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<nettime> The Coming War on General Computation
nettime's avid reader on Tue, 3 Jan 2012 13:27:56 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> The Coming War on General Computation

The Coming War on General Computation
Cory Doctorow doctorow {AT} craphound.com
Presented at 28C3


Transcribed by Joshua Wise joshua {AT} joshuawise.com.

This transcription attempts to be faithful to the original, but 
disfluencies have generally been removed (except where they appear to 
contribute to the text). Some words may have been mangled by the 
transcription; feel free to submit pull requests to correct them!

Times are always marked in [[double square brackets]].

The original content was licensed under Creative Commons CC-BY 
this transcript is more free, as permitted. You may provide me 
transcript attribution if you like, or if it does not make sense given 
the context, you can simply give Cory Doctorow original author attribution.

If you simply wish to read the transcript, you may wish to read a 
version that has been formatted for screen viewing, on my web site.

Christian W\"ohrl has also submitted a translation of this text into German.


Anyway, I believe I've killed enough time ... so, ladies and gentlemen, 
a person who in this crowd needs absolutely no introduction, Cory Doctorow!

[Audience applauds.]


[[27.0]] Thank you.

[[32.0]] So, when I speak in places where the first language of the 
nation is not English, there is a disclaimer and an apology, because I'm 
one of nature's fast talkers. When I was at the United Nations at the 
World Intellectual Property Organization, I was known as the "scourge" 
of the simultaneous translation corps; I would stand up and speak, and 
turn around, and there would be window after window of translator, and 
every one of them would be doing this [Doctorow facepalms]. [Audience 
laughs] So in advance, I give you permission when I start talking 
quickly to do this [Doctorow makes SOS motion] and I will slow down.

[[74.1]] So, tonight's talk -- wah, wah, waaah [Doctorow makes 'fail 
horn' sound, apparently in response to audience making SOS motion; 
audience laughs]] -- tonight's talk is not a copyright talk. I do 
copyright talks all the time; questions about culture and creativity are 
interesting enough, but to be honest, I'm quite sick of them. If you 
want to hear freelancer writers like me bang on about what's happening 
to the way we earn our living, by all means, go and find one of the many 
talks I've done on this subject on YouTube. But, tonight, I want to talk 
about something more important -- I want to talk about general purpose 

Because general purpose computers are, in fact, astounding -- so 
astounding that our society is still struggling to come to grips with 
them: to figure out what they're for, to figure out how to accommodate 
them, and how to cope with them. Which, unfortunately, brings me back to 

[[133.8]] Because the general shape of the copyright wars and the 
lessons they can teach us about the upcoming fights over the destiny of 
the general purpose computer are important. In the beginning, we had 
packaged software, and the attendant industry, and we had sneakernet. 
So, we had floppy disks in ziplock bags, or in cardboard boxes, hung on 
pegs in shops, and sold like candy bars and magazines. And they were 
eminently susceptible to duplication, and so they were duplicated 
quickly, and widely, and this was to the great chagrin of people who 
made and sold software.

[[172.6]] Enter DRM 0.96. They started to introduce physical defects to 
the disks or started to insist on other physical indicia which the 
software could check for -- dongles, hidden sectors, challenge/response 
protocols that required that you had physical possession of large, 
unwieldy manuals that were difficult to copy, and of course these 
failed, for two reasons. First, they were commercially unpopular, of 
course, because they reduced the usefulness of the software to the 
legitimate purchasers, while leaving the people who took the software 
without paying for it untouched. The legitimate purchasers resented the 
non-functionality of their backups, they hated the loss of scarce ports 
to the authentication dongles, and they resented the inconvenience of 
having to transport large manuals when they wanted to run their 
software. And second, these didn't stop pirates, who found it trivial to 
patch the software and bypass authentication. Typically, the way that 
happened is some expert who had possession of technology and expertise 
of equivalent sophistication to the software vendor itself, would 
reverse engineer the software and release cracked versions that quickly 
became widely circulated. While this kind of expertise and technology 
sounded highly specialized, it really wasn't; figuring out what 
recalcitrant programs were doing, and routing around the defects in 
shitty floppy disk media were both core skills for computer programmers, 
and were even more so in the era of fragile floppy disks and the 
rough-and-ready early days of software development. Anti-copying 
strategies only became more fraught as networks spread; once we had 
BBSes, online services, USENET newsgroups, and mailing lists, the 
expertise of people who figured out how to defeat these authentication 
systems could be packaged up in software as little crack files, or, as 
the network capacity increased, the cracked disk images or executables 
themselves could be spread on their own.

