April 22, 2004

Losing our Edge?


Tom Friedman writes about a recent trip to Silicon Valley:

Still others pointed out that the percentage of Americans graduating with bachelor's degrees in science and engineering is less than half of the comparable percentage in China and Japan, and that U.S. government investments are flagging in basic research in physics, chemistry and engineering. Anyone who thinks that all the Indian and Chinese techies are doing is answering call-center phones or solving tech problems for Dell customers is sadly mistaken. U.S. firms are moving serious research and development to India and China.

The bottom line: we are actually in the middle of two struggles right now. One is against the Islamist terrorists in Iraq and elsewhere, and the other is a competitiveness-and-innovation struggle against India, China, Japan and their neighbors. And while we are all fixated on the former (I've been no exception), we are completely ignoring the latter. We have got to get our focus back in balance, not to mention our budget. We can't wage war on income taxes and terrorism and a war for innovation at the same time.

Curriculum was and is a hot topic in the Madison School District.

Further, the tech industry has been playing footsie with Hollywood (ironic, given the size of the tech industry vs Hollywood) regarding our fair use rights. Dan Gillmor has recently published a draft version of his upcoming book: Making the News. Chapter 11 includes some very troubling quotes:

  • Jack Valenti, head of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America): "And he was adamant that technology in the future -- including personal computers -- will have to be modified to prevent people from making unauthorized copies.. The result: "Give the copyright holders the ability to "fix" all of its perceived infringement problems, and you give copyright holders unprecedented control over tomorrow's information, over culture itself. Here's an example: It is currently illegal to copy a snippet of video directly from a DVD to use as part of another work. But you can do this with a piece of text, though the e-book industry is working to prevent even a small cut and paste. If we need permission, or have to pay, simply to quote from other works, scholarship will be only one casualty."
  • No technology company has done more to curry favor with the copyright cartel than Microsoft, a company that repeatedly ignored copyright law in building its own powerful business. Here's how Cory Doctorow put it:
    When Microsoft shipped its first search-engine (which makes a copy of every page it searches), it violated the letter of copyright law. When Microsoft made its first proxy server (which makes a copy of every page it caches), it broke copyright law. When Microsoft shipped its first CD-ripping technology, it broke copyright law.

    It broke copyright law because copyright law was broken. Copyright law changes all the time to reflect the new tools that companies like Microsoft invent. If Microsoft wants to deliver a compelling service to its customers, let it make general-purpose tools that have the side-effect of breaking Sony and Apple's DRM, giving its customers more choice in the players they use. Microsoft has shown its willingness to go head-to-head with antitrust people to defend its bottom line: next to them, the copyright courts and lawmakers are pantywaists, Microsoft could eat those guys for lunch, exactly the way Sony kicked their asses in 1984 when they defended their right to build and sell VCRs, even though some people might do bad things with them. Just like the early MP3 player makers did when they ate Sony's lunch by shipping product when Sony wouldn't.
    Unfortunately, Microsoft's answer has been to build Digital Rights Management -- the more appropriate term is "Digital Restrictions Management" -- into just about everything it makes.

  • Microsoft, Intel and several other major technology companies are now working on a "Trusted Computing" initiative, putatively designed to prevent viruses and worms from taking hold of people's PCs and to keep documents secure from prying eyes. Sounds good, but the effect may be devastating to information freedom. The premise of these systems is not trust; it's mistrust. In effect, says security expert Ross Anderson, trusted computing "will transfer the ultimate control of your PC from you to whoever wrote the software it happens to be running." He goes on:

    [Trusted Computing] provides a computing platform on which you can't tamper with the application software, and where these applications can communicate securely with their authors and with each other. The original motivation was digital rights management (DRM): Disney will be able to sell you DVDs that will decrypt and run on a TC platform, but which you won't be able to copy. The music industry will be able to sell you music downloads that you won't be able to swap. They will be able to sell you CDs that you'll only be able to play three times, or only on your birthday. All sorts of new marketing possibilities will open up.
    But now consider the ways it could be used, beyond simple tracking by copyright holders of what they sell. Anderson writes:
    The potential for abuse extends far beyond commercial bullying and economic warfare into political censorship. I expect that it will proceed a step at a time. First, some well-intentioned police force will get an order against a pornographic picture of a child, or a manual on how to sabotage railroad signals. All TC-compliant PCs will delete, or perhaps report, these bad documents. Then a litigant in a libel or copyright case will get a civil court order against an offending document; perhaps the Scientologists will seek to blacklist the famous Fishman Affidavit. A dictator's secret police could punish the author of a dissident leaflet by deleting everything she ever created using that system - her new book, her tax return, even her kids' birthday cards - wherever it had ended up. In the West, a court might use a confiscation doctrine to `blackhole' a machine that had been used to make a pornographic picture of a child. Once lawyers, policemen and judges realise the potential, the trickle will become a flood.
    The Trusted Computing moves bring to mind a conversation in early 2000 with Andy Grove, longtime chief executive at Intel and one of the real pioneers in the tech industry. He was talking about how easy it would soon be to send videos back and forth with his grandchildren. If trends continued, I suggested, he'd someday need Hollywood's permission. The man who wrote the best-seller, "Only the Paranoid Survive," then called me paranoid. Several years later, amid the copyright industry's increasing clampdown and Intel's unfortunate leadership in helping the copyright holders lock everything down, I asked him if I'd really been all that paranoid. He avoided a direct reply.

I've often wondered if our tech industry & hollywood's attempts to impose their fair use & big brother controls on PC's will destroy their export business (and our jobs). China and intel recently battled over a wireless security spec.

Posted by James Zellmer at April 22, 2004 8:33 AM | Subscribe to this site via RSS:
Posted to Business | Education | Electronic Rights | Politics | Technology