[silk] The Coming War on General Purpose Computing
Udhay Shankar N
udhay at pobox.com
Tue Jan 10 22:26:37 PST 2012
On 02-Jan-12 10:14 AM, Biju Chacko wrote:
> Silklister Cory Doctorow gave an interesting  talk at the Chaos
> Computer Congress in Berlin recently.
A more polished version of this:
The coming war on general-purpose computing
By Cory Doctorow
This article is based on a keynote speech to the Chaos Computer Congress
in Berlin, Dec. 2011.
General-purpose computers are astounding. They're so astounding that our
society still struggles to come to grips with them, what they're for,
how to accommodate them, and how to cope with them. This brings us back
to something you might be sick of reading about: copyright.
But bear with me, because this is about something more important. The
shape of the copyright wars clues us into an upcoming fight over the
destiny of the general-purpose computer itself.
In the beginning, we had packaged software and we had sneakernet. We had
floppy disks in ziplock bags, in cardboard boxes, hung on pegs in shops,
and sold like candy bars and magazines. They were eminently susceptible
to duplication, were duplicated quickly, and widely, and this was to the
great chagrin of people who made and sold software.
Enter Digital Rights Management in its most primitive forms: let's call
it DRM 0.96. They introduced physical indicia which the software checked
forbdeliberate damage, dongles, hidden sectorsband challenge-response
protocols that required possession of large, unwieldy manuals that were
difficult to copy.
These failed for two reasons. First, they were commercially unpopular,
because they reduced the usefulness of the software to the legitimate
purchasers. Honest buyers resented the non-functionality of their
backups, they hated the loss of scarce ports to the authentication
dongles, and they chafed at the inconvenience of having to lug around
large manuals when they wanted to run their software. Second, these
didn't stop pirates, who found it trivial to patch the software and
bypass authentication. People who took the software without paying for
it were untouched.
Typically, the way this happened is a programmer, with possession of
technology and expertise of equivalent sophistication to the software
vendor itself, would reverse-engineer the software and circulate cracked
versions. While this sounds highly specialized, it really wasn't.
Figuring out what recalcitrant programs were doing and routing around
media defects were core skills for computer programmers, especially 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 bulletin boards, 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. As network capacity increased, the
cracked disk images or executables themselves could be spread on their own.
This 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.
Information technology improves efficiency, 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 a Euro, and then you could
rent out the pause button for a penny per second. You could sell movies
for one price in one country, at another price in another, and so on.
The fantasies of those days were like a boring science fiction
adaptation of the Old Testament Book of Numbers, a tedious enumeration
of every permutation of things people do with informationband what might
be charged for each.
Unfortunately for them, none of this would be possible unless they could
control how people use their computers and the files we transfer to
them. After all, it was easy to talk about selling someone a tune to
download to their MP3 player, but not so easy to talk about the the
right to move music from the player to another device. But how the Hell
could you stop that once you'd given them the file? In order to do so,
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.
But, as they say on the Internet, now you have two problems.
You must now also stop the user from saving the file while it's
unencryptedbwhich must happen eventuallyb and you must stop the user
from figuring out where the unlocking program stores its keys, enabling
them to permanently decrypt the media and ditch the stupid player app
Now you have three problems: you must stop the users who figure out how
to decrypt from sharing it with other users. Now you've got four
problems, because you must 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 you must stop users who
figure out how to extract these secrets from telling other users what
the secrets were!
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. This created laws that made it illegal to extract
secrets from unlocking programs, and it created laws that made it
illegal to extract media (such as songs and movies) from the unlocking
programs while they were running. It created laws that made it illegal
to tell people how to extract secrets from unlocking programs, and it
created laws that made it illegal to host copyrighted works or the
secrets. It also established 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, 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".
That's not how the story ends, of course, because pretty much anyone who
understood computers and networks understood that these laws would
create more problems than they could possibly solve. After all, these
laws 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, and they made it easy to censor
material on the internet without having to prove that anything wrong had
In short, they made unrealistic demands on reality and reality did not
oblige them. Copying only got easier following the passage of these
lawsbcopying will only ever get easier. Right now is as hard as copying
will get. Your grandchildren will turn to you and say "Tell me again,
Grandpa, about when it was hard to copy things in 2012, 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."
