I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for august 2014

On fighting discrimination with secrecy

2014-08-31 by Nick S., tagged as law, privacy

Mark Rix opens a recent Conversation article on Australia's proposed metadata retention laws with a couple of paragraphs asserting that "privacy and individuals' ability to remain anonymous are important protections against persecution, bullying, intimidation and retaliation." As I understand it, the idea here is that privacy and anonymity provide a kind of first line of defence against unfair discrimination by depriving would-be discriminators of the knowledge on which their discrimination is based. Such an approach seems superficially appealling, and I'm sure I've used it myself when don't-ask don't-tell seems like the easiest way of avoiding an unpleasant confrontation.

When I think it through more carefully, however, I see a number of problems with this view. For a start, there are many situations in which it seems hopelessly impractical: is anyone likely to suggest, for example, that we defeat racial discrimination by donning ninja costumes or applying make-up that obscures the colour of our skin?

Supposing that secrecy is feasible, however, is hiding beneath it really the ideal outcome in the long run? Many years ago, I read a newspaper article (whose citation I sadly forget) making the point that many of our modern freedoms have been won by people who stood up against being driven underground. Would homosexuality, say, be as widely accepted as it is in liberal democracies today if the homosexuals of yesteryear had simply remained out of sight? I'm sure it wasn't easy for those people who did speak out — but the secrecy solution would have them even now cowering in anonymity instead of finding social acceptance.

Words like "discrimination" and others used in Rix's assertion are often used in a pejorative sense to refer to unjust discrimination on the basis of race, gender, etc., but a broader interpretation shows that secrecy in fact cuts both ways. Law enforcement agencies want access to metadata among other things precisely because our law "discriminates" against drugs, violence, money laundering and other activities deemed harmful by lawmakers and the people who vote for them. To law enforcement agencies, secrecy is just an impediment to carrying out the discrimination delineated by the law. The real question is not whether or not to discriminate, but what ought to be discriminated against.

The main reason that I don't feel threatened by my government or anyone else isn't that I'm secure in the knowledge that the police can never find me — they probably can — it's that I'm fortunate enough to live in a country that respects a broad range of views amongst its citizens, and will punish anyone who refuses to respect them likewise. If the government decides to start rounding up computer scientists, mediaeval re-enactors, or bearded men, well, I'll have a problem — not because I don't have a ninja costume and batcave in which to hide, but because my government has ceased to respect my personal choices. And if the government ever decided to do such a thing, would I be best served by going into hiding, or by standing up for my choices?

Responses to the history of copyright protection technology, part 2

2014-08-21 by Nick S., tagged as commerce, digital media

Two of the more interesting comments on my recent history of copyright protection technology, one from Fred Smith on The Conversation and another from "Graham" on Technology Spectator, refer to copyright protection technologies in the computer software industry. Copyright protection for computer software does not seem to attract nearly so much attention as it does for music and video, and seemed to be an entirely separate stream of research and development when I worked in the area. But there may nonetheless be something here to learn.

Fred Smith says that "the digital distribution platforms [specifically, Steam] have introduced DRM in such a way as to make piracy harder than legitimately buying games (which is how it should be)". Not being a gamer, I haven't tried these platforms myself. Smith, however, seems to think these systems are working fairly well, and his description of Steam sounds something like what rights management researchers were trying to achieve for music and video between 2000-2010.

I can see at least two advantages that the developers of Steam might have had compared to the developers of earlier rights management systems. Most obviously, they've been able to learn from the experience of those researchers of the past decade; if so, I suppose we can feel some pride that our efforts finally amounted to a working system.

The second advantage, illustrated by Graham's comment, is that the developers of computer software are responsible for both the product and its protection. This eliminates cost-shifting between content providers and technology providers, which is arguably one of the contributors to the poor state of rights management technology for media products.

I suppose that Graham and others who argue that media providers should bear the full cost of copyright protection imagine a similar circumstance coming into being for the media industry. However, arranging this might not be so straightforward as it is in the case for computer software since media companies don't manufacture player devices.

