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Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Cory Doctorow's 28C3 talk was called "the coming war on general-purpose computation." It's available as a video; there is also a transcript on Github. "And it doesn't take a science fiction writer to understand why regulators might be nervous about the user-modifiable firmware on self-driving cars, or limiting interoperability for aviation controllers, or the kind of thing you could do with bio-scale assemblers and sequencers. Imagine what will happen the day that Monsanto determines that it's really... really... important to make sure that computers can't execute programs that cause specialized peripherals to output organisms that eat their lunch... literally. Regardless of whether you think these are real problems or merely hysterical fears, they are nevertheless the province of lobbies and interest groups that are far more influential than Hollywood and big content are on their best days, and every one of them will arrive at the same place -- 'can't you just make us a general purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can't you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?'"
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Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 0:54 UTC (Sat) by josh (subscriber, #17465) [Link]

This reminds me quite a bit of the article "What Colour are your bits?" (http://ansuz.sooke.bc.ca/entry/23), which discusses a similar premise: unreasonable and impossible demands on computer systems will not go away simply through explaining their unreasonableness and impossibility, nor will those demands adapt to reality. These kind of demands tend to just come with a "make it happen", and they keep coming until they get the answer they want. Eventually, some misguided or misinformed hacker will answer such a demand with "well, maybe, I can try" rather than "no, that's impossible, go away", particularly when that answer will get them a job.

We need general-purpose computation to become an entirely untouchable issue. Regulate *actions*, not *devices that can perform any action*.

To use an example from the talk, don't ban cars with built-in hands-free phone interfaces, just restrict the use of hands-free phones when driving. That avoids two major issues: you avoid restricting legitimate uses (such as using the device when *not* driving), and much more importantly you avoid restricting a future vehicle which contains a general-purpose computer that can do just about anything, which includes the ability to act as a hands-free phone interface.

Better yet, don't restrict the use of hands-fee phones when driving, just hold people liable for causing accidents no matter what the cause. Always apply the regulation specifically to the problem you want to avoid; anything else just substitutes for personal responsibility, and necessarily becomes too broad.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 4:22 UTC (Sat) by raven667 (subscriber, #5198) [Link]

That's a funny mention as in my area, and probably yours too, "inattentive driving" is already an offense regardless of the cause. All of the regulations about cell phone use while driving is an unnecessary piling-on by politicans trying to look good for elections.

purpose of laws

Posted Dec 31, 2011 5:29 UTC (Sat) by tialaramex (subscriber, #21167) [Link]

Not strictly unnecessary. The layman does not always appreciate that laws serve multiple purposes.

True, one purpose of a "no drive-phoning" law is to tick a box for an elected politician, to be seen to have "done something about" a perceived problem.

Another purpose is to send a social message. Passing a law which prohibits an already prohibited thing (or demands an already mandatory one) reinforces the message, if the new law is more specific, it reinforces the message that this specific thing is not permitted (or, is mandatory) and not an exception to the general rule. In this case, it says "Yes, being distracted by a mobile phone conversation is still inattentive driving. Don't do it"

And another reason to pass new laws is that the precise wording of a law can be tailored with the experience of legal precedent. Until the crown actually tried to prosecute people for "theft" of a vehicle, it may have seemed that theft was exactly the right charge. But actual experience in court proved that "intent permanently to deprive" can't be proved in most cases where a car is "stolen". So that's why we have TWOC in English law. The "no driving and phoning" laws ensure that a driver can be prosecuted without needing to prove somehow that they were inattentive, merely the fact that they made or answered a call, and they used a handheld phone, are sufficient.

purpose of laws

Posted Dec 31, 2011 21:01 UTC (Sat) by Duncan (guest, #6647) [Link]

There's another reason as well:

At least in the US, it's the norm to pile on all sorts of criminal charges for a single act, some charges worse than others, so that it both motivates the defense to accept a plea bargain that cuts the number of counts down to say a quarter of what they were, and gives the prosecution some flexibility in negotiating such a plea bargain. Similarly, if a plea bargain cannot be agreed, then it goes to trial, where either the prosecution or defense can use it to argue for a partial conviction if they think the jury might not convict on the more serious charges, and gives the jury flexibility as well, to convict on some charges while acquitting on others and possibly deadlocking on still others.

