Thoughts on EFF’s 15th

“You can’t do that.”

It was my second year of graduate school and, after much arm-twisting, I had agreed to go “halves” with a dorm-mate on a newfangled consumer good – an Apple ][+. After turning my back on computing in my sophomore year, (concluding that it was fun to learn about programming, but that it wasn’t really something I expected to be regularly involved in) I had been told that, with this investment in a “personal computer,” we would be able to stop paying MIT secretaries to word process our papers and do it ourselves.

With our budget constraint, we made what proved to be a fateful decision. A real printer was simply beyond our means — instead, we decided to buy a less-expensive modem and just use the teletype/dot matrix printer in my dorm-mate’s lab. It had an acoustic coupler and, after all, we were at MIT with all sorts of computing support. I’d just ask for the information and that would be it.

Instead, I got the surly “You can’t do that” that is familiar to anyone who’s dealt with technical support from a position of weakness/ignorance. Given the need to recoup our investment, I took that declaration as a challenge and, after months of learning, trial & error and a lot of work, I showed that, in fact, tech “support” was wrong — you could “do that.” Printed a thesis or two that way as proof, in fact.

I live with the fallout of that decision every day – I’ve learned more about computers than I ever thought I would, and I use it every day. In this, my sophomore self was completely wrong — something that should be no surprise to anyone who’s ever had to deal with one.

As computers have insinuated themselves into our lives, more and more people have developed the same level, if not kind, of facility with computers that I did. Some write programs, some create art, some do their jobs and some just use them to have fun.

Yet, while computers and their associated digital technologies have become more accessible, there are still those who seek to assert control over the ways in which the technology gets used – frequently while also asserting that no one should be able to examine (much less control) the uses to which they themselves will put these technologies — “No, no. You can’t do that.”

Asymmetries like that should be unsustainable in free societies. Society may decide that there are technologies that should be controlled – but society should get to decide. Not a subset; not just the wealthy, or the powerful, or the technologically savvy. Everyone needs to be informed and involved.

Institutions like the EFF help to fulfill this vital role, raising the questions, challenging the authorities and educating the public — not just informing, but also leading when the opportunity arises — fulfilling Jefferson’s insistence that the success of republic depends upon an informed electorate.

EFF — congratulations on fifteen years of accomplishment, and here’s hoping there will be many more!

Blog-a-thon tag:

Community Development

Beethoven’s rarest works re-created online

In a little-trafficked corner of the Web, a pair of classical music enthusiasts has spent half a decade obsessively re-creating hundreds of obscure pieces by Ludwig van Beethoven.

[…] [Mark] Zimmer and [Willem] Holsbergen are part of a growing community of amateurs and semiprofessionals who are using the Net and other digital tools to bring classical music out of concert halls and academies, hoping to popularize it with the democratizing force of the Internet.

The evidence may not be visible yet in classical music sales, which, at about 3 percent of the market, are a sliver of pop music sales. Yet the energy is palpable, on interlocking blogs from ordinary music fans and from the New Yorker magazine’s music critic, in the classical stations programmed by home disc jockeys on services such as Live 365, and in the eager amateur criticism accompanying this spring’s Webcast of the Van Cliburn piano competitions.

More on Canada’s Pending (c) Bill

In Canada: Cache a page, go to jail?

A bill before Canada’s Parliament could make it illegal for search engines to cache Web pages, critics say, opening the door to unwarranted lawsuits and potentially hindering public access to information.

The legislation in question, Bill C-60, is designed to amend Canada’s Copyright Act by implementing parts of the 1996 World Intellectual Property Organization treaty, the treaty that led to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the U.S.

Set for debate and an initial vote in the House of Commons after Parliament’s summer break, C-60 addresses things such as file-sharing, anticopying devices and the liability of Internet service providers and would tighten the Copyright Act in ways favorable to record labels and movie studios.

But according to Howard Knopf, a copyright attorney at the Ottawa firm of Macera & Jarzyna, a brief passage in the bill could mean trouble for search engines and other companies that archive or cache Web content.

“The way it reads, arguably what they’re saying is that the very act of making a reproduction by way of caching is illegal,” Knopf said.

TiVo Giveth and TiVo Taketh Away

This time, it’s a little give-back to those advertisers who see the DVR as a way to “steal” content by avoiding ads: TiVo to Let Viewers Contact Advertisers

TiVo, whose equipment allows TV commercials to be skipped, will now give advertisers direct access to viewers who are interested in their products. The company said the upgrade would let about a million of its subscribers instantly respond to specially encoded advertising.

TiVo said that the changes would not affect the way users normally view shows and skip ads, and that viewers would not be forced to watch any ads they chose to ignore.

Under the new system, consumers can select an option to tell TiVo to release their contact information to an advertiser. For example, after watching an ad for an automobile or family vacation, users can use the remote control to request that a brochure be sent to their home.

Cdigix and the RIAA Sales Tactics

Another set of campuses set to payout: On Campus, Legal Music Services [pdf]

The agreement with Englewood, Colo.-based Cdigix Inc. is the largest since campuses across the country began searching two years ago for alternatives to the illegal peer-to-peer downloading that clogged their computer networks and put students in legal jeopardy.

Cdigix’s contract gives administrators at all 13 UC and 23 Cal State campuses the option of offering online music and movie services to students.

Both UC and Cal State also are negotiating with other providers — such as Napster Inc., Sony Corp. and Mindawn — in the hope of giving campuses a choice of services.

[…] Lawsuits against schools are rare, because, as Internet service providers, they are generally protected against liability for their students’ actions online. Even so, schools must contend with thousands of copyright infringement notices from record labels and movie studios requesting that illegal copies of songs or films be taken off their computer networks.

[…] Offering legal alternatives to file sharing is “a way for universities to try to get around this problem that they’ve inherited. They can point to these services and say they’re making an effort to make legitimate services available to their students,” said Mike McGuire, an analyst with Gartner Group Inc. “The challenge for them now is to make these legal alternatives compelling to students.”

Hmmm – and I thought colleges had a completely different mission.