Reality asserts itself. 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, so must these regulations, which have broad
general appeal but are disastrous in their implementation. Each
regulation begets a new one, aimed at shoring up its own failures.
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.
This 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.
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. MPs 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 yet those people who are experts in policy
and politics, not technical disciplines, still manage to pass good rules
that make sense. That's because government relies on heuristics: rules
of thumb about how to balance expert input from different sides of an issue.
Unfortunately, information technology confounds these heuristicsbit
kicks the crap out of thembin one important way.
The important tests of whether or not a regulation is fit for a purpose
are first whether it will work, and second whether or not it will, in
the course of doing its work, have effects on everything else. If I
wanted Congress, Parliament, or the E.U. to regulate a wheel, it's
unlikely I'd succeed. If I turned up, pointed out that bank robbers
always make their escape on wheeled vehicles, and asked, "Can't we do
something about this?", the answer would be "No". This is because we
don't know how to make a wheel that is still generally useful for
legitimate wheel applications, but useless to bad guys. We can all see
that the general benefits of wheels are so profound that we'd be foolish
to risk changing them in a foolish errand to stop bank robberies. Even
if there were an epidemic of bank robberiesbeven if society were on the
verge of collapse thanks to bank robberiesbno-one would think that
wheels were the right place to start solving our problems.
However, 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
requested a law prohibiting hands-free phones in cars, the regulator
might say "Yeah, I'd take your point, we'd do that."
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 that once
you take the hands-free phones out of the car, they stop being cars.
We understand that cars remain 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. There's a heuristic for this:
special-purpose technologies are complex, and you can remove features
from them without doing fundamental, disfiguring violence to their
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 networkbthe PC and the Internet. If you think of
computer software as a feature, a computer with spreadsheets running on
it has a spreadsheet feature, and one that's running World of Warcraft
has an MMORPG feature. The heuristic would lead you to think that a
computer unable to run spreadsheets or games would be no more of an
attack on computing than a ban on car-phones would be an attack on cars.
And, if you think of protocols and websites 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," 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.
The rule of thumb works for cars, for houses, and for every other
substantial area of technological regulation. Not realizing that it
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 completeness and end-to-end are meaningless.
So, our regulators go off, 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 there mere accusation
of copyright infringement. It fails to attain the goal of the
regulation, because it doesn't stop people from violating copyright, but
it bears a kind of superficial resemblance to copyright enforcementbit
satisfies the security syllogism: "something must be done, I am doing
something, something has been done." As a result, 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.
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 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!
After the engineers had tried unsuccessfully to convey the concept of
entropy to the marketing department, they arrived at another 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. Unfortunately, that was because the detergent was
digesting your clothes. Using it would literally cause your clothes to
dissolve in the washing machine.
This was, needless to say, the opposite of making clothes newer.
Instead, you were artificially aging them 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. Eventually, you
would have to buy new clothes because the old ones fell apart.
Today we have marketing departments that say things such as "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."
On the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea: 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 taking a
computer that can run every program, then using a 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 computerbit is a fully functional
computer with spyware on it out of the box.
We don't know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of
running any program except for some program that we don't like, are
prohibited by law, or which 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, or
over the objection of the computer's owner. Digital rights management
always converges on malware.
In one famous incidentba gift to people who share this hypothesisbSony
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. It also hid the rootkit's existence by causing
the computer operating system's kernel to lie about which processes were
running, and which files were present on the drive. But that's not the
only example. Nintendo's 3DS opportunistically updates its firmware, and
does an integrity check to make sure that you haven't altered the old
firmware in any way. If it detects signs of tampering, it turns itself
into a brick.
Human rights activists have raised alarms over U-EFI, the new PC
bootloader, which restricts your computer so it only runs "signed"
operating systems, noting that repressive governments will likely
withhold signatures from operating systems unless they allow for covert
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. Consider SOPA, the U.S. Stop
Online Piracy Act, which bans innocuous tools such as DNSSecba security
suite that authenticates domain name informationb because they might be
used to defeat DNS blocking measures. It blocks Tor, an online anonymity
tool sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and used by
dissidents in oppressive regimes, because it can be used to circumvent
IP blocking measures.