Of course a libertarian or legal/justice cynic would point out that over time, the effect of the accumulated weight of many layers of such laws can make the application entirely arbitrary, since at some point pretty much everyone is violating policy/law left and right and it's then essentially arbitrary authoritarian whim as to whether someone's prosecuted or not, and the degree to which they are prosecuted if so. Which really bothers many since ideally, law/policy applies equally to all, no matter who you're friends (or enemies) with, what money you have or lack, etc.

But of course a very large portion of the political establishment is lawyers, and ever more layers of ever more complicated laws seriously benefit them, so why would we expect them NOT to continually vote in ever more complexity, until at some point a revolution must occur to throw off the yolk, allowing the cycle to start over anew?

purpose of laws

Posted Dec 31, 2011 21:54 UTC (Sat) by drag (subscriber, #31333) [Link]

> At least in the US, it's the norm to pile on all sorts of criminal charges for a single act,

In the USA Federal court system it is not virtually impossible for any person to win a criminal case against them. Even if they are innocent.

This is one of those things most people don't realize. Especially when it comes to things like criminal copyright violations. People have the attitude that they are going to get all legal ninja on the system or something like that. It's not how it works. That is why people who are so piss and vinegar in the 'pirating community' seem like they turn into a pussy when faced with actual arrest and charges.

It is a shocking and disturbing experience for a person not familiar with the practices in our legal system when they finally get a lawyer and learn how utterly immoral, inhuman, and unfair the justice system has actually become. Everything that people are taught about the legal system in highschool and college is about 100 years obsolete. It's a machine that has been designed to be highly efficient at robbing non-violent offenders of their freedoms. The vast majority of people in our legal system never did anything wrong to anybody. They did not cause damage, steal anything, or hurt anybody. They are in jail because they broke a law which sole purpose is just to make something illegal that some action that some portion of the voting public didn't like at sometime in the past.

(7.9% of sentenced prisoners in federal prisons on September 30, 2009 were in for violent crimes according to wikipedia)

Through a combination of administrative law (bureaucratic processes) and mandatory minimal sentencing guidelines the full power of the federal court system has been placed firmly into the hands of the prosecuting attorney representing the federal government.

One of the major ways this happens, and one of the simplest aspects to understand, is that the amount of time you are going to spend in jail is not decided by the judge, or the nature of your crime, but by what the prosecution decides to charge you with through the nature of mandatory minimal sentences.

They can change the charges on the fly, before you go to court, and they can break any agreement they feel like with you. Prior to mandatory minimal sentencing the Judge was allowed to decide your punishment based on your criminal history, the nature of the crime, the severity of the crime, the likelihood of you doing it again, etc etc. Nowadays your punishment is decided by the charge, period. It strips any and all protections a guilty plantiff may have against a aggressive prosecution.

So they will go up to you before court and tell you that if they charge you with X you will get 1 year, but if they charge you with Y, you will get ten years. They have no problem convicting you on either and they don't give a shit about you or the people you affected.. it's just their job to put you in jail. So they say that if you plead guilty right now then you go to jail for a year. If you allow the case to go to court they will charge you with 10 years.

The end result is that your defense attorney will strongly urge you to take
the year in order to avoid risking losing a entire decade of your life. Whether or not your innocent doesn't matter at this point.

I used to know the statistics for being able to successfully win as a defendant in a federal criminal case, but it's extremely small. Something like only 3 out of a 100 cases ever actually make it to court. Out of those only 5 or 7% make it out by proving their innocence.

