Legally, is a computer more like a TV, a pen, a radio, a CD player or a shortwave radio (or a hat, a brooch or a pterodactyl)?
March 13, 2002 8:46 AM   Subscribe

Legally, is a computer more like a TV, a pen, a radio, a CD player or a shortwave radio (or a hat, a brooch or a pterodactyl)? "Last month the top executives of two of the most powerful media companies in the world traveled to Washington to testify before Congress about the most dangerous threat they face: the American consumer." As in most computer piracy discussions, this NYTimes article (reg. req'd) analogizes computers to existing technologies: "airplanes, telephones, watches and televisions." Isn't the problem that no existing precedent really fits? To me, a computer is at once a communications tool, an entertainment (audio and video) device, a content creator, a copier, and much, much more. The laws regulating each of those things vary significantly, and in some cases approach mutual exclusivity, and for good reason. How can one device satisfy all of them? (oh, and via blogdex)
posted by Sinner (14 comments total)
In advance, I apologize for both veering a bit off from the specifics of the article and for getting a bit wordy in there. This is a question I ponder frequently, and which seems to arise tangentially, but I haven't really seen much direct discussion of it directly.

Also, a favorite pull quote:

Can technologists figure out how to replicate the reliability of airplanes, telephones, watches and televisions in future versions of Windows and Linux, so that a mischievous 12-year-old half a world away can't erase a thousand far-flung hard drives?

Absolutely. In January Bill Gates sent a memo to all Microsoft employees declaring a new, overarching, even revolutionary mandate: Software must be reliable and "trustworthy." This new focus is both welcome and worrisome, because the very steps needed to secure our computers and networks can be the steps that will deaden them to continued innovation and creative uses — while opening them to more intrusive monitoring by mainstream technology manufacturers and content providers.
[emphasis mine]

"Absolutely," indeed. Yes, of course they can be made that reliable. It's simply a matter of no one having thought of it yet. Three cheers for Bill Gates.
posted by Sinner at 8:50 AM on March 13, 2002

I don't know why a computer *should* be like anything else out there. I may be nieve, but it seems like a computer is its *own* technoolgy and cosumer product.
posted by jmd82 at 9:00 AM on March 13, 2002

"How can one device satisfy all of them?"



'Pirates of Silican Valley'
posted by clavdivs at 9:14 AM on March 13, 2002

con....sorry. I LOVE that man. sorry,.
posted by clavdivs at 9:16 AM on March 13, 2002

Three cheers for Bill Gates.

I don't know about cheers. I think he just realized the inevitable: class action lawsuits on behalf of every MS user for not providing a secure OS.
If I can sue an airline for not preventing a terrorist act, why can't I sue MS, whose OS, as declared by MS, integrates net connection as a mandatory function, but provides NO security for it.
posted by HTuttle at 9:55 AM on March 13, 2002

With the might of hollywood behind them, I doubt Disney and company will lose this battle, especially when opposition is almost non-existent.

If you agree it is a farce (as I do), check out the EFF's site about these issues and write letters to your clueless congressmen. I wish there were a few tech savvy representitives and senators that could see through these horrible ideas like the DMCA and SSSCA.
posted by mathowie at 10:17 AM on March 13, 2002

"The fog is getting thicker!"
"And the Internet's getting larrrrrger!"

Ha. Couldn't resist... :)

But seriously folks- horrible idea, this is. It's not even a question of trust- I just don't believe Gates or anyone can anticipate where and how computing will evolve in the future; the flexibility and freedom these stiff suits decry is the very reason the Internet can produce some amazing ways of communicating, including this very website. If the price we pay for that freedom is that the middlemen might not get their cut of the creative-arts-pimping action like they once did, then so be it.
posted by hincandenza at 10:21 AM on March 13, 2002

This is the Age of Juxtaposition. There is nothing new. A computer is "Lethal Weapon" meets "Titanic."
posted by aaronetc at 10:41 AM on March 13, 2002

There is a much better article on the subject in Salon.
posted by McBain at 11:14 AM on March 13, 2002

The SSSCA will be devastating if it ever goes into effect. Right now it's still at the committee hearing stage, so there's no specific legislation to write to your representatives about, but this bears following closely. Unfortunately there was virtually no effective opposition to the DMCA; one can only hope that someone in Washington can be convinced that what is good for Disney is not what is good for America.
posted by briank at 11:19 AM on March 13, 2002

or like a robot without legs. or hands :)

j.bradford delong (and a.michael froomkin :) wrote a great piece called speculative microeconomics for tomorrow's economy that spells out the issues clearly and gives a nice lucid framework to evaluate what laws would or would not be beneficial/effective in regulating technology.

they overview three three "technical" preconditions for the functioning of a proper market economy (excludability, rivalry, and transparency) and show how information economies don't behave/conform very well to them and how being very low marginal cost businesses really falls under the the rubric of public goods analysis and provisioning. here's kind of their prescription:

on excludability: "...over-perfect forms of excludability raise the specter that traditional limits on excludability of information such as "fair use" might be changed by technical means without the political and social debate that should precede such a shift."

on rivalry: "...imposing rivalry where it is not naturally found means imposing a socially unnecessary cost on someone. The result may look and feel like a traditional market, but it cannot, by definition, carry the "optimality" properties markets have possessed in the past. The artificial creation of rivalry ensures that many users whose willingness to pay for the good is greater than the (near-zero) marginal cost of producing another copy will not get one."

on transparency: "The answer is fundamentally political. It depends on the extent to which one is willing to recognize privacy as an end in itself. If information about consumers is just a means to economic end, then there is no reason for concern. If, on the other hand, citizens perceive maintaining control over facts about their economic actions as a good in itself, some sort of governmental intervention into the market may be needed to make it easier for this preference to express itself."

i think also worth revisiting is eben moglen's papers on the subject, esp. anarchism triumphant: free software and the death of copyright. and don't forget to support congressman boucher, he's fighting for your right to party!
posted by kliuless at 11:30 AM on March 13, 2002

It also seems to me that record companies and artists should be far more concerned with radio stations and promoters stealing money outright, than with consumers wanting to share music and maybe bring new fans out of the woodwork.
posted by McBain at 11:43 AM on March 13, 2002

yeah, like if they're not careful they could set off a consumer revolt that might eventually lead to widespread money laundering!
posted by kliuless at 12:12 PM on March 13, 2002

Maybe Bill Gates's new emphasis on reliability and trustworthiness of software has something to do with the fact that Windows systems are now being used in critical battlefield computers (here's a Risks digest post about it).

Maybe the government has put some pressure on him? I hope so - it's one thing when a blue screen of death ruins your day or your data, but quite another when you're fucked on the battlefield because of it.
posted by beth at 8:45 PM on March 13, 2002

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