[[296.4]] Which gave us DRM 1.0. 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. Now, information technology makes things efficient, 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 
one Euro, and then you could rent out the pause button at one penny per 
second. You could sell movies for one price in one country, and another 
price in another, and so on, and so on; the fantasies of those days were 
a little like a boring science fiction adaptation of the Old Testament 
book of Numbers, a kind of tedious enumeration of every permutation of 
things people do with information and the ways we could charge them for it.

[[355.5]] But none of this would be possible unless we could control how 
people use their computers and the files we transfer to them. After all, 
it was well and good to talk about selling someone the 24 hour right to 
a video, or the right to move music onto an iPod, but not the right to 
move music from the iPod onto another device, but how the Hell could you 
do that once you'd given them the file? In order to do that, to make 
this work, you needed to figure out how to stop computers from running 
certain programs and inspecting certain files and processes. For 
example, you could encrypt the file, and then require the user to run a 
program that only unlocked the file under certain circumstances.

[[395.8]] But as they say on the Internet, "now you have two problems". 
You also, now, have to stop the user from saving the file while it's in 
the clear, and you have to stop the user from figuring out where the 
unlocking program stores its keys, because if the user finds the keys, 
she'll just decrypt the file and throw away that stupid player app.

[[416.6]] And now you have three problems [audience laughs], because now 
you have to stop the users who figure out how to render the file in the 
clear from sharing it with other users, and now you've got four! 
problems, because now you have to stop the users who figure out how to 
extract secrets from unlocking programs from telling other users how to 
do it too, and now you've got five! problems, because now you have to 
stop users who figure out how to extract secrets from unlocking programs 
from telling other users what the secrets were!

[[442.0]] That's a lot of problems. But by 1996, we had a solution. We 
had the WIPO Copyright Treaty, passed by the United Nations World 
Intellectual Property Organization, which created laws that made it 
illegal to extract secrets from unlocking programs, and it created laws 
that made it illegal to extract media cleartexts from the unlocking 
programs while they were running, and it created laws that made it 
illegal to tell people how to extract secrets from unlocking programs, 
and created laws that made it illegal to host copyrighted works and 
secrets and all with 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 
[audience laughs very hard, applauds], 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". [audience 

[[511.0]] Well, of course that's not how the story ends because pretty 
much anyone who understood computers and networks understood that while 
these laws would create more problems than they could possibly solve; 
after all, these were laws that 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, they 
made it easy to censor material on the internet without having to prove 
that anything wrong had happened; in short, they made unrealistic 
demands on reality and reality did not oblige them. After all, copying 
only got easier following the passage of these laws -- copying will only 
ever get easier! Here, 2011, this is as hard as copying will get! Your 
grandchildren will turn to you around the Christmas table and say "Tell 
me again, Grandpa, tell me again, Grandma, about when it was hard to 
copy things in 2011, 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, tell us again when it was so stupidly hard to copy things back 
in 2011". And so, reality asserted itself, and everyone had a good laugh 
over how funny our misconceptions were when we entered the 21st century, 
and then a lasting peace was reached with freedom and prosperity for 
all. [audience chuckles]

[[593.5]] Well, not really. Because, 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, and so on, so must a regulation 
that has broad general appeal but is disastrous in its implementation 
beget a new regulation aimed at shoring up the failure of the old one. 
Now, it's tempting to stop the story here and conclude that the problem 
is that lawmakers are either clueless or evil, or possibly evilly 
clueless, and just leave it there, which is not a very satisfying place 
to go, because it's fundamentally a counsel of despair; it suggests that 
our problems cannot be solved for so long as stupidity and evilness are 
present in the halls of power, which is to say they will never be 
solved. But I have another theory about what's happened.

[[644.4]] It's not that regulators don't understand information 
technology, because it should be possible to be a non-expert and still 
make a good law! M.P.s and Congressmen and so on are elected to 
represent districts and people, not disciplines and issues. We don't 
have a Member of Parliament for biochemistry, and we don't have a 
Senator from the great state of urban planning, and we don't have an 
M.E.P. from child welfare. (But perhaps we should.) And yet those people 
who are experts in policy and politics, not technical disciplines, 
nevertheless, often do manage to pass good rules that make sense, and 
that's because government relies on heuristics -- rules of thumbs about 
how to balance expert input from different sides of an issue.