All of this is why we see things like this:

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/48/U.S._i...

purpose of **ws

Posted Jan 1, 2012 11:43 UTC (Sun) by gvy (guest, #11981) [Link]

> and learn how utterly immoral, inhuman, and unfair
> the justice system has actually become
Well, those fed up with fed jewrisdiction are welcome to Russia. Contrary to what western media might implant into masses, there aren't bears plundering children of vodka all over the place, and I know at least one such guy in person (we met in Jerusalem almost four years ago, he had had moved to Russia and had a family here already) and have read an interview with at least one more -- who also told that there's much more actual freedom in Russia than in America these days, and that his mother wondered why his eyes became so sad and why he looks "almost like a Russian" (well, Dostoevsky might have had an explanation for her -- e.g. "everyone is responsible for everyone").

One other guy (a bright FLOSS developer who was ordered to get out of Ukraine in 48h back then) shared in a newsgroup his observations that then-current USA already reminded late USSR in terms of propaganda and unauthorized authorities.

There's a proverb that Russian law strictness is compensated by it being not that mandatory -- while we do see too much high-profile impunity indeed, the traditional mechanism for dealing with that would be not even formal law but conscience: who would communicate to a scoundrel, and who would stand being rather alone big time?

We also don't have a "tradition" of lifelong loans and nation-wide IDs, and that freedom *is* significant.

Добро пожаловать!

Stop here please

Posted Jan 1, 2012 15:52 UTC (Sun) by corbet (editor, #1) [Link]

Maybe it's my fault for posting a somewhat political item in the first place, but at this point this conversation is clearly going in unwelcome directions. There are many other sites much better suited to this kind of post; perhaps this conversation could be continued there?

Thanks.

purpose of **ws

Posted Jan 1, 2012 22:47 UTC (Sun) by viro (subscriber, #7872) [Link]

1) don't post while hung over

2) internal passports *are* nation-wide IDs. I don't know how they do it in .ua, but in .ru those are as mandatory as they used to be in .su.

3) inviting folks to the place where you live is fine (in "spread the misery" sense, if nothing else), but that's not exactly what you are doing, is it?

4) Миша, шел бы ты на ... со своим патриотизмом. Противно...

Eggsistential remark

Posted Jan 3, 2012 15:48 UTC (Tue) by Max.Hyre (guest, #1054) [Link]

I know eggs have cholesterol (boo), but is a revolution to
throw off the yolk
the answer?

purpose of laws

Posted Jan 5, 2012 21:55 UTC (Thu) by JanC_ (guest, #34940) [Link]

You don't need a new law to do that; a clarification of the law (an "implementation note") could work as well...

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 10:31 UTC (Sat) by job (guest, #670) [Link]

Better yet, don't restrict the use of hands-fee phones when driving, just hold people liable for causing accidents no matter what the cause.

That logic would apply to drunk driving as well which would be entirely unreasonable.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 3:31 UTC (Sun) by josh (subscriber, #17465) [Link]

Not necessarily; handling the more general case of "driving while inattentive or impaired" would address alcohol, drugs, sleep deprivation, cell phones, eating, and any other source of inattention or impairment, including new forms of stupidity not previously anticipated when writing the law.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 20:21 UTC (Sun) by job (guest, #670) [Link]

... in which case you don't need to "just hold people responsible for the accidents they cause", especially as using a mobile phone could easily be classified as inattentive.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 21:56 UTC (Sun) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

the problem I have with the 'war on distracted driving' is where does it end?

do you ban radios because yelling back at the talk radio host is a distraction (or because grooving along with your favorite music is a distraction)

what about banning kids from riding in the car (ever seen how distracting a couple of kids fighting in the back seat can be for the driver?

how about banning passengers altogether because interacting with passengers can be a distraction (In California they've already taken the first steps in this direction by banning drivers under the age of 18 from driving passengers)

it's impossible to ban all forms of distraction, and even if you could, the resulting boredom would then cause accidents.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 5, 2012 12:24 UTC (Thu) by job (guest, #670) [Link]

In law, drawing that line is often left to the court system on purpose. Too specific lawmaking seems to be regarded as almost an abuse of power from the politicians. The language of the law comprises only part of what the judicial system has to take into account when deciding those matters. I too regard it as convoluted but there's probably a reason why it works like that.

