Say No to DRM.

DBD_Eliminate_DRMToday, being Day Against DRM, I thought I would write a little bit about it, and the reasons why I think it is severely flawed, both in reasoning and implementation. DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, but as the campaign at DefectiveByDesign.org points out, a more apt description would be ‘Digital Restrictions Management.’ Digital content providers (e.g. Amazon, Sony, Apple)  use DRM to limit the ways you can use the stuff you buy from them (e.g. Music, eBooks, DVD/BluRay). This is why we say that it is defective by design. A decision is made to encumber the content or device with restrictions.

The first thing to note about DRM, is that DRM is not the same as copyright law. Granted, it is often used to ‘protect’ copyrighted works, but it does not respect the rights of you, the person purchasing the works. I believe Karen Coyle puts it best: Where copyright law is an expression of “everything that is not forbidden is permitted,” DRM takes the approach of “everything that is not permitted is forbidden.” This means that you have very little control over how you use what you are spending your money on. Imagine if you went to a pet shop and bought a goldfish, and the seller tells you that you can’t put the goldfish in any other bowl than this bowl, and you can’t give it away when you are bored of it (not that you could possibly get bored of a goldfish!). Now I’m not saying that the bowl the petshop owner provided you with isn’t suitable for the goldfish, but maybe it doesn’t look nice in your living room. Or maybe you move house, and your new abode is furnished with one of those huge tanks built into the wall! DRM doesn’t take into account what may happen in the future, it locks you into specific devices: who says you won’t want to move on from your current Amazon Kindle ebook reader, when a fancier equivalent comes along in the future? DRM will prevent you from transferring the goldfish ebooks you already own on to it.

This is an unacceptable restriction. Digital technology has opened so many new possibilities that are obvious for all to see, but media providers want to restrict it as much as possible, so that they are in control and can take as much of your money as possible. You buy a physical book, you read it, you enjoy it, you add it to your bookshelf. At any point in the future, you can come back and indulge yourself in the wonder that it brought you when you first read it. You own and are in control of this book. You can donate the book to a library, share it with your friends, give it away, even resell it! The information will never die, the knowledge will be passed on for future generations to enjoy. We are still marvelling at books written thousands of years ago! Now, look at your huge archive of DVDs or BluRay discs, or all of your ebooks that you have purchased from Amazon.com. What will happen in 10 years when optical media devices are unheard of, or your Amazon Kindle dies? What will happen to your digital media? If it is restricted with DRM, it will be unusable. This is detrimental to a free society and free culture! Such a situation could be compared with the burning of the Ancient Library of Alexandria!

Speaking of society and culture, aren’t we all taught at a very young age to share with our friends and neighbours? Sharing is one of the fundamental aspects of community! DRM forbids us from sharing our stuff with the people around us. Content providers (who generally have lots and lots of money), are afraid that people will mass distribute their content to lots of people, and they won’t get any of the money. This is an obvious case of you’re doing it wrong. First of all,I think that’s what copyright law is there for. Secondly, by putting DRM on content, it makes it less appealing to potential buyers; who will try to find an alternative, either in the form of a competitor or even piracy. Yes, I believe DRM promotes piracy. If I can buy from you, and get bundled with DRM-ridden stuff, that I can only play on a certain device; or download illegaly the same album or movie or whatever, without DRM, that I can convert into any other format and play on any given computer; only one of these is appealing. Not only does this inconvenience me, and tempt me to break the law, but you don’t benefit at all. At least if people share files illegally, I suppose DRM indirectly (and unintentionally) promotes sharing!

How can we stop DRM? It’s not going to be easy. I think the main way to stop it, is to make a decision not to use it, not to use any content or device which is bundled with DRM. I realise in some rare situations, it might be necessary to buy something with DRM; but just remember that every time you use it, you are promoting it. When we stop using it, and buy from competitors, then eventually the major players will realise that it’s not such a good idea after all. Another way to aid in its decline is to spread awareness, and that is what I’m attempting to do here. Of course, all of the views expressed here are my own opinions. If you want to find out more about DRM, and find alternative content providers that have more respect for users, check out http://www.defectivebydesign.org/

Please comment!

