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You are here: Home Blogs Licensing EPA opposed DMCA exemptions that could have revealed Volkswagen fraud

EPA opposed DMCA exemptions that could have revealed Volkswagen fraud

by Donald Robertson Contributions Published on Sep 25, 2015 03:25 PM
The EPA wrote to the Copyright Office opposing exemptions to the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions that could have helped expose automaker’s fraud.

We have written previously about the organizations and individuals who opposed exemptions to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's (DMCA) anti-circumvention provisions. These drones oppose the rights of users to backup, modify, and study the software and devices that we own. The DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions create legal penalties for simply accessing your software under your own terms, and raises those penalties even higher should you dare to share the tools needed to do so. It creates real penalties for anyone who wants to avoid Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) controls. The granting of exemptions to these totalitarian rules is a broken and half-hearted attempt to limit the damage these rules bring, granting for 3 years a reprieve for certain specified devices and software.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) side-stepped this process and sent a letter separately directly to the Copyright Office. In the letter they argued that users should not be able to access and modify the software on their own vehicles. In their estimation, this would enable users to violate emissions controls. So it would be better for them if the hammer of the DMCA remained hanging over the head of every user or researcher who wanted to access the software on their vehicle.

Of course, just a few months after telling the Copyright Office that users couldn't be trusted with access to their devices, the EPA revealed a major scandal involving Volkswagen. It turns out that Volkswagen had for many years cheated the emissions test performed by the EPA. Volkswagen had surreptitiously included some code in their diesel vehicles that would detect the EPA's tests and have the car change its performance in order to meet EPA mandates. Once the test was over, the code would revert the vehicle to its normal, high-polluting functioning. This scam apparently went on for years before it was detected by researchers.

Of course the irony is that if users and researchers had the right to access the software on their cars, they might have discovered this fraud years ago. As Eben Moglen, founder of the Software Freedom Law Center noted "If Volkswagen knew that every customer who buys a vehicle would have a right to read the source code of all the software in the vehicle, they would never even consider the cheat, because the certainty of getting caught would terrify them.” Volkswagen is already a contributor on the kernel Linux, and as Bradley M. Kuhn, President and Distinguished Technologist of the Software Freedom Conservancy pointed out it is likely that Volkswagen vehicles already contain some free software. But some is not all, and clearly they kept much of their software secret in order to hide their scam. If all the software on the vehicles was free software they never could have perpetrated this scheme.

Researchers also could have discovered the fraud had they not been hindered by the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions, as Kit Walsh of the Electronic Frontier Foundation argued. The EPA of course failed to understand all this when drafting their letter promoting the use of DRM.

But there is a more galling fact at play here. What the EPA argued in their letter was that the exemption should not be granted under the DMCA as a means for enforcing efficiency standards. That clearly isn't the stated purpose of the DMCA's anti-circumvention provisions, and highlights one of the fundamental problems with DRM. That a government agency would try to commandeer the DRM of private actors, not to enforce copyright but as a means to enforce something wholly unrelated, demonstrates a central truth: DRM is not about copyright; it's about control. It's about dominating users. It's about spying on them. It's about installing rootkits onto their computers. It has nothing to do with rights, and everything to do with restriction.

We can't let governments and corporation use DRM to take over our lives. This is what you can do today to fight back:

If you microblog, please share the following message (or your own) with the hashtag #DRMshame. We strongly suggest that if you use Twitter to publicly call the EPA and Volkswagen out, you do it in a way that avoids using proprietary software:

  • @EPA You should be ashamed of yourself for trying to use Digital Restrictions Management #DRMshame https://u.fsf.org/fraud
  • @VW All software on your vehicles needs to be free software without DRM to restore our trust #DRMshame https://u.fsf.org/fraud

Here's what else you can do.:

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