The coming war on general purpose mankind

Posted Jan 1, 2012 11:13 UTC (Sun) by gvy (guest, #11981) [Link]

> rather than "no, that's impossible, go away"

I've heard an anecdote of a Russian programmer in USA who told that to a client's guy who was wishing for something that unreasonable. The reply was a hysteria along the lines of "do you know who we are? we are FRS! we can do anything!". I can wait till people that wise decide to have a wager with gravitation, sigh.

Hope we hackers are in position to be informed on things like JFK's Executive Order 11110 and very much hope that we don't give in for the proudness cult to become self-blinded like those who chose false over the Truth two thousand years ago and continue to do so today.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 2:46 UTC (Sat) by slashdot (guest, #22014) [Link]

It's impossible.

General purpose computers are extremely widespread, and they will continue to be available for a lot of time even if no longer manufactured.

And if you have ANY way of communicating, even if only using a restricted appliance, you can just attach to the general purpose computer a camera, speaker and a mechanical device to tap keys on the keyboard, allowing to automatically control and acquire data from the appliance (these devices are also already widespread).

With the help of some steganography, secure arbitrary comunication is then possible.

For the same reason, movie and music DRM is physically impossible.

Limiting the operation of new specialized devices like "bio-scale assemblers" is however obviously perfectly possible.

The only way to overcome this is to use draconian measures like forcing everyone to submit to constant video surveillance at all times.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 4:36 UTC (Sat) by josh (subscriber, #17465) [Link]

> Limiting the operation of new specialized devices like "bio-scale assemblers" is however obviously perfectly possible.

And how precisely do you intend to do that?

Today, you can buy or build any number of 3D printers or milling machines for solid objects, supporting plastics, metals, wood, and various other materials. In addition to building anything you design yourself, you can download ready to use plans for any number of objects online; they just consist of a pile of bits, and as we've already established you can't actually control the copying of bits without limiting general-purpose computers. As mentioned in the article, people have used 3D printers to print the key parts of weapons. Or to look at a different angle, nothing stops you from printing a patented mechanical design.

We don't necessarily have the technology today to just attach a USB device and start printing off DNA, but we will. What makes that any different, or any more meaningful to regulate, once we have that technology readily available? Either way, you just have a stream of bits that some people don't want distributed or used.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 5:14 UTC (Sat) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

not to mention the idea that you can somehow know about all 'bad' things that could be created with a bio-assembler in order to forbid them in the first place.

the only way to make it impossible for such devices to create something 'bad' is to make it so that they can only create things that are known to be 'good', and then make it impossible to modify the devices (not just make it illegal, because people deliberately trying to make 'bad' things are probably doing all sorts of 'illegal' things anyway, what's one more)

Impossible?

Posted Dec 31, 2011 9:39 UTC (Sat) by oldtomas (guest, #72579) [Link]

As I was young (ah, old times ;-) I was into chemical experimenting. I could go to a drugstore (quite a different kind of store than these days, alas) and could buy half-a liter of sulphuric acid (fuming!) or best-quality nitric acid.

These days I'd be lucky that the person in charge there doesn't know what I'm asking for -- otherwise I'd get a free trip to the next police station.

And don't get me started on the chemicals which might-be-used-to-cook-meth these days.

To me, this illustrates that with enough 9-11 or drug scare nearly anything is possible. Child porn scare anyone? Or stealing Intellectual Property?

I wish I could be as optimistic as you are.

Impossible?

Posted Jan 1, 2012 12:00 UTC (Sun) by gvy (guest, #11981) [Link]

Heh, my drawer would qualify me as a "terrhоrіst" in a moment probably... perсhlоrates galore and bаrіum salts either. And I also possess a magic notebook (a paper thing written on with a pen, not a scary plastic crap) with enough *working* recipes, not the diversions found in a "t's handbook".