One solution I've heard would be for the computer industry to simply buy out the music industry (I think Andrew Odlyzko mentioned it at the ACM Workshop on Digital Rights Management 2007, for one). Proponents of this idea say that the computer industry is big enough to do this, though it's not clear that it could also buy out the film industry. But do we really want music and film to be controlled by companies whose core business is to make and sell computers? In any case, I'm not aware of any computer company wanting to do this, and the nearest approximation to it of which I'm aware — Nokia's Comes with Music — appears to have been a failure.

Some rights management consortia do include both technology and media companies. The consortium behind Ultraviolet, which was one of the more promising-sounding technologies in my review, is an example. I don't know what financial arrangements these consortia have, and I don't yet know how successful they might be. But it seems reasonable to hope that more might be achieved by co-operation than by having computer companies in one trench, music companies in another, each insisting that the other make our computers fit for entertainment.

Responses to the history of copyright protection technology, part 1

2014-08-19 by Nick S., tagged as commerce, digital media, intellectual property

I published my first Conversation article last week, giving a brief history of copyright protection technology and its deficiencies. Thanks to my editor at The Conversation and Victoria University's Public Affairs Department, the article also appeared in Technology Spectator, Mumbrella, Phys.org and SBS.

I wrote the article in response to what I saw as some incompletely-thought-out criticism of the Australian Government's recent Online Copyright Infringement Discussion Paper. The paper floats the idea of giving Internet service providers a legal incentive to assist with the enforcement of copyright. Critics of this notion typically insist that the media industry should do its own policing — but, in previous rounds of the debate, copyright activists cried foul at attempts to restrict or sue individual users. So what to do?

The comments on the article fall into four broad categories. Firstly, there are the re-statements of classic anti-DRM anti-copyright positions that don't address any specific point in the article. I won't address them here any more than they addressed anything I said there.

Secondly, there are those who insist that the solution is new business models or lower prices. The discussion paper itself recognises that pricing may have an influence on the level of copyright infringement in Australia, though I think I could just as easily have written a history detailing the failure of new business models to produce any change. Whatever the case, all this does not actually answer the question of how best to enforce copyright law, and no business model or price point seems likely to work without a law that gives creators something to sell.

Thirdly, there are those who insist that ISPs should have no role in enforcing copyright law. This is exactly the view that I set out to examine, and I think the comments illustrate why. Critics of the discussion paper seem certain that any regime will be funded by ISPs, who will pass on the costs to their customers. But the discussion paper says no such thing; its second question actually asks "How should the costs of any 'reasonable steps' be shared between industry participants?". In constructing a false dichotomy in responsibility for the enforcement of copyright law, critics are blind to any solution in which the media industry funds technology or otherwise collaborates with the computer industry, both of whom have an interest in having good stuff to do with our computers.

Lastly, there are a few who interpreted the article as demonstrating that copyright protection technology is futile. While I guess they don't appreciate it, this group actually supports the article's thesis insofar as governments came to involve Internet service providers precisely because everyone rejected previous copyright protection technologies.

Reading government reports like the discussion paper in question, I sometimes reflect that their authors seem to be quite a bit more thoughtful and better-informed than their critics give them credit for. For critics with little knowledge of history and an interest only in consuming media as cheaply as possible, I guess it seems "obvious" that the media industry is the only party with an interest in enforcing copyright law and the authors of government reports are stupid for not seeing it. Of course the media industry is a lobby group trying to push its own interests — but so are critics who are only interested in how they can get cheap entertainment. A good government report knows this, and poses questions that lobby groups don't ask because they've already assumed the answer.

Proving claims of greed and gluttony in digital media

2014-08-10 by Nick S., tagged as commerce, digital media

ABC Arts recently produced a short documentary The Golden Age of Piracy examining illegal downloads of films and television programmes Australia. As I've seen on The Conversation and elsewhere, those seeking to explain or defend copyright infringement in Australia emphasise the high prices and late releases of film and television programmes in Australia compared to the rest of the world.

Of course there's not much for film-goers to like about high prices and late releases, and those who think prices are too high or releases too late are free to express this opinion. In resorting to copyright infringement to cure this perceived ill, however, I wondered if the infringers and their apologists might actually be undermining the complainants' campaign for lower prices and earlier releases.

