The importance of jailbreaking

I read a lot of blogs, and follow a lot of people on Twitter. While the vast majority of these defy easy classification, for some the taxonomy is easy — they are friends, skeptics, comedians (whether they know it or not), science bloggers … and social media/technology “gurus”.

There is a reason why I follow this last group — while social media gurus spout no end of bullshit, as a group they are very tuned in to new technologies and have an excellent nose for finding interesting new technologies and news stories involving current technologies. This sometimes (but sadly not always) outweighs their tendency to be blowhards — they are too often self-proclaimed experts who lack any particular expertise. The requirements for being a social media guru are to be plugged into new technology (and its jargon) and to talk a good game.

So I was a little shocked when one of these gurus — “a consulting firm specialising in emerging technology & digital media” — wrote the following:

Apparently the fact that you can legal break your phone in the US is a cause for much jubilation, well at least for US geeks. How strange.

This particular guru is interesting, as they have a tendency not to take the popular viewpoint — for instance, they think that the Times paywall is a good idea. Because of this, they make for an interesting counterpoint to the constant wall of alleged gurus who do not appear to think for themselves.

Still, not understanding the importance of the decision allowing jailbreaking seemed quite odd to me — it was a tacit admission from this guru that they do not understand the issues involved.

As we are nothing if not kind and understanding know-it-all smartypantses here at the Big Bad Blog, we have decided to explain this geeky jubilation in three steps.

A criminal provision

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes circumventing a digital lock a criminal act. Until last week, the generally accepted interpretation was that any digital lock picking, from the use of a felt tip marker to a complicated hack was a violation of this law.

The penalty? Up to five years in prison and a $500,000 fine for the first offense. Double that for repeat offenders.

Just to be clear: If you chain your bicycle to a fence and lost the key, you can cut the chain. Your chain. Your bicycle. Not a crime.

However, under the DMCA (and the above interpretation), if you locked your mobile phone, forgot the code, and hacked it — up to five years in prison. That’s a digital lock you broke.

While it should have clearly delineated the difference between breaking a digital lock in the commission of another offense and breaking a digital lock to get at something you own, it did not.

Perversion of the law

We can see already that a law (however flawed) designed to enforce copyright online — the DMCA — actually applies outside the realms of copyright, and prevents the removal of digital locks for any reason.

With this in mind, several businesses made an ingenious move — they built a business model using the DMCA’s protection of digital locks as their basis.

Phones are locked into a particular provider of phone services, and it is against the law for the owner of the phone to unlock that phone so it can operate under other providers. This increases the cost of switching providers (as law-abiding users need new phones) and creates an artificial financial barrier locking customers in with their current provider.

But Apple is the master of this strategy. Their devices are digitally locked — phones, music players and tablet computers — but not just to a service provider. They are locked into a software package, and require the use of Apple’s iTunes software to operate. They are designed that new software applications can be loaded to them, but locked so that those applications can only be bought in one place.

Apple profits tremendously from this artificially limited competitive landscape, but a large portion of their customer base loses out, as Apple heavily censors what is available from their store.

These tactics appear to have the backing of copyright-protection legislation, despite the locks being ineffectual and there being no copyright to violate in this situation. Circumventing the locks was considered a crime in the United States, and still is considered a crime elsewhere.

The business strategy, however, is rooted in perverting a law meant to protect copyright owners.


Finally, as in the bicycle example above, it comes down to ownership.

If I lose the key to my bicycle lock, I am perfectly entitled to saw the lock of my bike. If I lock myself out of my car, I am perfectly free to call somebody to pick the lock on my door, break the window, or use some other means at my disposal to get into the car.

My bike. My car. My stuff.

by Darwin Bell on Flickr

I can break it, break into it, and use it how I see fit — so long as I am not committing some other crime by doing so. It might look suspicious, and result in a question or two from a police officer — at least, I hope it would — but it’s all perfectly legal.

Applying that same logic in the digital world, the question becomes who owns my iPhone?

If the answer is Apple owns my iPhone, then fair enough — I should not be allowed to break the locks within the device. I should also have to pay them if I put it in a blender. I would be destroying their stuff, after all.

But if I own my iPhone, then I should be able to do what I want with it, including downloading an alternate Operating System, or unapproved applications. So long as all this software is legally obtained, it should not be anybody’s business but my own. And I should not have to worry about going to prison for it.

This change is good

An all-out, take-no-prisoners digital lock rule was wrong. And rules that are wrong should be changed — this change simply makes breaking locks illegal only when the lock was protecting somebody else’s stuff. Which is how it is with analog locks.