Wish I could shake your hand man. We know what to do and when to stop, and those wishing to stop and debilize us actually don't, whatever they might think of themselves.

Good luck to all good people!

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 10:48 UTC (Sat) by job (guest, #670) [Link]

You argue as if a laws and the state is the problem. That may be true in parts of the world but not in the bigger picture.

The reasoning around restricted general computers as preferred to single purpose applicances has more to do with the companies building our gadgets than it does with lawmaking.

If restricted devices are the only ones available, our society will be at a standstill. Law does not enter the picture until you want to argue that rooted devices is a valid way forward.

You don't need to point at complete surveillance before this becomes problematic. We are already there, large parts of the general public own iphones and game consoles, and the coming generations are not naturally exposed to building things.

Companies or laws?

Posted Dec 31, 2011 16:51 UTC (Sat) by oldtomas (guest, #72579) [Link]

You argue as if a laws and the state is the problem. That may be true in parts of the world but not in the bigger picture.

I think the worst is when both collude. E.g. anti-circumvention measures plus DMCA. Or paid vigilantes plus three-strikes. Or unreasonable "Intellectual Property" laws plus patent trolls.

I'm sure you can find more examples...

I think it's a pattern. We might call it "Collusion for Control" or something.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 11, 2012 13:23 UTC (Wed) by nix (subscriber, #2304) [Link]

Well, it does depend on the device. I have no desire to root my Kindle 4 any more than I have a desire to build paper aeroplanes out of the pages of the books on my bookshelves: it works very well for its intended purpose (reading books), thanks to Calibre it doesn't actually stop me lending books to people and stuff like that, and the hardware isn't actually very much use for anything *other* than reading books thanks to limitations of the display technology used and its extremely weird user input mechanism (keys at the side of the screen: excellent for turning pages, but what else could you use them for? I can't think of anything much: their positions are wrong for most uses.)

I'm still insulted by its non-freedom -- I want the source even though it's unlikely I'd do anything with it -- but since the device costs only a little more than four hardbacks, I'm not going to raise the roof over it.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 20:22 UTC (Sat) by ibukanov (subscriber, #3942) [Link]

I think that is overreaction to a political development in US. Surely a congress can and will establish stupid laws that would try to scare public against using a general purpose computation devices just to please their corporate sponsors. But those laws would be unenforceable from the day one and would just fail the same way the Prohibition failed.

If anything, the real problem is that we have way too many general purpose computers in unexpected places. Like, for example, a remotely-controlled light switch that can be hacked to induce epilepsy via quick flashes and when the manufacturer has absolutely no responsibility for that as modern laws blame the hacker, not the person how allowed for hacks in the first place.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 21:26 UTC (Sat) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

> Like, for example, a remotely-controlled light switch that can be hacked to induce epilepsy via quick flashes and when the manufacturer has absolutely no responsibility for that as modern laws blame the hacker, not the person how allowed for hacks in the first place.

I actually think that in this case the hacker is the person who should be blamed and held liable.

blaming the manufacturer for not making it impossible to hack the device is exactly the wrong thing to do.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 21:51 UTC (Sat) by ibukanov (subscriber, #3942) [Link]

If a house that you live in has a hidden backdoor that were put by the builder for convenience (who claimed that he made a safe house) and that was used during a robbery, would you blame only the robber?

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 22:06 UTC (Sat) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

if it is a deliberate backdoor designed to allow people to get in the system, and it is kept hidden, then you have malfeasance on the part of the manufacturer.

