Category Archives: Digital rights

Code as control

'You removed the card!'

In the earlier days of this blog, many of the posts were about code, in the Lawrence Lessig sense: the idea that the structure of software and the internet and the rules designed into these systems don’t just parallel the law (in a legal sense) in influencing and restricting public behaviour, but are qualitatively different, enabling distinct forms of affordance and constraint. Designers (and developers) — or in many cases those overseeing the process — in this sense potentially wield a lot of (political) power.
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The Hacker’s Amendment


Congress shall pass no law limiting the rights of persons to manipulate, operate, or otherwise utilize as they see fit any of their possessions or effects, nor the sale or trade of tools to be used for such purposes.

From Artraze commenting on this Slashdot story about the levels of DRM in Windows 7.

I think it maybe needs some qualification about not using your things to cause harm to other people, but it’s an interesting idea. See also Mister Jalopy’s Maker’s Bill of Rights from Make magazine a couple of years ago.

Freudian slip in BBC iTunes story

Apple has repeatedly made clear that it is in this business to make money, and would most likely not continue to operate iTS if it were no longer possible to do so profitably, said Mr Cue. The National Music Publishers' Association has asked for the royalty rake increase and has said it believes everyone will benefit because the digital music market is growing. I think we established a case for an increase in the royalties, said David Israelite, president of the NMPA. Apple may want to sell songs cheaply to sell iPods. We don't make a penny on the sale of an iPod

From this BBC story, as of 6.43 pm.

P.S. I love the way it’s claimed “everyone will benefit” from the royalty rise. As a consumer, I can’t wait to be paying more! Perhaps a price increase will help limit the consumption of this precious rivalrous good… oh, wait…

P.P.S. Not the first time a BBC story about Apple’s had truer-than-they-perhaps-meant phrasing.

Pretty Cuil Privacy

Cuil screenshot

New search engine Cuil has an interesting privacy policy (those links might not work right now due to the load). They’re apparently not going to track individual users’ searches at all, which, in comparison to Google’s behaviour, is quite a difference. As TechCrunch puts it:

User IP addresses are not recorded to their servers, they say, and cookies are not used to associate a computer with queries. The data is simply dumped as it is created. That means user data cannot be turned over to others, whether its via blind stupidity or lawsuits.

This strategy’s similar to an issue Scott Craver discussed a couple of years ago as part of his ‘privacy ceiling’ concept (I covered it a bit here at the time): effectively, whatever information you collect could become a liability for you at some point, so if you don’t need it, design the system so it simply doesn’t collect it in the first place.

Sarah Burwood: Tumble Sums

Tumble Sums by Sarah BurwoodWe’ve covered teaching machines and programmed learning textbooks a few times on the blog, and I’ll admit to a general fascination with analogue computing and similar ideas, ever since reading John Crank‘s Mathematics and Industry as a teenager, after finding it in a skip (dumpster) along with a lot of other very interesting books*. It was the idea that you could build an analogue electrical circuit, with resistors, capacitors and inductors, to model many physical phenomena (gravitational fields, etc), which really intrigued me, brought up in a world where computation was presented as entirely digital.

But I digress. A lot of the fascination comes from seeing a different way to explain a concept to someone else: a structured, alternative form of learning or understanding a problem, which is, somehow, immensely satisfying. There’s always the glint of a possibility that if we could find different ways to explain difficult or complex subjects, more people might be able to understand and appreciate them.

Sarah Burwood, a graduating Industrial Design student showing her work at Made in Brunel this week, has created Tumble Sums, a ‘Child’s Mechanical Visual Calculator’:

Tumble Sums by Sarah Burwood

Helping children understand fundamental mathematical principles, Tumble Sums is a calculating tool which visually shows a child how an answer is being reached. Calculations are solved in a physical way, based solely on mechanical operations. Tumble Sums focuses on an understanding of the way children think, their mathematical understanding and the psychology behind these aspects.

It looks to be beautifully machined from acrylic sections, and that height alone makes it extremely imposing. Imagine one of these at the back of every primary-school classroom!

This concept of making hidden processes visible in order to aid the construction of the user’s mental models is something that will, I think, be an important component of lots of more advanced interfaces in the years ahead, particularly in areas where, fundamentally, we’re bad at understanding the consequences of our actions (environment, health, finances). It’s maybe allied to constructionism, though by no means the same idea.

*Incidentally, the morning I first turned up at Brunel again as a PhD student, I sat in the wonderful garden John Crank had created, reading Vance Packard’s The Waste Makers, waiting for the doors to the building to be unlocked.

Digital control round-up

An 'Apple' dongle

Mac as a giant dongle

At Coding Horror, Jeff Atwood makes an interesting point about Apple’s lock-in business model:

It’s almost first party only– about as close as you can get to a console platform and still call yourself a computer… when you buy a new Mac, you’re buying a giant hardware dongle that allows you to run OS X software.

There’s nothing harder to copy than an entire MacBook. When the dongle — or, if you prefer, the “Apple Mac” — is present, OS X and Apple software runs. It’s a remarkably pretty, well-designed machine, to be sure. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s also one hell of a dongle.

If the above sounds disapproving in tone, perhaps it is. There’s something distasteful to me about dongles, no matter how cool they may be.

Of course, as with other dongles, there are plenty of people who’ve got round the Mac hardware ‘dongle’ requirement. Is it true to say (à la John Gilmore) that technical people interpret lock-ins (/other constraints) as damage and route around them?

Screenshot of Mukurtu archive website

Social status-based DRM

The BBC has a story about the Mukurtu Wumpurrarni-kari Archive, a digital photo archive developed by/for the Warumungu community in Australia’s Northern Territory. Because of cultural constraints, social status, gender and community background have been used to determine whether or not users can search for and view certain images:

It asks every person who logs in for their name, age, sex and standing within their community. This information then restricts what they can search for in the archive, offering a new take on DRM.

For example, men cannot view women’s rituals, and people from one community cannot view material from another without first seeking permission. Meanwhile images of the deceased cannot be viewed by their families.

It’s not completely clear whether it’s intended to help users perform self-censorship (i.e. they ‘know’ they ‘shouldn’t’ look at certain images, and the restrictions are helping them achieve that) or whether it’s intended to stop users seeing things they ‘shouldn’t', even if they want to. I think it’s probably the former, since there’s nothing to stop someone putting in false details (but that does assume that the idea of putting in false details would be obvious to someone not experienced with computer login procedures; it may not).

While from my western point of view, this kind of social status-based discrimination DRM seems complete anathema – an entirely arbitrary restriction on knowledge dissemination – I can see that it offers something aside from our common understanding of censorship, and if that’s ‘appropriate’ in this context, then I guess it’s up to them. It’s certainly interesting.

Neverthless, imagining for a moment that there were a Warumungu community living in the EU, would DRM (or any other kind of access restriction) based on a) gender or b) social status not be illegal under European Human Rights legislation?

Disabled buttonsDisabling buttons

From Clientcopia:

Client: We don’t want the visitor to leave our site. Please leave the navigation buttons, but remove the links so that they don’t go anywhere if you click them.

It’s funny because the suggestion is such a crude way of implementing it, but it’s not actually that unlikely – a 2005 patent by Brian Shuster details a “program [that] interacts with the browser software to modify or control one or more of the browser functions, such that the user computer is further directed to a predesignated site or page… instead of accessing the site or page typically associated with the selected browser function” – and we’ve looked before at websites deliberately designed to break in certain browers and disabling right-click menus for arbitrary purposes.