[[686.3]] But information technology confounds these heuristics -- it 
kicks the crap out of them -- in one important way, and this is it. One 
important test of whether or not a regulation is fit for a purpose is 
first, of course, whether it will work, but second of all, whether or 
not in the course of doing its work, it will have lots of effects on 
everything else. If I wanted Congress to write, or Parliament to write, 
or the E.U. to regulate a wheel, it's unlikely I'd succeed. If I turned 
up and said "well, everyone knows that wheels are good and right, but 
have you noticed that every single bank robber has four wheels on his 
car when he drives away from the bank robbery? Can't we do something 
about this?", the answer would of course be "no". Because we don't know 
how to make a wheel that is still generally useful for legitimate wheel 
applications but useless to bad guys. And we can all see that the 
general benefits of wheels are so profound that we'd be foolish to risk 
them in a foolish errand to stop bank robberies by changing wheels. Even 
if there were an /epidemic/ of bank robberies, even if society were on 
the verge of collapse thanks to bank robberies, no-one would think that 
wheels were the right place to start solving our problems.

[[762.0]] But. If I were to show up in that same body to say that I had 
absolute proof that hands-free phones were making cars dangerous, and I 
said, "I would like you to pass a law that says it's illegal to put a 
hands-free phone in a car", the regulator might say "Yeah, I'd take your 
point, we'd do that". And we might disagree about whether or not this is 
a good idea, or whether or not my evidence made sense, but very few of 
us would say "well, once you take the hands-free phones out of the car, 
they stop being cars". We understand that we can keep cars 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. In 
fact, there's that heuristic that we can apply here -- special-purpose 
technologies are complex. And you can remove features from them without 
doing fundamental disfiguring violence to their underlying utility.

[[816.5]] 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. Because if you think 
of computer software as a feature, that is a computer with spreadsheets 
running on it has a spreadsheet feature, and one that's running World of 
Warcraft has an MMORPG feature, then this heuristic leads you to think 
that you could reasonably say, "make me a computer that doesn't run 
spreadsheets", and that it would be no more of an attack on computing 
than "make me a car without a hands-free phone" is an attack on cars. 
And if you think of protocols and sites as features of the network, then 
saying "fix the Internet so that it doesn't run BitTorrent", or "fix the 
Internet so that thepiratebay.org no longer resolves", then it sounds a 
lot like "change the sound of busy signals", or "take that pizzeria on 
the corner off the phone network", and not like an attack on the 
fundamental principles of internetworking.

[[870.5]] Not realizing that this rule of thumb that works for cars and 
for houses and for every other substantial area of technological 
regulation fails for the Internet does not make you evil and it does not 
make you an ignoramus. It just makes you part of that vast majority of 
the world for whom ideas like "Turing complete" and "end-to-end" are 
meaningless. So, our regulators go off, and 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 to say "that? 
That infringes copyright." It fails to attain the actual goal of the 
regulation; 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." And thus 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.

[[931.2]] This kind of superficial resemblance and underlying divergence 
happens in other engineering contexts. I've a friend who was once a 
senior executive at a big consumer packaged goods company who told me 
about what happened when the marketing department told the engineers 
that they'd thought up a great idea for detergent: from now on, they 
were going to make detergent that made your clothes newer every time you 
washed them! Well after the engineers had tried unsuccessfully to convey 
the concept of "entropy" to the marketing department [audience laughs], 
they arrived at another solution -- "solution" -- they'd develop a 
detergent that used enzymes that attacked loose fiber ends, the kind 
that you get with broken fibers that make your clothes look old. So 
every time you washed your clothes in the detergent, they would look 
newer. But that was because the detergent was literally digesting your 
clothes! Using it would literally cause your clothes to dissolve in the 
washing machine! This was the opposite of making clothes newer; instead, 
you were artificially aging your clothes every time you washed them, and 
as the user, the more you deployed the "solution", the more drastic your 
measures had to be to keep your clothes up to date -- you actually had 
to go buy new clothes because the old ones fell apart.

[[1012.5]] So today we have marketing departments who say things like 
"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". And on the surface, this seems like a 
reasonable idea -- just 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 making a computer that can run 
every program, but which uses some 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.

[audience applauds loudly] Thanks.