If the backdoor is not secret, it may be a great thing to have.

but in any case, the criminal act is the exploiting of the backdoor, not the creation of it

and simple flaws in the code that end up being able to be exploited, but were not put there deliberately may be carelessness on the part of the manufacturer, but are not malfeasance

Using a real-world example, the continual flow of flaws in Microsoft products should not make Microsoft liable for hackers, but this sort of track record should make people opt to choose a different OS that does not have this track record.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 2:30 UTC (Sun) by ibukanov (subscriber, #3942) [Link]

> but in any case, the criminal act is the exploiting of the backdoor, not the creation of it

IMO the creation of the backdoor that the owner of the house is not aware of is bigger ethical problem than the theft itself. But criminal laws almost never follows ethic this days.

> the continual flow of flaws in Microsoft products should not make Microsoft liable for hackers,

Well, there is a difference in expectations. When I buy a light switch I assume that I get just that, a light switch. I presume if I follow instructions and do not do stupid things with it it should just work and do no harm. In particular, I expect that I do not get a backdoor that can be used to kill me.

With MS products at least I know that I get a general purpose computer and formally I must accept those licensing disclaimers of any responsibility. Still I think the current software industry is getting way too easy with those disclaimers in products that cost money.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 8:34 UTC (Sun) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

what is the difference between a 'backdoor' that is unethical and 'hacker friendly' (in the good term of hacker) that allows the owner of the device to modify it to do useful things that the manufacturer never thought of?

you may only want the light switch to be able to be controlled by the authorized remote, but I may buy the same switch with the intent of controlling it with my computer (for all sorts of reasons)

this is why it's really dangerous to take the attitude that capabilities or functionality is 'evil' and needs to be suppressed instead of going after the people who do bad things with it.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 12:15 UTC (Sun) by ibukanov (subscriber, #3942) [Link]

> what is the difference between a 'backdoor' that is unethical and 'hacker friendly' (in the good term of hacker)

The difference is simple - when I buy a light switch I expect to get just a light-switch, a device with a clear defined functionality that works just like that - a light switch. If I want a general purpose computer that happens to be able also turn on and off light, I will look for that.

> this is why it's really dangerous to take the attitude that capabilities or functionality is 'evil'

Capabilities are not evil, the failure to state them in clear and ability to completely shred responsibility in case of harm is.

> and needs to be suppressed

I have not suggested to suppress anything, I just want clear statement that a particular device is not a light switch, cannot be advertised as such and that the manufacturer has absolutely no responsibility if the device does something else besides switching the light.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 22:01 UTC (Sun) by dlang (subscriber, #313) [Link]

how do you define what an acceptable level of being locked down is?

the light switches that you are talking about were never intended to be general purpose devices, and arguably are not. but it's impossible to create a remote control switch and then make it impossible for it to be abused.

If you want a disclaimer on products that they may be used for something else and the manufacturer bears now responsibility for the product being abused, all that you will achieve is the addition of one more paragraph of fine print in the product documentation (and are you really sure there isn't such a statement in the product documentation now?)

this is like the California Law that requires that all buildings that contain potential Cancer causing chemicals to have a sign on the doors stating "this building contains chemicals known to cause cancer", every building I have seen contains such a statement, so it's completely worthless

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 22:33 UTC (Sun) by ibukanov (subscriber, #3942) [Link]

> how do you define what an acceptable level of being locked down is?

I do not want to define any such level. But I do want the manufacturer to bear the full responsibility if the device can be hacked remotely and used beyond its stated area of operation. The manufacturer should not be able to waive that responsibility using a trick like of calling a device a general purpose computer that happened to be able to turn life on/off if such devices is marketed as a specialized device.

> (and are you really sure there isn't such a statement in the product documentation now?)

Not in a wireless light switches that are sold here in Norway.

> the California Law that requires that all buildings that contain potential Cancer causing chemicals to have a sign on the doors stating

Those laws are useless indeed. What may work is a law that states that if a building uses materials that have not been on the marked for, say, 50 years, then the builder should be responsible for any health-related problems that they may have caused.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 22:31 UTC (Sat) by drag (subscriber, #31333) [Link]

> But those laws would be unenforceable from the day one and would just fail the same way the Prohibition failed.

No.

I think that such laws would actually be very successful. The same way that the war on drugs is very successful.