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frustrations with netflix and DRM

Today I signed up for that 30 day free trial period that netflix have going on. I was quite excited about it, and it was really one of those moments where I thought ‘I hope this works well, if so, then I’d be happy to pay after the free trial!’ – this isn’t a mindset I’m often in, admittedly.

The signup process was going swimmingly, until it asked for the payment details. I was presented with 2 choices: Credit card or paypal. I chose paypal, since I my credit card will expire soon, and I won’t be renewing it, since the account is in Ireland, and I currently live in Canada. Unfortunately, clicking on the paypal option wasn’t very helpful, since netflix turns out to be one of those silly companies that requires all paypal accounts to be set up with credit cards. This is something that really annoys me, let’s rewind a little to see why more clearly. So, remember I was provided with 2 payment options, credit card or paypal? That seemed reasonable at first glance: not everyone is eligible for a credit card, but you can have a paypal account with just a bank account, eliminating the need for a credit card for online payments (this is the most advantageous reason for providing paypal as a payment option, in my opinion). Requiring paypal accounts to be linked to a credit card, isn’t providing any option at all really, since now you must have a credit card to use netflix.

After a slight hesitation, I caved. I entered the details for the paypal account which is linked to my irish credit card (as opposed to the other one which is linked to my canadian bank account). I figured that even though my canadian bank won’t issue me a credit card, I might be able to find something that will work, if I end up liking the service provided by netflix.

After signing up, I was asked some questions and I ticked some boxes. I assume this was to provide me with more personalised recommendations. After that, I was brought to (what I assume was) the main netflix interface. I spent about a minute or two rating stuff I had already seen, and clicking ‘not interested’ in other stuff that I hope never to subject my senses to.
Eventually I saw something that I wanted to watch, a movie that I hadn’t seen in years, but which recently came up in conversation, and I had planned on watching in the near future. Clicking ‘play’ brought me to a nightmarish screen, one that I had hoped I wouldn’t be seeing. It was a message informing me that netflix requires either Microsoft Windows or Mac OS to play. This was the end of the road for me, so I quickly cancelled my account and moved on in frustration.

A little digging afterwards, told me that the reason netflix doesn’t have a GNU/Linux compatible client, is because of DRM. Of course, if I had known this in advance, I would have steered well clear. Most importantly because I think DRM is just wrong and unnecessary, but also because, as everyone knows, DRM doesn’t work.

how to make twitter lists useful (and keep your timeline clean)

For those of you who don’t know, twitter lists are like custom timelines away from your main timeline. Lists contain a selection of twitter users that (usually) have something in common. For example, I have a list called ‘Musics’ which contains artists and bands I’m interested in. Grouping these twitter users in a list, rather than following them in the traditional sense, means that I can still keep tabs on them, without having my main timeline spammed with stuff that I’m not bothered about 100% of the time. The problem I have, is that I rarely think to check my lists for any updates that do pertain to me. For quite a while I wondered if it was possible to export lists to read in my feed reader (RSS/atom). I figured it wasn’t possible, or wasn’t easy at least, since clicking on the feeds button in firefox gives 3 options to subscribe to: my main timeline, my mentions, and my favourites. Also, none of the microblogging clients that I have used (most recently: pino, gwibber, choqok) have a lists feature. I’m unsure if applications on other platforms support lists, let me know if they do!

Anyway, while poking around with the twitter API for a while today, I just noticed that ‘lists’ can be called externally as an atom feed. <- Click on that linked text for all available parameters, etc. Basically, as long as a list is public, it can be seen by anyone. Feed URLs are in the following format for atom feed readers:

https://api.twitter.com/1/:user/lists/:id/statuses.atom

where :user is replaced with the ‘curator’ of the list, and :id with the list name. For example, the list I mentioned earlier called ‘Musics’ which was created by me, has the following feed URL: https://api.twitter.com/1/twitz0r/lists/musics/statuses.atom.

