Defective by Design

Refusing Digital Monitoring Policies

Submitted by JohnSullivan on Thu, 2008-06-26 10:28

Bruce Schneier has brought a new form of Digital Restrictions Management to our attention:

Microsoft is doing some of the most creative thinking along these lines, with something it's calling "Digital Manners Policies." According to its patent application, DMP-enabled devices would accept broadcast "orders" limiting capabilities. Cellphones could be remotely set to vibrate mode in restaurants and concert halls, and be turned off on airplanes and in hospitals. Cameras could be prohibited from taking pictures in locker rooms and museums, and recording equipment could be disabled in theaters. Professors finally could prevent students from texting one another during class.

It sounds innocent enough, until Schneier pulls back the curtain to show the real motivation behind these policies:

Don't be fooled by the scare stories of wireless devices on airplanes and in hospitals, or visions of a world where no one is yammering loudly on their cellphones in posh restaurants. This is really about media companies wanting to exert their control further over your electronics. They not only want to prevent you from surreptitiously recording movies and concerts, they want your new television to enforce good "manners" on your computer, and not allow it to record any programs. They want your iPod to politely refuse to copy music a computer other than your own. They want to enforce their legislated definition of manners: to control what you do and when you do it, and to charge you repeatedly for the privilege whenever possible.

Consumers are objecting en masse to the idea of their own computers and devices continuously and indiscriminately policing their activities via Digital Restrictions Management. So it's no surprise that Microsoft is hatching plans to soft-pedal these same restrictions under the term "manners." This is just old wine in new bottles -- Microsoft wants another way to control your activities.

Since they would be the patent holder, they can profit from selling this ability to monitor and control you to others. There's no doubt that their main customers would be the same media distribution companies who are struggling to cripple the technology that makes them irrelevant -- technology that enables many more artists and creators to share their works directly with the public.

Microsoft's patent abstract says:

Similar to some of the social manners honored among people, such as with "no smoking" or "employees only" zones, "no swimming" or "no flash photography" areas, and scenarios for "please wash your hands" or "no talking out loud", devices may recognize and comply with analogous "device manners" policy.

It's common for companies pedaling digital restrictions to try to find parallels in the analog world, to make the restrictions seem familiar and correct. But these are flawed comparisons -- no machine covers your mouth with duct tape when you enter a "no smoking" zone just to make sure that you don't smoke. Nobody breaks your fingers to make sure that you don't use the flash on your camera in a museum.

Digital restrictions require you to hand over your privacy and freedom in advance. They are inherently unsafe because people other than the intended parties can access these mechanisms for monitoring and restricting you. They are inherently untrustworthy because you aren't legally allowed to know what's going on behind the scenes on the device in your pocket, including the contents of its continuous conversation with whichever corporation it's reporting to. The purpose of the restrictions might sound benign but their mechanism is unacceptable -- and what these companies are actually after is acceptance of the mechanism, so that they can then put it to other uses.

Digital Restrictions Management and "Digital Manners Policies" both use the fear that some people might not do the right thing to justify treating everyone like a criminal and taking away our freedom. We shouldn't accept this justification to cripple what are otherwise incredibly useful and powerful tools for innovation and creativity. "Digital Manners Policies" are really "Digital Monitoring Policies," and we should refuse them.