It is hard to see this as a bad thing.

But this is not why the decision makes people happy — courts were not, after all, clogged with bizarre prosecutions under this law.

The decision makes people happy because it tears away the basis of the business practices of companies like Apple, and puts the right to decide what to do with hardware back in the hands of the consumer.

It allows jailbreaking to be something other than the domain of activists protesting against the status quo, and opens up a world of possibility to those who were willing to respect a law, even if it did not make sense.

In short, the jailbreaking geeks were not just geeks — many were making a conscious act of defiance (and risking prison, however faint that risk might have been) in response to a business practice based upon a perversion of law. And they won — this battle, anyways — and winning tends to bring happiness.

The morning coffee and the lego zoo

With a baby on the way, at some point this year I will have to babyproof the house. Luckily a friend of mine has written a handy guide.

(Lego Monkeys at the Philadelphia Zoo by Sean Kenney)

DRM is bad, and spending time and money fighting copyright infringement is futile. Adam P. Knave explains.

Those video games they sell to strengthen your brain? Big surprise — they don’t actually strengthen your brain.

A (fake) guest blogger

This Tuesday is like all Tuesdays. I write a blog article about science or technology-related policy — either government, corporate, or both.

This Tuesday is different from other Tuesdays. I am in Bulgaria with extremely restricted access to the Internet.

It is an unfortunate truth that these articles take more time to write. I need to find the particular topic, research and find references. Then I need to form an opinion (forming it prior to informing it is not something I’m in to) and develop arguments supporting it that I am happy with. Finally, I must find or produce some images to include with it, and go through the lengthy editing process during which (if I find a logical error, particularly) I may need to rewrite a large portion of the whole thing.

You see how this is impossible. Luckily, there’s the folks at Mashable. They recently wrote a list of social media blunders, and what can be learned from them. Thank you Mashable. I will comment on what you wrote, rather than generating my own content. You folks really know how to help a guy with hotel Internet troubles.

1. Facebook’s News Feed
It’s hard to argue with Mashable’s take here — prepare users for major changes, and be “proactive in responding to criticism”. I put that second part in quotations, because a response is necessarily reactive, and cannot be proactive. But their point is good — be so reactive that people consider it to be proactive.

Funny thing, though, Mashable misses the big problem here. There are two big concerns from users in social media: The first is privacy — they want to be sure that they can limit their stalkers in some way, if they have some. The second is ownership: They want to retain the right of pulling content off the site, if it becomes valuable (or dangerous) to them, somehow.

Social media providers should be asking themselves two questions every time they make a change:
1. How will people being stalked by an ex feel about it?
2. How will people who suddenly realise they are looking for a job and want to remove the connection between their name and the photographs of them drunk, in drag and licking farm animals from the Internet feel about it.

If Facebook asked these questions, they would have no problems. Sadly enough, these are the primary concerns their users have.

2. Sony’s DRM creates security holes in users’ computers.
I have to assume that this should be #1, and they only put Facebook there to separate the two Facebook entries. Putting security holes in computers is most likely illegal in most countries. Sony broke the law.

Don’t break the law, kids. It’s bad policy. You get caught.

3. Motrin Moms
I’ll have to trust Mashable on this one. I never heard of it until now.

4. Astrospace Twitter Account
Another one I never heard of. This is, apparently, about a single Twitter user (aka Tweeter). I’m not sure if this makes it the best one (something all of us could potentially learn from) or the worst (does it really belong with the Facebook entries, or Sony’s multi-million dollar losses?). But hey — it’s there.

5. Facebook redux: Changing the TOS
I’ve already spoken about this, and there is more to come tomorrow, so I won’t go on about this anymore.

Plus, I already talked about Facebook in #1. I’m good that way.

Pirates on trial

I have been keeping an eye on the news lately regarding the Pirate Bay trial. For those who may not know, The Pirate Bay is a website that indexes torrent files. These files can then be used to share files with a group of people across the Internet — you download things from other people, and they download things from you. Unsurprisingly, the vast majority of bittorrent files are used to share copywritten material — music, movies, TV shows and the like. It is for this reason that the trial is taking place — the industries in question want to stop this sharing, and keep control of their supply chains. The defendents were originally charged with “assisting copyright infringement” and “assisting making available copyright material”, but the former charge has been dropped.

