By 1996, it became clear to everyone in the halls of power that there was something important about to happen. We were about to have an information economy, whatever the Hell that was. They assumed it meant an economy where we bought and sold information. Information technology improves efficiency, so imagine the markets that an information economy would have! You could buy a book for a day, you could sell the right to watch the movie for a Euro, and then you could rent out the pause button for a penny per second. You could sell movies for one price in one country, at another price in another, and so on. The fantasies of those days were like a boring science fiction adaptation of the Old Testament Book of Numbers, a tedious enumeration of every permutation of things people do with information—and what might be charged for each.
Unfortunately for them, none of this would be possible unless they could control how people use their computers and the files we transfer to them. After all, it was easy to talk about selling someone a tune to download to their MP3 player, but not so easy to talk about the the right to move music from the player to another device. But how the Hell could you stop that once you’d given them the file? In order to do so, you needed to figure out how to stop computers from running certain programs and inspecting certain files and processes.
But by 1996, we had a solution. We had the WIPO Copyright Treaty, passed by the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization. This created laws that made it illegal to extract secrets from unlocking programs, and it created laws that made it illegal to extract media (such as songs and movies) from the unlocking programs while they were running. It created laws that made it illegal to tell people how to extract secrets from unlocking programs, and it created laws that made it illegal to host copyrighted works or the secrets. It also established a handy streamlined process that let you remove stuff from the Internet without having to screw around with lawyers, and judges, and all that crap.
And with that, illegal copying ended forever, the information economy blossomed into a beautiful flower that brought prosperity to the whole wide world; as they say on the aircraft carriers, “Mission Accomplished”.
That’s not how the story ends, of course, because pretty much anyone who understood computers and networks understood that these laws would create more problems than they could possibly solve. After all, these laws made it illegal to look inside your computer when it was running certain programs. They made it illegal to tell people what you found when you looked inside your computer, and they made it easy to censor material on the internet without having to prove that anything wrong had happened.
Copying only got easier following the passage of these laws—copying will only ever get easier. Right now is as hard as copying will get. Your grandchildren will turn to you and say “Tell me again, Grandpa, about when it was hard to copy things in 2012, when you couldn’t get a drive the size of your fingernail that could hold every song ever recorded, every movie ever made, every word ever spoken, every picture ever taken, everything, and transfer it in such a short period of time you didn’t even notice it was doing it.”
Reality asserts itself. Like the nursery rhyme lady who swallows a spider to catch a fly, and has to swallow a bird to catch the spider, and a cat to catch the bird, so must these regulations, which have broad general appeal but are disastrous in their implementation. Each regulation begets a new one, aimed at shoring up its own failures.
We understand that cars remain cars even if we remove features from them. Cars are special-purpose, at least in comparison to wheels, and all that the addition of a hands-free phone does is add one more feature to an already-specialized technology. There’s a heuristic for this: special-purpose technologies are complex, and you can remove features from them without doing fundamental, disfiguring violence to their underlying utility.
This rule of thumb serves regulators well, by and large, but it is rendered null and void by the general-purpose computer and the general-purpose network—the PC and the Internet.
So, our regulators go off, they blithely pass these laws, and they become part of the reality of our technological world. There are, suddenly, numbers that we aren’t allowed to write down on the Internet, programs we’re not allowed to publish, and all it takes to make legitimate material disappear from the Internet is the mere accusation of copyright infringement. It fails to attain the goal of the regulation, because it doesn’t stop people from violating copyright, but it bears a kind of superficial resemblance to copyright enforcement—it satisfies the security syllogism: “something must be done, I am doing something, something has been done.” As a result, any failures that arise can be blamed on the idea that the regulation doesn’t go far enough, rather than the idea that it was flawed from the outset.
Today we have marketing departments that say things such as “we don’t need computers, we need appliances. Make me a computer that doesn’t run every program, just a program that does this specialized task, like streaming audio, or routing packets, or playing Xbox games, and make sure it doesn’t run programs that I haven’t authorized that might undermine our profits.”
On the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea: a program that does one specialized task. After all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don’t worry if it’s still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that’s not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We’re not making a computer that runs only the “appliance” app; we’re taking a computer that can run every program, then using a combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn’t want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer—it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.
The copyright wars are just the beta version of a long coming war on computation. The entertainment industry is just the first belligerents to take up arms, and we tend to think of them as particularly successful. After all, here is SOPA, trembling on the verge of passage, ready to break the Internet on a fundamental level— all in the name of preserving Top 40 music, reality TV shows, and Ashton Kutcher movies.
Why might other sectors come to nurse grudges against computers in the way the entertainment business already has? The world we live in today is made of computers. We don’t have cars anymore; we have computers we ride in. We don’t have airplanes anymore; we have flying Solaris boxes attached to bucketfuls of industrial control systems. A 3D printer is not a device, it’s a peripheral, and it only works connected to a computer. A radio is no longer a crystal: it’s a general-purpose computer, running software. The grievances that arise from unauthorized copies of Snooki’s Confessions of a Guidette are trivial when compared to the calls-to-action that our computer-embroidered reality will soon create.
Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or hysterical fears, they are, nevertheless, the political currency of lobbies and interest groups far more influential than Hollywood and big content. Every one of them will arrive at the same place: “Can’t you just make us a general-purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”
There will be programs that run on general-purpose computers, and peripherals, that will freak even me out. So I can believe that people who advocate for limiting general-purpose computers will find a receptive audience. But just as we saw with the copyright wars, banning certain instructions, protocols or messages will be wholly ineffective as a means of prevention and remedy. As we saw in the copyright wars, all attempts at controlling PCs will converge on rootkits, and all attempts at controlling the Internet will converge on surveillance and censorship. This stuff matters because we’ve spent the last decade sending our best players out to fight what we thought was the final boss at the end of the game, but it turns out it’s just been an end-level guardian. The stakes are only going to get higher.