The problem here is one of perception. If a person assumes that the the purpose of the war on drugs was to actually stop people from using drugs, then it's a failure.

However if you take the approach that the purpose of the war on drugs is to; erode civil liberties, vastly increase the size and scope of law enforcement, create numerous lucrative opportunities to profit from political corruption, create new and very profitable multi-billion dollar industries funded by involuntary payments from the general public, oppress and restrict minorities, exert political control and pressure on other countries in North and South America, create funding sources for CIA operations abroad, and create new subclass of American citizens without the ability to vote or carry firearms (among other things).... then the war on drugs is incredibly successful on all counts!

Beyond a doubt, then, the 'war on drugs' is one of the most successful government policies in the late 20th century.

Just like the 'war on terrorism' is shaping up to be one of the most successful government policies of the 21st.

The reality is that the true purpose of government laws governing the internet, like SOPA, is that they want to be able to control and monitor then ability for citizens to communicate with one another and control wide-spectrum political speech. Just like how they are able to control it on television and radio.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Dec 31, 2011 22:48 UTC (Sat) by raven667 (subscriber, #5198) [Link]

Wow, that sounds like a lot of mustache twirling. Aside from the lobbying from the prison industry to drive more business, I would call the rest of your points unintended consequences. Of course where these consequences benefit someone they are not likely to work very hard fixing them and the citizenry who is most affected by the negative consequences is not organized enough to fix it. Just because someone figures out how to benefit doesn't mean they caused the conditions.

UN-intended?

Posted Jan 1, 2012 12:38 UTC (Sun) by gvy (guest, #11981) [Link]

> I would call the rest of your points unintended consequences.

You might feel like skimming over Zion's Elders' Protocols (yeah, conspiracy and all that) to have a better guess at "unintended" -- e.g., No. 17 is directly concerning this thread.

It's been hastily and then thoroughly disclaimed but the fact is that the text was either written by a genius foreseer -- or was actually an overheard genuine plan. I'm yet to see another workable explanation for the observed correlation being a honest scientist.

Still, care for FEMA camps -- the folks unhappy with general purpose computations and communications are unhappy with conscious general public in the first place. It is not the devices who decide but humans.

UN-intended?

Posted Jan 1, 2012 19:23 UTC (Sun) by Corkscrew (guest, #65853) [Link]

Dude, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are a pastiche of every penny-dreadful villain in existence at the time they were forged.

The author did not need to be a "genius foreseer"; he just needed to write a list of everything that could go wrong with a country and then find a way of blaming a hated ethnic minority for it (or simply imply that a link existed - e.g. #17 does not actually give any implementation details). The reason it sounds convincing is a little thing called "confirmation bias": basically, if you throw out enough statements, people will only remember the "hits" and forget the "misses". This is one trick TV psychics use to dupe their audiences.

You might as well look at the recent pace of technological progress and blame Syndrome from The Incredibles.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 17:09 UTC (Sun) by drag (subscriber, #31333) [Link]

>Wow, that sounds like a lot of mustache twirling.

Maybe. But facts are facts.

> Aside from the lobbying from the prison industry to drive more business, I would call the rest of your points unintended consequences.

Whether or not they are unattended consequences is a exercise for academics and historians. But don't fool yourself, they are the consequences and that is what matters. We can't judge laws by what they intended to do, but only what they actually accomplish.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 3, 2012 14:20 UTC (Tue) by Nelson (subscriber, #21712) [Link]

We can't judge laws by what they intended to do, but only what they actually accomplish.

Actually, you have to judge the intent too. How else do we make better laws in the future? Or are you simply jumping to your logical conclusion by ignoring the intent and that legislation just doesn't work, period, and cannot work. (Maybe it's not your position but there are some anarchists and certain civil lib types that do feel that laws cannot work beyond maybe natural law)

That's part of what we want judges to do, interpret the laws. There are bad laws and good laws. There are unintended consequences and then there are intentional loop holes.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 2:43 UTC (Sun) by ibukanov (subscriber, #3942) [Link]

> The same way that the war on drugs is very successful.

