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Digital control round-up

Digital architectures of control

Some developments in – and commentary on – digital architectures of control to end 2006:

  • Peter Gutmann’s ‘A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection’ (via Bruce Schneier) looks very lucidly at the effects that Vista’s DRM and measures to ‘protect’ content will have – on users themselves, and knock-on effects elsewhere. The more one reads, the more astonishing this whole affair is:

    Possibly for the first time ever, computer design is being dictated not by electronic design rules, physical layout requirements, and thermal issues, but by the wishes of the content industry.

    Vista appears to be just about the worst consumer product of all time. However, unlike other discretionary purchases, consumers will have less of a choice: Vista will come with any PC you buy from a major store, and all the hardware manufacturers will have to pass on the extra costs and complexity required to customers, whether or not they intend to use that hardware with Vista. When critical military and healthcare systems start to be run on Vista, we’ll all end up paying.

    As Peter puts it:

    The Vista Content Protection specification could very well constitute the longest suicide note in history

  • In a similar vein, the ‘format wars’ over high-definition video appear to have descended into a farce:

    Basically, what we have is a series of anti-consumer DRM infections masquerading as nothing in particular. They bring only net negatives to anyone dumb enough to pay money for them, and everything is better than these offerings. They sell in spite of the features they tout, not because of them.

    And, of course, HD-DVD encryption has already been “(partially) cracked” as Uninnovate puts it, with that decryption effort being triggered directly as a result of consumer frustration with incompatibility:

    I just bought a HD-DVD drive to plug on my PC, and a HD movie, cool! But when I realized the 2 software players on Windows don’t allowed me to play the movie at all, because my video card is not HDCP compliant and because I have a HD monitor plugged with DVI interface, I started to get mad… This is not what we can call “fair use”! So I decide to decrypt that movie.

  • “Consumers buy only 23 songs per iPod” – clearly, the vast majority of music on iPods and other portable music players has been acquired through CD-ripping or file-sharing, something which we all know, but which has been an elephant in the room for a long time when the industry is discussed (and remember that the Gowers’ Review has only just recommended that ripping CDs be legalised in the UK).

    Of course, Bill Gates also recommends ripping CDs (see also some great commentary from LilBambi on this).

    Andrew Kantor in USA Today has some pragmatic analysis of the situation:

    People want their music without restrictions, and too many legal downloads, like those from iTunes, come with restrictions. You can’t copy them to another player, or you’re limited to how often you can do it, or you have to jump through the hoops of burning your iTunes tracks to CD and re-ripping them to a more useful format… as cellphones with built-in MP3 players gain popularity, users will find themselves up against an entirely new set of usage restrictions. Some subscription services will delete the music from your player when you cancel your subscription.

    Buy a CD or use a program like eMule… and you have no restrictions. And that’s what people want.

    They don’t want to have to match their music store with their music player any more than they want to have to match their brands of gasoline with their brands of car. They want, in short, to be able to use today’s music the same ways they used yesterday’s: Any way they want.

    In fact, the industry’s been down this road before and hit a similar wall. In the first decades of the 20th century, the wax cylinders (and, later, 78rpm disks) on which music was recorded worked only with specific players. Industry attempts to monopolize the technology led only to poor sales.

  • Finally, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer tells us that in 2007 the consumer will be “back in control”. It doesn’t mean much out of context, nor in the context he used it in fact, but it looks like Doublespeak is alive and well.
  • Uninnovate – engineering products to do less

    Uninnovate.com
    Image from uninnovate.com

    I’ve just come across a very interesting new blog, uninnovate.com, which focuses on the phenomenon of “engineering expensive features into a product for which there is no market demand in order to make the product do less.” The first few posts tackle ‘Three legends of uninnovation‘ (the iPod’s copy restrictions, Sony’s mp3-less Walkman, and Verizon’s rent-seeking on Bluetooth features), Microsoft’s priorities (patching DRM flaws vs. security flaws that actually damage users), Amazon’s absurd new Unbox ‘service’ and ‘Trusted’ computing for mobile phones. The perspective is refreshingly clear: no customer woke up wanting these ‘features’, yet companies direct vast efforts towards developing them.

    In a sense the ‘uninnovation’ concept is a similar idea to a large proportion of the architectures of control in products I’ve been examining on this site over the last year, especially DRM and DRM-related lock-ins, though with a slightly different emphasis: I’ve chosen to look at it all from a ‘control’ point of view (features are being designed in – or out – with the express intention of manipulating and restricting users’ behaviour, usually for commercial ends, but also political or social).

