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  • Writer's pictureJessie G Taft

DL Seminar | Technology, Oligarchy, and Digital Human Rights

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

Individual reflections by Jiayun (Joy) Liu, and Joshua Stein (scroll below).

By Jiayun (Joy) Liu

Cornell Tech

Sometimes we fail to notice that technology has quietly reshaped around us in favor of certain interested parties. More and more frequently, the software is serving as the perfect tool to steal powers from the creators, to legally insult our digital human rights, and to reinforce the domination of the oligarchists. On September 23, through his talk Canadian-British author and activist Cory Doctorow reminded us how the digital system, not will, but already has eaten the world.

Interruptibility: The Cake We Used To Have, But No Longer There

Doctorow started his talk with a walkthrough of the rivalry between the following two terms: “Free Software” v.s “Open-Sourced Software”. The free software movement was launched in 1983 and in 1989, the GNU General Public License (GPL) got published. It was a license to grant end-user to use, share, and modify the software. However, at that time, the entire digital ecosystem was still an infant and there was merely any law to stop people from forking the code. It turned out that GPL was more of the icing of a cake: it was just acting as an announcement for the freedom and power an end-user already had.

A few years later, a few companies were too uncomfortable with the term “free”, since they were afraid that they would not be able to charge, or control of any free software. Consequently, they created a more “business-oriented” term: open-source software in 1998. For such software, the source code could be published and the end-user would be able to contribute to it. Meanwhile, the legal implications for open-source software were more difficult to interpret. As it became enforceable under existing copyright law, using open-source software now imposed the risk of monetary punishment or even years of jails.

Doctorow stated that despite their claimed purpose of empowering developers to make disruptive innovation, large companies imposed extensive negative impact over interruptibility. They kept elevating the switching cost by infusing their digital products into every aspect of users’ life. They restricted the power of individual developers through the proliferation of open-source software. They eliminated potential alternatives and competitors to accelerate their monopolization. That’s how the cake, interruptibility, disappeared, and we were left with pointless icing: releasing the source code.

IP: Intellectual Property, or Intended Prevarication?

IP, or intellectual property, is a collective term created to describe any intangible creations. Now it covers various types, including copyright, trademark, and patents. Doctorow claimed that IP, similar to open-source software, is one of the trojan horses oligarchists use to gain more comparative advantages for themselves.

The tricky part is that copyright, trademark, and patents are all following different definitions and laws. For instance, copyright only protects the expression of ideas while patents cover the right to manufacture over an exposed idea for a certain period. On top of that, a trademark is only effective when there exists a deceptive trade action. Doctorow warned us that when large companies use the term IP to generalize all of these, they are just trying to use IP to retrieve any law that will stop their competitors, customers, and critics to do any harm.

DRM: the nightmare that never leaves

One example of how the major players in the market are demolishing the creator’s power and violating our digital human rights is DRM. DRM, which stands for Digital Rights Management, removes usage control from the creator of the digital content, and transfers the right to the platform, the website, or the software.

In Doctorow’s words, DRM is “a security and privacy nightmare, a monopolist’s best friend, and a gross insult to human rights.” It forced creators to hand over their work and morphed them into continued revenue streams. Due to the absence of interruptibility and the abusing usage of IP, creators have been left with no choice but to accept DRM. The neglect of digital human rights in this case is just blatant.

This talk given by Cory Doctorow changed my perspective about how certain concepts are manipulated to maximize profits for the monopoly. It made us rethink the deceptive nature of these terms, as well as the intrusive actions taken behind the scenes. When the digital life has become a more prominent part after the COVID hit, we definitely need to educate ourselves and take action to regain our rights and power as a consumer, a creator, or simply, as a human being.

By Joshua Stein

Cornell Tech

On September 23, 2020 we had the pleasure to listen to Cory Doctorow, an Author, Activist, Journalist, and blogger. Cory spoke about a recent article he had written regarding the history of software and technology and how we went from a world of open source software to oligarchical software companies controlling society and using IP to protect against competitors and those violating their terms of service.

Cory took us through the history of software from free to open source to where we are today. He started by going over “GNU General Public License” (GPL) and the origins which allowed anyone to “run your program, study your code, improve your code, and share their improved code with others (provided that the same license is applied to that new code).” From there he went over the changes to Copyright Act and other lawsuits in 1983 which allowed software to be copyrighted.

Further Cory discussed the changes in 1998, when “open source software” was termed to differentiate from free software to enable commercialization. Once “open source software” was initialized, firms were able to prevent people from modifying existing dominant software products while receiving “free work” and patches from the community.

Cory then went on to explain how interoperability is really the last lever that has been changed and keeps big tech in power. Interoperability existed with free software because the GPL license encouraged and allowed others to build on top of existing software. However, as the world shifted to “open source”, big tech interoperability turned into a competitive advantage.

By limiting interoperability big tech has the ability to prevent competitors and keep people from leaving your platform. One the key aspects of “building” a lack of interoperability is to increase switching costs such as if you leave Facebook, you can’t send them messages through an integration, you can’t view birthdays, and you can’t see pictures. By doing so, this keeps you on Facebook. In addition, Facebook and other monopolies use “addiction” against us to keep us on their platform by feeding us with liking and sharing and bringing in new content from other platforms.

To conclude, Cory goes into the depths of how IP/copyright law has been utilized to enable big corporations to force “other people to arrange their affairs to suit [the company’s] needs.” He talked about digital rights management, “Goldman Sans”, and “fair use” of copyright. He concluded that although there are built in “escape valves” to IP/Copyright protection they are unusable in the age of big tech.

His main argument is that all risk in software and other large corporations has moved onto the individual and monopolies of tech and other industries have risen. With software eating at our everyday lives, we are now at the behest of their control. There is no cake (free software) and icing (interoperability) and instead there is further control by these large big tech corporations through our everyday use of their addicting, non-interoperable, patent protected, and open source software.

Overall, there was definitely a lot to take in. At first, I wanted to discuss the move from open source / free software and the natural progression to for profit businesses and patent protection. But I thought one of Cory’s strongest points towards the end of his seminar was that digital rights are human rights. With tech’s power growing, no one can deny that we need to change how we regulate tech. We can’t be mad that tech has grown up from “high schoolers tinkering in a garage” to full fledged companies. However, we can be mad at their use of data and how they control our lives and will continue to control our lives. We need bill of data rights and new law of the land for big tech.

With that said, we then can’t have tech giants dictating how regulation will be implemented as that will lead to regulation that prevents competition and enriches the current giants in charge. We need to think critically and build regulation that fits the changing world we live in. Most importantly, the currency most of the large tech firms trade in, and what makes them valuable, is our data. We need to ensure that our data is used responsibly and that individuals have the ability to opt out. If individuals can wrangle control of their data, the power of these companies is diminished and potentially freedom within software begins to crawl back.


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