While my purpose is not to report on the trial (see the links below for that), both sides are presenting ridiculous arguments:

digital_pirateThe prosecution’s central argument is that the service exists to share copyrighted material, and that allowing users to search for and download torrents from the site is aiding the copyright violations that occur. This is ridiculous — any search engine can return a ton of torrent files in their results. Simply run a google search, and you can find as many as you like. Also not going the prosecution’s way is that the Pirate Bay is not a typical company — it is more of a community, with nobody really being “in charge”. The four accused are often not responsible for the decisions made at the website.

The defense also makes some dubious claims. For instance, one has testified that the copyright violations are a “sad consequence” of their service. This is clear bullshit — their own site states that any complaints from copyright and/or lobby organizations will be ridiculed and published at the site, and that the site was started by an anti-copyright organisation. The site is clearly in existence mainly to assist people in finding ways to trade copyrighted material. It names itself a haven for pirates, after all.

However, I do not really care to discuss the intricacies of the trial. I am wondering how it came to this. Look at this timeline:

1994 – First MP3 encoder created.
1995 – First MP3-playing-software released.
1999 – Napster goes live
2001 – iPod released
2003 – iTunes Store goes live.

You can see how the music industry might have been blindsided by this. OK — MP3 comes out, but they’ve been through this before: Vinyl, Cassettes, CDs … this is just the newest change. They’ll sell everybody a new copy of their favourite albums. Napster surprises them, and it takes four years before anybody comes up with a workable business model for selling music in MP3 format.

But why were TV show and movie producers caught by surprise? Seriously — in 1999, downloading a thirty minute video (ie, a short TV show) would have been a pain in the ass — never mind your hour long shows or movies. It simply was not realistic. These people had time to consider how they were going to deal with the apparent dawn of a new content distribution system. They had to chose a policy, and they chose to attack their customers.

The wrong solutions

To be fair, they tried a number of other solutions — mostly digital rights management — but ten years after Napster opened the peer-to-peer sharing door, why are companies still hell-bent on closing it? Why can they not accept that it cannot be closed? Why do they not search for a solution?

Even when they try solutions — such as Hulu or BBC’s iPlayer they continue to get it wrong. I challenge you to try to watch a video on each of those services. You’ll be able to do at most one, without using some sort of proxy to pretend that you’re either in the UK or North America when you’re not. Somehow, even when these massive multinational companies realise that they have a new distribution system at hand, they manage to ignore that it’s a global distribution system.

So what is good policy for these companies?

First: Recognise that worldwide rights are the only ones that count. If you do not sell rights on a worldwide basis or if you do not acquire worldwide rights to something, you are giving your content away. People who really want your content will be unable to pay for it, but able to get it for free. Limited distribution simply feeds into the pirate community. Do not attempt it.

Second: Stop suing the pirates. Hire them instead. These are technologically literate people who understand the new distribution system — get them on your side, designing your new distribution systems. Putting these people on trial is little more than a sideshow — it does not fix your business model. Revenge has no place here … let it go, make amends, and move forward as partners.

Third: Keep trying new things, loudly and on a small scale. The worst case scenario is that you have a series of media events to do with content distribution. On the other hand, if one of them works you get to be king of the hill for the near future. That’s little downside with the potential of a big payoff.

Government’s Turn

With the companies addressed, we now turn to government.

Governments need to stop passing laws trying to strengthen the ability of content owners to enforce copyright. Making it illegal to do what you want with content you have bought is simply ridiculous. Currently there is some hubbub that Amazon’s Kindle will read a book to you, because reading something out loud is akin to an audiobook — and customers are buying books, not audiobooks.

The argument is silly, but governments around the world have been encouraging this sort of behaviour by enacting laws that enable it. They seem to have developed a fetish for supporting failing business models; this is not their duty. Their duty is to protect those employed by these businesses as they fail. Instead (on the digital content side of things) they have been eroding ownership rights in an effort to prop up failing industries that do not have the will to reinvent themselves.

Now, in Sweden, they have gone so far as to prosecute people for putting links on a page. This is not the government helping to protect their industries, or the creative works of individuals. This is a government holding back innovation and free speech. And failed policy.

The Pirate Bay is charged with “assisting making available copyright material”. While I do not know what the legal definition of this is in Sweden, it sounds like something that they do. As such, they may well be found guilty.

But the real crime is the chain of failed policies which resulted in their trial in the first place.

A History of the iPod
Mashable [2]
The BBC [2] [3]
The Guardian [2] [3] [4]
Daily Tech
The Pirate Bay [2]
Torrent Freak
513 Rocks