Friday, May 4, 2012

Accident of simplicity: why the Internet trumps everything


Once upon a time, there were book writers, and there were book publishers. They were dependent on each other - the book writer couldn't reach a large audience, and the book publisher couldn't produce good material by itself. So they joined forces - a book writer would allow a book publisher to sell copies of her books, in return for a royalty on each copy sold.

Then along came copyright. Copyright made sense - if the licensed publisher had the additional cost of royalties to the writer, then another publisher could produce copies of the same book, at the same cost, and sell them cheaper than the licensed publisher. This isn't necessarily bad for book writers - stories have been created and shared since the beginning of time - but it destroys any incentive for publishers to go into business with writers.

Fast-forward to 2012, and what has changed? Writing is less about creating art and information to share with the world, and more about the lofty goal of earning a lifetime's salary from a few weeks' work. Publishers take a much larger cut, writers are locked into more oppressive contracts, and copyright allows this unbalanced system to keep working.

The world has completely changed though... WRITERS DON'T NEED PUBLISHERS! A writer can pen a book, procure her own artwork and editing, and release a professional ebook, or charge for hard copies. And yet, writers are enslaved by publishers, and the dream of becoming rich from a disproportionately small amount of work.


I mean no disrespect to content creators (we love and need good content), but creating content doesn't automatically entitle you to a monetary reward. To quote Fight Club:

"Advertising has these people chasing cars and clothes they don't need.  Generations have been working in jobs they hate, just so they can buy what they don't really need."

You may notice that this quote is from the original novel by Chuck Palahniuk, and not from the movie that made a $10 million profit... go figure

Kids these days chase jobs as writers, musicians, programmers and actors, trying to make money selling their content. This is back-to-front - we should be passionate about the content we create first and foremost.

Punchline #1

Copyright just happened to work, back when the only way to distribute books was by hiring a book publisher. Today, copying is free, books can go around the world in seconds, and copyright isn't relevant anymore. Writers can distribute their content to billions of people at the click of a mouse, but this is no longer the goal. Copyright is now used to enslave writers, and punish their potential fans.


In the beginning, the telephone was connected to one end of a long copper cable, with another telephone on the other end. Wiretapping was just that - connecting your equipment to that cable and listening in on the conversation. Because of how simple it was to do, wiretapping was a tool that police forces (the FBI if you're in the US of A) added to their arsenal.

The telephone system has changed a lot since then. There are no longer rooms full of operators that patch phone calls through to different houses, but digital systems that the government is allowed to spy on. This is already totally different to the original wire tap, but nobody has really complained too much - it's still the same telephone company that has always been allowed to spy on us.

But now, the FBI wants to have this power to spy on every digital communication! No longer an accident of the simplicity of the telephone, the FBI is so used to being able to spy on every single citizen, that it demands to have this right extended to where it doesn't make sense anymore. There's no Facebook wire that you can tap, and there's no magical black box that decrypts Skype calls - but the FBI is demanding that these companies betray the trust of their users and re-engineer their products to let them continue to spy on us.

The biggest thing here is that the original wiretap didn't deal with encryption. But now, Twitter uses HTTPS encryption, Skype and other VOIP providers use encryption, and the FBI wants the right to be able to break that encryption so that it can continue to violate your privacy.


Have you ever read an End User License Agreement (EULA)? Most EULA on networking software (including web browsers and email clients) mention that you cannot export this "product" to certain countries because it includes encryption. Cryptography exported to any country had to be limited to 40 bits, and even today, cryptography with more than 64-bits (Internet Explorer uses 128) cannot be exported to the following countries:

North Korea

Done a tour of Asia recently? Had your smartphone with you? You broke the law! Does that mean that you're a bad person, or does it mean that the law is totally out of touch with reality?


You can't fight change, and creating new versions of old technology rarely makes sense. Copying is free, and encryption is standard with most communication products. These are both good things, and every law that limits them will hold us back from finding the next good thing.

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