In resorting copyright infringement to satisfy their desires, infringers allow copyright owners to make a plausible claim that copyright owners are suffering from the lawlessness of copyright users, to which the logical remedy is to enforce the law. In order to prove that the real problem is unreasonable pricing and poor service, the complainants need to both refuse to pay the price and refuse to take the product, just as they would if they believed that the price of a cake, say, was too high, and the cake stale.

I suppose that infringement apologists could also challenge copyright owners to lower their prices. Critics of copyright enforcement assert that such an action would stop or at least significantly reduce infringement, as Mark Pesce does in another recent ABC article. If infringement were to continue under these conditions, therefore, copyright owners could disprove the apologists' case (except insofar as apologists could simply insist on even lower prices — but establishing such a moving target would render their claim unprovable).

I'm not holding my breath for either side to take up such a challenge. For their part, the media industry seems content to back its claims with absurd exaggerations of how much revenue is lost to infringement. Meanwhile, infringement apologists seem content to assert their claim without any evidence whatsoever. (Mark Pesce even goes so far as to cite a study arguing that infringement does reduce cinema revenues, just not enough for Pesce to care about.) And even if a few brave infringers gave up downloading in order to prove their point, could they convince other infringers to do the same?

Jane C. Ginsburg identified the problem in a single word: greed. Neither side wants a functioning market by which they might come to a reasonable price for the exchange of artistics works. Each side instead wants a system in which it can dictate prices to the other side, thereby accumulating all of the benefits to itself at everyone else's expense.

Why talk to a computer?

2014-08-05 by Nick S., tagged as artificial intelligence, user interfaces

I recently caught the movie Her (2013), whose story of a man falling in love with an "operating system" (actually what is more commonly called an "artificial intelligence") seemed like it should provide plenty of material for commentators upon humans' relationships with technology. But apart from the prevalence of pastel shirts and bad moustaches in this imagined future, I was most forcefully struck by the constant use of voice interfaces. The main character makes his living by dictating letters to a computer that prints them out in faux handwriting, and, once his new operating system is installed, constantly chats away to it without any apparent regard to what might be overheard by the people around him. Nor do the people around him pay him any regard.

I've long suspected that talking computers are part of The Amazing Science Fiction Future That Never Arrived. Not because they don't work — though my limited personal contact with them suggests that voice recognition is still not particularly good — but because they aren't nearly as useful as many a science fiction writer has supposed them to be. Is it really so hard for an able-bodied person to push a button or touch an icon on a screen? Can't writers, well, write? And would any real writer (or anyone else needing to concentrate) want to work in an office where everyone was babbling at their computers all day?

A week after seeing Her, I happened to read a quote from one John R. Pierce in the August 2014 edition of IEEE Spectrum: "Many early computer enthusiasts thought that computers should resemble human beings and be good at exactly the tasks that human beings are good at" (p. 8). He goes on to describe the pursuit of human-like computers as "facing the future with one's back squarely towards it", that is, looking at the past and assuming that the future will be a technologised version of the same.

I take Pierce to be making a point similar to one I've already discussed a couple of times in this blog: what use would a human have for a computer that did something that he or she is already good at? Computers are so useful precisely because they're good at things at which humans are not — most fundamentally, the rapid and reliable carrying out of minute instructions.

When I was (much) younger, I think I supposed that we'd one day be able to program our computers using English instead of the difficult-to-learn formal languages that we use now. Or at least I assumed that everyone else was pining for that day, as evidenced by depictions like Her. But greater experience tells me that the reason that we don't use English to program computers isn't that they can't understand it (though they can't), it's that English isn't actually a particularly good tool for describing data or issuing instructions. That's why lawyers and philosophers spend so much time debating the precise intepretation of observations and phrases, and why scientists and others resort to mathematics when they want their meaning to be indisputable.

I'm not sure where the idea that computers should or would be like humans came from. They neither look nor act anything like humans, and I'm pretty sure that most psychologists would laugh at the idea that humans behave like neat information-processing machines. And humans have plenty of trouble talking to each other — Her illustrates this itself — so why expect talking to a computer to be any better?