[[1090.5]] Because we don't know how to build the general purpose 
computer that is capable of running any program we can compile except 
for some program that we don't like, or that we prohibit by law, or that 
loses us money. The closest approximation that we have to this is a 
computer with spyware -- a computer on which remote parties set policies 
without the computer user's knowledge, over the objection of the 
computer's owner. And so it is that digital rights management always 
converges on malware.

[[1118.9]] There was, of course, this famous incident, a kind of gift to 
people who have this hypothesis, in which Sony loaded covert rootkit 
installers on 6 million audio CDs, which secretly executed programs that 
watched for attempts to read the sound files on CDs, and terminated 
them, and which also hid the rootkit's existence by causing the kernel 
to lie about which processes were running, and which files were present 
on the drive. But it's not the only example; just recently, Nintendo 
shipped the 3DS, which opportunistically updates its firmware, and does 
an integrity check to make sure that you haven't altered the old 
firmware in any way, and if it detects signs of tampering, it bricks itself.

[[1158.8]] Human rights activists have raised alarms over U-EFI, the new 
PC bootloader, which restricts your computer so it runs signed operating 
systems, noting that repressive governments will likely withhold 
signatures from OSes unless they have covert surveillance operations.

[[1175.5]] And on the network side, attempts to make a network that 
can't be used for copyright infringement always converges with the 
surveillance measures that we know from repressive governments. So, 
SOPA, the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act, bans tools like DNSSec because 
they can be used to defeat DNS blocking measures. And it blocks tools 
like Tor, because they can be used to circumvent IP blocking measures. 
In fact, the proponents of SOPA, the Motion Picture Association of 
America, circulated a memo, citing research that SOPA would probably 
work, because it uses the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and 
Uzbekistan, and they argued that these measures are effective in those 
countries, and so they would work in America, too!

[audience laughs and applauds] Don't applaud me, applaud the MPAA!

[[1221.5]] Now, it may seem like SOPA is the end game in a long fight 
over copyright, and the Internet, and it may seem like if we defeat 
SOPA, we'll be well on our way to securing the freedom of PCs and 
networks. But as I said at the beginning of this talk, this isn't about 
copyright, because the copyright wars are just the 0.9 beta version of 
the long coming war on computation. The entertainment industry were just 
the first belligerents in this coming century-long conflict. We tend to 
think of them as particularly successful -- after all, here is SOPA, 
trembling on the verge of passage, and breaking the internet on this 
fundamental level in the name of preserving Top 40 music, reality TV 
shows, and Ashton Kutcher movies! [laughs, scattered applause]

[[1270.2]] But the reality is, copyright legislation gets as far as it 
does precisely because it's not taken seriously, which is why on one 
hand, Canada has had Parliament after Parliament introduce one stupid 
copyright bill after another, but on the other hand, Parliament after 
Parliament has failed to actually vote on the bill. It's why we got 
SOPA, a bill composed of pure stupid, pieced together 
molecule-by-molecule, into a kind of "Stupidite 250", which is normally 
only found in the heart of newborn star, and it's why these 
rushed-through SOPA hearings had to be adjourned midway through the 
Christmas break, so that lawmakers could get into a real vicious 
nationally-infamous debate over an important issue, unemployment 
insurance. It's why the World Intellectual Property Organization is 
gulled time and again into enacting crazed, pig-ignorant copyright 
proposals because when the nations of the world send their U.N. missions 
to Geneva, they send water experts, not copyright experts; they send 
health experts, not copyright experts; they send agriculture experts, 
not copyright experts, because copyright is just not important to pretty 
much everyone! [applause]

[[1350.3]] Canada's Parliament didn't vote on its copyright bills 
because, of all the things that Canada needs to do, fixing copyright 
ranks well below health emergencies on First Nations reservations, 
exploiting the oil patch in Alberta, interceding in sectarian 
resentments among French- and English-speakers, solving resources crises 
in the nation's fisheries, and thousand other issues! The triviality of 
copyright tells you that when other sectors of the economy start to 
evince concerns about the Internet and the PC, that copyright will be 
revealed for a minor skirmish, and not a war. Why would other sectors 
nurse grudges against computers? Well, because 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 with a big bucketful of SCADA controllers [laughter]; 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 with a fast ADC and a fast DAC and some software.