If a list is private, it can’t be viewed by anyone except the twitter user who created it, and so can’t be viewed by any regular feed readers. I’m sure that if you have some super cool feed reader that authenticates you with twitter then that’s not a problem. It isn’t a problem for me, since private lists are boring anyway. I hope this post will be useful to anyone who has the same pining to use lists as they should be used! Good day.

open social stepping stones

I just stumbled across an interesting new project today called Ostatus. Basically it aims to provide ‘distributed social networking’ by using some existing protocols to existing blogging and microblogging networks. Depending on what sites implement it, it could be very exciting (I’m excited already, can you tell?). So far, they list Google Buzz, StatusNet (and sites running the StatusNet platform, such as identi.ca), WordPress.com, and tumblr as having implemented some or all of the necessary protocols.

If higher profile sites such as twitter and facebook get in on the act, then it could be the answer to a lot of problems. It would mean that we would not all need to have an account on every platform on the web to interact with our acquaintances. We would not need to provide so many sites with our personal details, just because we have a handful of friends that use each. For example, the thousands of people who have left facebook recently could still show up in the friend lists of the zombies who still occupy it, not as facebook profiles, but as profiles from other social networks or blogs.

Some will inevitably ask: Why don’t we all just use the same social network, then we wouldn’t have to worry about all of these unnecessary growing pains?

Well, we all know what happened with the facebook, and why not everyone would agree with that. If there is some aspect of one network that you don’t like, such as the privacy policy, terms and conditions, or the features it provides, you would use a different one instead. Couple this with OpenID, another exciting decentralized open standard, add a few bells and whistles, and we would have a much more open and social web!

Through their unprecedent kickstarter success, the Diaspora guys have proven that we all want more choice and diversity, while at the same time having control over what details we share publicly. This is another project I look forward to. Due to be released in September, it could well be the ‘next big thing,’ if it can do what they promise! The project page already mentions the possibility of OpenID, among some other phenomenally cool stuff. Everyone (who wants to use it) will have a ‘seed,’ which will harness all of their existing information from the social sites they use (and choose to tie in to the seed). When you want to check up on a friend, you check their seed, without having to worry about scouring the web for different sites with the information. It will also mean that the information we see will be a little more ‘proven’ – we will be more certain that the information about the person, is by the person, and not fraudulent. Also, did I mention it will all be encrypted?!

Who knows, maybe by then the internet won’t be cool anymore…

The Facebook.

I have just deleted myself from the facebook. I decided it was time to get out while I still could. My reasons are many, and my regrets are few. I will not list all of the reasons for my decision, just a few that I think are important; and I will try not to go into too many boring details.

The recent privacy controversy surrounding the facebook is as incessant as the oil that is spewing out of the Gulf of Mexico. It was always going to come to this, wasn’t it? I’m sure it was a thought lingering around a lot of peoples heads when they signed up, that the machine would harvest all of our information and exploit it. Advertising is how they make their money, and their money is what matters to them, not you or your privacy. As my late grandmother would have said if she was in Mark Suckerberg’s position: ‘Privacy? What bank can I cash that in?

A more important reason for deleting my account on the facebook is to make an example of myself. I am a technology enthusiast (geek?), and I am also quite critical (and sometimes outspoken) of widely-used platforms (in the broadest sense of the word) which I think have major downsides that people are ignorant of. I always try to lead by example in such situations, by seeking and using better (but often lesser known) alternatives. This is one of the reasons why I am so enthusiastic about linux and open-source software. I think that a lot of people are probably unaware of the constant changes and “improvements” that go on over at the facebook, and how these changes can affect them. For example, while writing this, I see a post by a friend, let’s call him Bob. The news feed reads like this:

Bob likes Having sex can reduce a fever because of the sweat produced. Sex is also a pain reliever, ten times more effective than Valium: immediately before orgasm, levels of the hormone oxytocin rise by five times, determining a huge release of endorphins. These chemicals calm pain, from a minor headache to arthritis or migraines, and with no secondary effects. Migraines also disappear because the pressure in the brain’s blood vessels is lowered while we have sex. So now we see that actually, a woman’s headache is rather a good reason for having sex, not against it. – OMG Facts.

