By Jesse Schooff
March 21, 2017
Article from Jesse Schooff
The Non-Ownership of Our Digital World
Is ownership an endangered concept?
DRM (Digital Rights Management) technology in particular has been a troubling matter of debate with regard to our ownership of purely intangible effects, such as ebooks, music, and movies. A technology meant to prevent users from stealing content through illegal copying, DRM often also has the unfortunate (or perhaps even intended) side effect of preventing users from legitimately accessing their content under diverse circumstances, or even actively deleting content from devices.
What people may not realize is that the same battle over digital locks and ownership is repeating itself – this time with real, physical property.
Just this month, the Federal Court of Canada handed down a landmark ruling against Go Cyber Shopping, a company accused of selling modchips for Nintendo’s game consoles. The court awarded plaintiff Nintendo a whopping $12.7 million in damages. The modchips in question would circumvent a console’s Trusted Platform Management (TPM) system, allowing the user to play homebrew games, install a custom OS, or perform other customizations which wouldn’t have been possible due to the TPM.
Such anti-circumvention lawsuits are enabled by the Copyright Modernization Act, passed in 2012 by the Harper government (and is similar to the U.S. DMCA). As an argument against anti-circumvention, the modchip case admittedly isn’t a great hill to die on. Console modchips are largely used to play illegally copied games, and the vast majority of consumers will never use one. Nevertheless, consumers should be concerned about the precedent this case sets.
That’s because, increasingly, the things we own have computers in them, and those computers run software. That software, in turn, can prevent us from using our devices the way we want, or repairing the devices ourselves. It can even shut our devices down for no reason.
Last October, I wrote about the HP printer firmware debacle, in which HP pushed out a software update that prevented customers from using ink cartridges which had been manufactured or refilled by 3rd parties. With individual cartridge prices prices ranging from $20 to $95 a pop, HP is highly motivated to force users to buy HP-brand ink. Because HP controls their printers’ software, and because it’s illegal for you to modify the software to circumvent the “lock”, HP can force users to only buy ink from HP.
As author Cory Doctorow explained in an insightful 2015 interview with the Globe and Mail, this effectively gives companies the power to make up their own mini-laws. A manufacturer writes software that prevents consumers from doing something with a device they bought. That something is now effectively illegal. If the consumer hacks or otherwise circumvents the software lock on doing said thing, the consumer can be punished in a court of law, even though that person supposedly owns the device.
We’ve already seen the opening salvoes of this war. From Keurig trying to force users to only buy Keurig-branded coffee pods, to cars that shut down if you miss a payment, to the John Deere tractors that farmers can’t repair themselves, to HP printers, to Nintendo’s game consoles. Companies are incentivized by profit to leverage firmware in order to control their customers’ behaviour — and there’s nothing we can do about it, under penalty of law.
As computers and “smart” devices increasingly become integral, deeply interwoven components of our society, it’s a troubling concept to know that devices will obey their corporate overlords before their users. Troubling for consumer rights, for privacy, and perhaps even for our democracy.
Fortunately, there’s a glimmer of hope: the Copyright Modernization Act calls for a review of the law this year. It’s a good opportunity for Internet users and individuals to have their voices heard, and hopefully roll back what experts cite as some of the most restrictive DRM rules in the world.
If we want a future where we can repair own own cars and computers, put teabags in our coffee makers, or perhaps even just use a TV and audio receiver from different manufacturers, we need to speak out to end digital lock provisions.
We control our devices. They do not control us.
Jesse Schooff is a Volunteer Content Creator for OpenMedia. Born in Toronto and raised in Vancouver, Jesse studied music composition at UBC. For the past 13 years he has been the systems administrator and IT help desk for a small Canadian company. He has a lifelong passion for politics and technology, and is a vocal advocate of tech security, digital rights, and the open internet. You can read more of his stuff on his blog at GeekMan.ca
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