In fact, the Motion Picture Association of America, a SOPA proponent,
circulated a memo citing research that SOPA might work because it uses
the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and Uzbekistan. It argued
that because these measures are effective in those countries, they would
work in America, too!
It may seem like SOPA is the endgame in a long fight over copyright and
the Internet, and it may seem that 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.
The copyright wars are just the beta version of a long coming war on
computation. The entertainment industry is just the first belligerents
to take up arms, and we tend to think of them as particularly
successful. After all, here is SOPA, trembling on the verge of passage,
ready to break the Internet on a fundamental levelb all in the name of
preserving Top 40 music, reality TV shows, and Ashton Kutcher movies.
But the reality is that copyright legislation gets as far as it does
precisely because it's not taken seriously by politicians. This is why,
on one hand, Canada has had Parliament after Parliament introduce one
awful copyright bill after another, but on the other hand, Parliament
after Parliament has failed to actually vote on each bill. It's why
SOPA, a bill composed of pure stupid and pieced together
molecule-by-molecule into a kind of "Stupidite 250" normally only found
in the heart of newborn star, had its rushed-through SOPA hearings
adjourned midway through the Christmas break: so that lawmakers could
get into a vicious national debate over an important issue, unemployment
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 as important.
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 a 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, copyright will be revealed for a minor skirmishbnot
Why might other sectors come to nurse grudges against computers in the
way the entertainment business already has? 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
attached to bucketfuls of industrial control systems. 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, running software. The grievances that arise from unauthorized
copies of Snooki's Confessions of a Guidette are trivial when compared
to the calls-to-action that our computer-embroidered reality will soon
Consider radio. Radio regulation 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 interfere with other signals. But powerful software-defined
radios (SDRs) can change from baby monitor to emergency services
dispatcher or air traffic controller, just by loading and executing
different software. This is why the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) considered what would happen when we put SDRs in the field, and
asked for comment on whether it should mandate that all software-defined
radios should be embedded in "trusted computing" machines. Ultimately,
the question is whether every PC should be locked, so that their
programs could be strictly regulated by central authorities.
Even this is a shadow of what is to come. After all, this was the year
in which we saw the debut of open source shape files for converting
AR-15 rifles to full-automatic. This was the year of crowd-funded
open-sourced hardware for genetic 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 jurisdictions printing out sex toys. The trajectory of 3D
printing will raise real grievances, from solid-state meth labs to
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
important to make sure that computers can't execute programs which cause
specialized peripherals to output custom organisms which literally eat
Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or hysterical
fears, they are, nevertheless, the political currency of lobbies and
interest groups far more influential than Hollywood and big content.
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?"
There will be programs that run on general-purpose computers, and
peripherals, that will freak even me out. So I can believe that people
who advocate for limiting general-purpose computers will find a
receptive audience. But just as we saw with the copyright wars, banning
certain instructions, protocols or messages will be wholly ineffective
as a means of prevention and remedy. As we saw in the copyright wars,
all attempts at controlling PCs will converge on rootkits, and all
attempts at controlling the Internet will converge on surveillance and
censorship. This stuff matters because we've spent the last decade
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 an end-level
guardian. The stakes are only going to get higher.
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. It won't be a
hearing aid, though; it will really be a computer. So when I get into a
carba computer that I put my body intobwith my hearing aidba computer I
put inside my bodybI want to know that these technologies are not
designed to keep secrets from me, or to prevent me from terminating
processes on them that work against my interests.
Last year, the Lower Merion School District, in a middle-class, affluent
suburb of Philadelphia, found itself in a great deal of trouble. It was
caught distributing, to its students, rootkitted laptops that allowed
remote covert surveillance through the computer's camera and network
connection. They photographed 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,
microphones, and GPS tranceivers on PCs, tablets, and mobile devices.
We haven't lost yet, but we have to win the copyright war first if we
want to keep the Internet and the PC free and open. Freedom in the
future will require us to have the capacity to monitor our devices and
set meaningful policies for them; to examine and terminate the software
processes that runs on them; and to maintain them as honest servants to
our will, not as traitors and spies working for criminals, thugs, and
((Udhay Shankar N)) ((udhay @ pobox.com)) ((www.digeratus.com))
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