    Uninnovate looks to be a great blog to watch – not sure who’s behind it, but the analysis is spot-on and the examples lucidly explained.

    Some links: miscellaneous, pertinent to architectures of control

    Ulises Mejias on ‘Confinement, Education and the Control Society’ – fascinating commentary on Deleuze’s societies of control and how the instant communication and ‘life-long learning’ potential (and, I guess, everyware) of the internet age may facilitate control and repression:

    “This is the paradox of social media that has been bothering me lately: an ’empowering’ media that provides increased opportunities for communication, education and online participation, but which at the same time further isolates individuals and aggregates them into masses —more prone to control, and by extension more prone to discipline.”


    Slashdot on ‘A working economy without DRM?’ – same debate as ever, but some very insightful comments


    Slashdot on ‘Explaining DRM to a less-experienced PC user’ – I particularly like SmallFurryCreature’s ‘Sugar cube’ analogy


    ‘The Promise of a Post-Copyright World’ by Karl Fogel – extremely clear analysis of the history of copyright and, especially, the way it has been presented to the public over the centuries


    (Via BoingBoing) The Entertrainer – a heart monitor-linked TV controller: your TV stays on with the volume at a usable level only while you keep exercising at the required rate. Similar concept to Gillian Swan’s Square-Eyes

    Ed Felten: DRM Wars, and ‘Property Rights Management’

    RFID Velcro?

    At Freedom to Tinker, Ed Felten has posted a summary of a talk he gave at the Usenix Security Symposium, called “DRM Wars: The Next Generation”. The two installments so far (Part 1, Part 2) trace a possible trend in the (stated) intentions of DRM’s proponents, from it being largely promoted as a tool to help enforce copyright law (and defeat ‘illegal pirates’) to the current stirrings of DRM’s being explicitly acknowledged as a tool to facilitate discrimination and lock-in — and the apparent ‘benefits of this’:

    “First, they argue that DRM enables price discrimination — business models that charge different customers different prices for a product — and that price discrimination benefits society, at least sometimes. Second, they argue that DRM helps platform developers lock in their customers, as Apple has done with its iPod/iTunes products, and that lock-in increases the incentive to develop platforms.
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    Oh yeah, that Windows Kill Switch

    I know the furore surrounding Microsoft’s ‘Windows Genuine Advantage’ is a few days old, and perhaps I should have blogged about it at the time, specifically the rumoured ‘Kill Switch’ which would remotely deactivate any PCs apparently running ‘non-genuine’ copies of XP. That’s certainly a candidate for my feature deletion/external control category, as well as treacherous computing, and ranks far more severely than, say, removing mp3 capability from a phone after a mandatory upgrade.

    Nevertheless, if WGA does have a kill switch, and does remotely kill off 50% of Windows’ user base over night, that’s just going to be good news for GNU/Linux adoption, and Apple. There’s not going to be any perfect substitution, that every copied installation of Windows has lost Microsoft $xxx therefore by preventing those installations from working, Microsoft will recover $xxx from each user. Sure, they’ll make some more money, but the loss in goodwill will more than offset that. Vastly more than offset it.
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    ABC wants to disable fast-forwarding on digital video recorders

    Via BoingBoing:

    ABC Looks Beyond Upfront To DVR, Commercial Ratings Issues (needs you to sign in – use username ‘wasteoftime’, password ‘wasteoftime’):

    “ABC HAS HELD DISCUSSIONS ON the use of technology that would disable the fast-forward button on DVRs, according to ABC President of Advertising Sales Mike Shaw, with the primary goal to allow TV commercials to run as intended.

    Shaw also threw cold water on the idea that neutering the fast-forward option would result in a consumer backlash. He suggested that consumers prefer DVRs for their ability to facilitate on-demand viewing and not ad-zapping–and consumers might warm to the idea that anytime viewing brings with it a tradeoff in the form of unavoidable commercial viewing.

    “I’m not so sure that the whole issue really is one of commercial avoidance,” Shaw said. “It really is a matter of convenience–so you don’t miss your favorite show. And quite frankly, we’re just training a new generation of viewers to skip commercials because they can. I’m not sure that the driving reason to get a DVR in the first place is just to skip commercials. I don’t fundamentally believe that. People can understand in order to have convenience and on-demand (options), that you can’t skip commercials.

    It’s hardly worth commenting on this (without going off on a rant), except to note that maybe he should be talking to Philips