what in essence is a privately issued fine.

I believe again that technology will find ways around this. Let me give you an outline of such a scheme… everyone interested runs a local proxy. The proxy is connected to a p2p network of available clients. Each time an web access is done through the proxy, it’ll select a random client and use it to bounce the connection out onto the internet. The connection between clients can be public key-encrypted, which means all traffic essentially becomes random, and it’ll be impossible to track a session to a single client. I know there’s a bunch of problems with that, but a dedicated group of hackers could surely make it work.

So again the people who end up in trouble are not the high-volume culprits, the people who make money off of piracy… but rather the single moms who just wanted to see the end of that episode they missed when the baby started crying.

As coders, our work tends to be rather shallow on the grand scheme of things. I make games for people’s amusement, others make accounting systems or social websites. But maybe, maybe, just as BitTorrent and Napster are so accesible technologies that everyone can use them, maybe we can make new technologies to protect users’ privacy that are available to everyone in the same way. In a way, this is our big chance as software engineers and hackers to stand up for democracy, to fuel the internet revolution, and to actually make a difference in society with what we do. To make sure information stays free.

The only way to get around that would be to outlaw the use of the technology itself. Just like China.

You cannot take that away from me

I was going to do some introductory post for this new blog… but of course, something much more interesting is available as a subject, so of course I won’t argue with that. In this case, the ever-hot subject of piracy and DRM is at hand. Jeff Atwood noted the rule that software creators live by, but that’s almost taboo to speak of loudly:

But let me be absolutely crystal clear about one thing: as a programmer, if you write software and charge money for it, your software will be pirated. Guaranteed.

The core of this issue is that people are people, so there will always be some that can’t afford it, some that have some agenda that justifies their piracy (“EA is evil!”), or maybe they do it simply for convenience. There’s a hundred different reasons, and it’s all about how human beings react to things and about our feelings. As such, it’s somewhat silly to think that we can solve the problem using technology alone.

Technology and all the advancements we’ve made is there simply to improve things for us as people living our normal lives. The better technology gets at cooperating with humans, the more likely it is we’ll use it and be pleased with the results. However, as soon as we start trying to employ technology to combat human nature, human nature is likely to win.

Take the DRM discussion for PC games as an example of this. It’s an obvious failure for that very reason — instead of providing assistance to the people that use it, it’s trying to combat human nature. Not only does it not work (games are still getting copied), it annoys people. It’s another one of those bad ideas that is repeated over and over. It’s pretty simple to see why all kinds of technology meant to combat human desires is destined to fail really… in a world where duplication of contents is essentially free, there’s only one tier of effort.

Let me explain what I mean by that through a few examples.

Consider a scenario where a record label is trying to protect their music by applying copy protection to their CDs (I know, madness!). It would seem like a clever thing to do at first glance, but here’s where there’s only one tier of effort. Once one person out there cracked the copy protection or even ran the music through his sophisticated all-digital stereo equipment back into recording software, it’s shared and completely effortless for everyone else. Well, the record labels eventually (yes, it took a good while) learned that it was pointless and started actually providing services to people instead.

Forward a bit in time, and you get DVD region locking. Hardware locks this time, can’t break that can you? Well, all it took was one brilliant man with alot of time and equipment to open the format up to the world. Again, once open the effort is gone… and as a result, region locking is a joke nowadays.

And still we end up here, with Spore. The game was on pirate sites before its release, and turned out ot be one of the most pirated games of 2008… yet legitimate owners who pay for the game can only install it on 3 computers and there’s no tool for moving it onced installed. Okay, so I get (in all ways related to DRM) a better product from a bittorrent site than I get from EA Store, and history repeats.

These things are all about how people work, and not at all about how technology works. Human ingenuity and stubbornness means that there will always be some brilliant computer wiz nutcase out there who will take on the challenge of breaking your scheme… and since there’s only one tier of effort, all it takes is one person (or group of people).

And more on how people work, you cannot take things away from people that they perceived to be theirs without them feeling let down. People used to be able to buy a game, and play it on any computer. The fact that only a tiny percentage of people actually want or need to use the game on more than 3 computers is irrelevant, because lots of customers will still feel that you’ve taken something away. And you cannot take things away from your customers.

McDonalds in Sweden tried a trick several years ago when they introduced those tiny boxes of sauce you can add to your menu. When they introduced the sauce, they removed the ketchup dispensers. If you wanted ketchup, you had to ask for it on while placing your order. Clever trick to get people to buy more sauce, you could think… but in reality, the only thing that happened was customers getting annoyed, even though you could still get free ketchup. Reflect for a bit on why? Indeed, there was a time before the ketchup dispensers were put in place, and people still flocked to McDonalds like moths to a spotlight on a summer night. But once there, people got used to them, and you cannot take things away from your customers. Regardless of how you try to motivate it or how few people actually used the particular feature you removed, people will feel cheated.

From a business point of view, it makes absolutely no sense to pay money (and lots of it) for something that provably doesn’t work, and annoys your customers to boot. Yet business leaders keep holding on to DRM and all these others restrictive ideas. Why? Human nature again — just as people will feel cheated when you try to take something away from them, a perception that someone is stealing something from you provokes a very emotional response within most people, who react to protect their property. This reaction is so strong that anyone trying to challenge it immediately get categorized as a thief or someone who thinks stealing is a fine thing to do.

Letting this sort of primal reactions of protective fear control the actions of a company worth billions can’t be a good state of affairs. There’s a lot of talk about the lost potential income of pirated games… so how come no one is talking about the lost potential income of games that customers shy away from due to invasive DRM measures or due to the bad PR in connection to it?

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