Tuesday, July 27, 2010

On Censorship and the Digital Age

In today's world we take a lot for granted. Generally speaking we have Internet access 24/7. We have mobile devices that let us talk, text, or video chat with one another. We have miniature computers like the iPad, Kindle, and netbooks that make portable computing and reading so effortless and compact.

Online we have social media like Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and MySpace. Information is thrown at us constantly and in turn we give out a lot of our own information (and money) to stay connected with each other and simplify our lives by becoming more digital and less analog.

But in this swirl of technological magnificence I fear we are losing our sense of control and with that our sense of self. We gladly give up our favorites and preferences and sometimes even personally identifying information for something free, or to connect with friends. We purchase iPads and Kindles and Nooks so we can read all our books on the go in under 2 pounds of plastic and silicon. We don't think about the consequences of what we give up to get these gadgets, to make these digital connections.

With social media it's often not clear how exposed we are until someone we don't know demonstrates how much information they've been able to glean simply from watching our digital activity - tweets, postings on forums, blog postings, links shared on facebook, comments left on friends' pages and so on. I can get pretty frightening when we realize how exposed we have left ourselves.

At one time the Internet was a friendly open place. Then it become more sinister with identity theft and people felt safer reading their credit card numbers over an unsecured phone line than over a secured SSL connection on a web site like Amazon. Now the Internet is somewhere between friendly and sinister again with social media providing the friendly facade. Sadly, the sinister side still lurks behind the friendly veneer and we are lulled into a sense of security that is not really there until it's too late.

Likewise many people purchase the latest gadgets from Apple or Amazon or Barnes and Noble with the idea they are making their lives easier by purchasing digital versions of books they can take anywhere and read anytime. What doesn't often factor into our decision making are the finer details of the purchase agreement we make when we click "Add to cart".

Those details, when more closely examined reveal the sinister side of digital media - proprietary formats and digital rights management or DRM. You may have heard of these terms before and the most common response I get from people is, "DRM doesn't affect me - I don't mind it." That may very well be true...for now.

But DRM by it's nature is designed to affect you. It's designed against you, the consumer, and for the copyright holder (usually the publisher, music label, or movie studio). It's designed to only allow you to access your content in the most narrowly-defined conditions and once those conditions are no longer met you will be locked out of your legally-purchased, but not owned, content. Even worse than that, DRM can be used to modify and / or manipulate your purchased content after the seller already has your money. This has happened before and will likely only happen more in the future.

Case Study #1 - Amazon Kindle revokes 1984 by George Orwell
On Friday, July 17th, 2009 Amazon remotely deleted purchased copies of George Orwell's 1984 and Animal Farm e-books from customers' Kindle readers. While the move was completely legal on Amazon's part (remember the fine print you don't read? You don't actually own what you bought and they can delete it if they deem it necessary), it demonstrated the power Amazon wields over all of its customers. In an analog world of paper books, you would own something after purchasing a copy of that thing, but in the digital world you merely pay for the privilege of accessing content. Consider this: if an e-book costs as much or more than a physical book, why don't you have full ownership rights to that content just as if you had the physical book?

Case Study #2 - Apple's App Store and iBooks Store remove undesirable content
On more than one occasion Apple has pulled apps from the App Store or books from the iBook store because of what Apple considered 'objectionable material' or 'cookie-cutter apps' which they deem as having no value. In most cases users have not had apps they've purchased removed from their devices, but apps and books are removed (or denied admission) from (or to) the app store.

You may think that it's completely fair and within the rights of both Amazon and Apple to censor their own stores, and that is true. However since neither the iPad or Kindle work with any other store than the manufacturer of the device, it does infringe on the device owner's rights. Mitch Wagner, a blogger for ComputerWorld illustrates this point in a blog posting as he reflects on responses to an earlier post of his blasting Apple for censoring their apps. In short: if Apple (or any other company for that matter) locks a device to a single content store owned by the same company (or owned by a company working exclusively with the device manufacturer), then the content of that store should not be censored. If censorship is to be, then the device should be unlocked and able to consume content from other less restrictive sources.

As you may or may not see, censorship and digital rights management (DRM) go hand-in-hand. When you don't own or control the content you pay for, then the content providers can control you (or at least what you read through their devices). And while censoring adult content and foul language or "pointless" apps may seem like a benefit to you because your ideals and philosophies line up with Apple's, how excited will you be when your political or religious views are suppressed by the same company? Do you really want to pay a company hundreds of dollars for a device they control almost completely?

As an exercise, I encourage you to stop and think a moment the next time you contemplate buying a song that only plays on one type of computer or one device. Ask yourself: if I ever want to listen to this song somewhere other than on this device, can I? Am I allowed to make a copy of it for safe keeping (the answer is always yes in case you were wondering)? Before you buy an e-book that can only be read on a single device, ask yourself if you can save that book off to your computer or read it somewhere else with software from another company.

DRM and censorship only works because we let it work. If we reject the notion that we don't own what we buy and that we should have a say in what content we want to view / hear on the devices we purchase, then the companies that make the devices and the content controllers will have no choice but to give you the freedom you demand. How much money would you lose if Apple and Amazon went out of business today and their devices stopped letting you read / listen / use the things you paid for? What recourse would you have?

DRM affects you even if you don't know it. Censorship leads to ignorance and being controlled by the educated. Don't let yourself be controlled.

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