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You are here: Home Bulletins 2018 The threat of government-run Digital Restrictions Management

The threat of government-run Digital Restrictions Management

by Donald Robertson Contributions Published on Jun 11, 2018 04:18 PM

In Lawrence Lessig's book Code Version 2.0, he warns of a world in which control is not manifested via laws and regulations alone, but by the ability to change the very nature of reality. When we use software, what is possible or impossible to do is dictated by the underlying code. So whoever writes the code, or has the power to change it, has the power to control the users running it. As our lives and interactions are increasingly implemented in software, whoever has control over that software has control over us. If we control our own computing, we have freedom; if someone else controls our computing, we are under their dominion. And if that someone else is our own government, the threat to our freedom is especially dire, as they have a far greater power to restrict or eliminate our rights.

That is why free software is so critical, and why Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) is so dangerous. With DRM, the "keys to the castle" belong to whomever implements the DRM -- historically, media distribution companies trying to block copying. These "digital handcuffs" allow anyone who implements them to restrict what you can do with your software or devices. Companies initially claiming they needed DRM to prevent unauthorized copying have abused it even further, using it to block text-to-speech readers, to restrict even public domain works, to prevent fast-forwarding through commercials, and so on. DRM's true purpose is control, and now governments are realizing just how powerful this kind of control can be.

Various agencies want to control users via DRM in order to implement the laws and regulations they are tasked with enforcing. The US Environmental Protection Agency wanted DRM to remain on cars, so that users couldn't avoid emissions controls -- despite the fact that Volkswagen vehicles came with a program, unmodifiable by users, that subverted emission controls. The US Food and Drug Administration also wants DRM on 3D printers, so that users can't print medical devices that don't conform to their regulations. The National Association of Secretaries of State also signed on to a statement promoting DRM on electronic voting machines, worried that without DRM, people could tamper with election results.

In each example, an agent of the government realized they could enforce their rules without having to do their job. The power of DRM to control is so great that they supposed they could enforce their regulations just by not allowing users to avoid DRM, and they didn't care about the collateral damage to user freedom.

But why stop there? At some point these agencies will realize that they don't have to implement a law or regulation in the first place. By dictating what people can or cannot do via DRM, on proprietary software which no one can review, they can implement an unchecked form of control with no possibility of appeal. Companies already use this power to wring additional profits and personal data from users. After all, why bother putting a term into an end-user license agreement or terms of service, which could theoretically be challenged in arbitration or the courts, when you can simply dictate what the user can do via software? And governments will catch onto this, just as they have already started to enforce their laws and regulations via DRM. As long as governments can get companies to implement DRM with particular restrictions, and impose legal penalties for avoiding those restrictions via laws like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, they can exert control without having to go through the normal legal channels for creating laws and regulations.

The rule of law requires that people have fair warning of the laws they are subject to, and that they have a mechanism to appeal the execution of those laws. With DRM, there is no public record of the rules enacted and no courts to challenge their application. With DRM, the rules begin and end in the device or software itself, and whoever has control over the code has dictatorial power over the users. Democracy cannot function when such supreme control is possible, so we must fight to ensure that users always retain control over their own computing. That is why we fight DRM through our campaign at, and why we need you to join us.

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