[[1418.9]] The grievances that arose from unauthorized copying are 
trivial, when compared to the calls for action that our new 
computer-embroidered reality will create. Think of radio for a minute. 
The entire basis for radio regulation up until today was based on the 
idea that the properties of a radio are fixed at the time of 
manufacture, and can't be easily altered. You can't just flip a switch 
on your baby monitor, and turn it into something that interferes with 
air traffic control signals. But powerful software-defined radios can 
change from baby monitor to emergency services dispatcher to air traffic 
controller just by loading and executing different software, which is 
why the first time the American telecoms regulator (the FCC) considered 
what would happen when we put SDRs in the field, they asked for comment 
on whether it should mandate that all software-defined radios should be 
embedded in trusted computing machines. Ultimately, whether every PC 
should be locked, so that the programs they run are strictly regulated 
by central authorities.

[[1477.9]] And even this is a shadow of what is to come. After all, this 
was the year in which we saw the debut of open sourced shape files for 
converting AR-15s to full automatic. This was the year of crowd-funded 
open-sourced hardware for gene sequencing. And while 3D printing will 
give rise to plenty of trivial complaints, there will be judges in the 
American South and Mullahs in Iran who will lose their minds over people 
in their jurisdiction printing out sex toys. [guffaw from audience] The 
trajectory of 3D printing will most certainly raise real grievances, 
from solid state meth labs, to ceramic knives.

[[1516.0]] And it doesn't take a science fiction writer to understand 
why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on 
self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation 
controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers 
and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto 
determines that it's really... really... important to make sure that 
computers can't execute programs that cause specialized peripherals to 
output organisms that eat their lunch... literally. Regardless of 
whether you think these are real problems or merely hysterical fears, 
they are nevertheless the province of lobbies and interest groups that 
are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their 
best days, and 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?"

[[1576.3]] And personally, I can see that there will be programs that 
run on general purpose computers and peripherals that will even freak me 
out. So I can believe that people who advocate for limiting general 
purpose computers will find receptive audience for their positions. But 
just as we saw with the copyright wars, banning certain instructions, or 
protocols, or messages, will be wholly ineffective as a means of 
prevention and remedy; and as we saw in the copyright wars, all attempts 
at controlling PCs will converge on rootkits; all attempts at 
controlling the Internet will converge on surveillance and censorship, 
which is why all this stuff matters. Because we've spent the last 10+ 
years as a body 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 the mini-boss at the end of the level, and the stakes are only 
going to get higher.

[[1627.8]] As a member of the Walkman generation, I have made peace with 
the fact that I will require a hearing aid long before I die, and of 
course, it won't be a hearing aid, it will be a computer I put in my 
body. So when I get into a car -- a computer I put my body into -- with 
my hearing aid -- a computer I put inside my body -- I want to know that 
these technologies are not designed to keep secrets from me, and to 
prevent me from terminating processes on them that work against my 
interests. [vigorous applause from audience] Thank you.

[[1669.4]] Thank you. So, last year, the Lower Merion School District, 
in a middle-class, affluent suburb of Philadelphia found itself in a 
great deal of trouble, because it was caught distributing PCs to its 
students, equipped with rootkits that allowed for remote covert 
surveillance through the computer's camera and network connection. It 
transpired that they had been photographing students thousands of times, 
at home and at school, awake and asleep, dressed and naked. Meanwhile, 
the latest generation of lawful intercept technology can covertly 
operate cameras, mics, and GPSes on PCs, tablets, and mobile devices.

[[1705.0]] Freedom in the future will require us to have the capacity to 
monitor our devices and set meaningful policy on them, to examine and 
terminate the processes that run on them, to maintain them as honest 
servants to our will, and not as traitors and spies working for 
criminals, thugs, and control freaks. And we haven't lost yet, but we 
have to win the copyright wars to keep the Internet and the PC free and 
open. Because these are the materiel in the wars that are to come, we 
won't be able to fight on without them. And I know this sounds like a 
counsel of despair, but as I said, these are early days. We have been 
fighting the mini-boss, and that means that great challenges are yet to 
come, but like all good level designers, fate has sent us a soft target 
to train ourselves on -- we have a organizations that fight for them -- 
EFF, Bits of Freedom, EDRi, CCC, Netzpolitik, La Quadrature du Net, and 
all the others, who are thankfully, too numerous to name here -- we may 
yet win the battle, and secure the ammunition we'll need for the war.

[[1778.9]] Thank you.

[sustained applause]

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