When I hovered over the text,  I saw that it links to an external site (‘omg-facts’ or something, hyperlink edited changed to scroogle here). I know nothing about this external site or what it’s intentions are, and I’m not going to speculate on it here. I will just say that external sites and applications are potentially very risky, for both your privacy, and your online security, if you are not prepared for what scripts they might run.  Clicking on the link will bring you to their site, where they could run a script, hijacking your session or worse. I hope the facebook has some sort of  failsafe for  stuff like this, for people who are unaware of the risks, but this post on the f-secure.com blog suggests otherwise. I’m not sure how many people use browsers with built-in or additional script blocking capabilities (such as the noscript extension for firefox), but I am not confident that that number is very high.

The facebook is both limited and limiting. This is probably my biggest reason for not liking it anymore. It’s a point that has been bothering me for a few months now. The internet holds so much potential for variety, choice, and innovation, among many other things. These don’t really apply to the facebook: it is too restrictive. For some people, the facebook is where they spend most of their daily online time (I was probably like that for a while myself). For people like this,’the internet’ consists of a blue bar along the top that says ‘facebook’ on the left, and ‘home, profile, account’ on the right. Everyone has a page. All pages look the same (more or less). Picture, information, friends, etc, all in the same places for everyone. Faceborg seems like an apt nickname for it at this point. This limits the way we think. Maybe that isn’t a fair statement, but sharing user data with advertising companies without consent is most definitely less fair.

The things it could actually be useful for, it fails miserably at. It could be very useful for sharing photos, but instead it is useless for it. 10 megapixel cameras are bogstandard nowadays. The facebook reduces the quality of photos uploaded to less than 1MP, and doesn’t store any of the metadata of the original photo. We all have stories about the instability of the instant messaging feature, it is probably the buggiest I have ever seen. It’s private messaging (inbox) system is just as bad, if not worse. I just found out I can only send to max 20 people at a time. I have 574 ‘friends’ (although this number goes up and down like a yo-yo, without any interaction from me…as does the number of photos I am tagged in, and i recently detagged myself from all photos) – when I message all of my friends to tell them I am quitting the facebook collective and to provide them with an alternative means of contacting me online, I will have to send the same message 29 times.

That brings me to another point (wow, the ranting is really starting to show now, eh? I will try to control myself). The facebook doesn’t want you to leave, and will make it as difficult as possible for you to do so. There is no easy way to download the photos you have been tagged in. There is no easy way to export the contact details of your friends (like their email address, phone numbers, whatever). The actual delete link is close to impossible to find (I’m not sure if it is even possible without a walkthrough). You can ‘deactivate’ your account easily, and up until very recently, until I stumbled across this wiki page, I didn’t think it was possible to actually delete. I’m still not sure, as nobody really knows how much data the facebook will continue to store on you.

I realise that the facebook is still a handy tool to be able to use. I believe however, that the balance has been tipped, and its drawbacks now outweigh its benefits. If you still feel it fun to play on the facebook, I urge you to get to know the ins-and-outs of their privacy control jungle, and to check it regularly. There is a strange phenomenon where things tend to change there frequently. There is a bookmark tool at reclaimprivacy.org/facebook to check your privacy settings, that I would suggest trying, although I can’t guarantee that it covers everything. For the readers who don’t think online privacy is important, read this delightful short story, ‘Scroogled’ by Cory Doctorow. Let’s not let the facebook or any other single goliath type machine define the future of our internet!  Now, I’m off outside, where we used to go before the facebook. Good luck!

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