I suspect that the reason that the war on drugs has not failed yet is that the drugs it supposes to fight are not as widespread as alcohol consumption. With the Prohibition the scale of law violation was much bigger. So I would give SOPA max 10 years or so before the tech industry in US finds it such a pain so it would bye the politicians to abolish it.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 17:34 UTC (Sun) by drag (subscriber, #31333) [Link]

> I suspect that the reason that the war on drugs has not failed yet is that the drugs it supposes to fight are not as widespread as alcohol consumption.

You are probably wrong about that. Most people have no idea how vast illicit drug sales are on a world wide business.

Right now it's _VERY_ safe to say that the international drug trade dwarfs the international trade in steel and textiles.

> So I would give SOPA max 10 years or so before the tech industry in US finds it such a pain so it would bye the politicians to abolish it.

No. This will likely not happen. The only hope we have is that we can apply political pressure right now to prevent SOPA from passing. The way the system is setup is that it's nearly impossible to get rid of laws once they are passed.

One thing you have to keep in mind is that law enforcement for these things is not like email filtering rules or something like that. There is no blanket application of the rules that affects all people and all situations. Laws are very selectively applied and this is done by design. The government would not be able to function properly without it. So you cannot depend on financial damage to internet industries to provide pressure to eliminate the law. The law will be selectively applied in order to avoid this fallout.

This is very common in financial laws. Every time a economic crisis comes along the politicians tend to pass a lot of laws and rules in order to appear that they have the ability to control the situation in some manner. These laws require bureaucratic upkeep... departments need to be financed to check compliance, prosecution and courts need to be financed, etc etc.

So these laws typically have fuses or time limits built into them in the form of budgetary controls. The congress will provide financing for 3 or 5 years and then after that they will need to pass another bill to pay for the enforcement. If at the end of that time period the uproar has died down then congress will just not pass a new bill and the enforcement of the law will die off.

This is VERY common. This is typically how it has worked for about 70 or 80 years now.

In the case of SOPA it will exist as a 'Sword of Damocles' hanging above the head of anybody that runs a popular blog, tries to engage in serious political debate, or engages in competition with a politically connected media corporation.

On the face of it the law is lubricious. The idea that somebody posting in the comments or forums on a website could post a link to a video and have that website shutdown based on a simple accusation is insane. It seems like it's unmanageable and poorly designed.

But the goal of the law is not to punish websites for having stupid users that violate the terms of the website.. it's just a tool that can be used to apply pressure to organizations that want to 'rock the boat'.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 3, 2012 7:37 UTC (Tue) by ekj (guest, #1524) [Link]

Furthermore, selective application moves power from those who in principle should decide law (elected politicians) to others (lobby-groups, private investigators, police-officials).

And that is a major danger of "everyone is guilty but few are prosecuted" type laws. They give those with the power to decide who to investigate enormous power. Afterall, if everyone is guilty, this means the power to decide who is investigated is, essentially, the power to select who is punished.

Copyright law is probably the most grave example currently. I would guess that 80%+ of people in the 15-35 age-bracket are guilty of violating it during the last year, especially in those jurisdictions where there's not even an exemption for copying for private use. Yet a miniscule fraction of these people are ever prosecuted.

The ones who decide who is investigated, can thus more or less choose to point at any random young person, and have excellent odds of ruining that persons life, if they so choose. And that's not a good situation.

It would actually be an advantage if *all* (or atleast a substantial fraction) of copyright-infringement where prosecuted: this would make the craziness visible, and I suspect the end-result would be an adjustment to make the law itself substantially more sane.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 1, 2012 3:08 UTC (Sun) by JoeBuck (guest, #2330) [Link]

"I think that is overreaction to a political development in US."

If only it were so. Doctorow is a Canadian, and his talk gives many examples of horrible Canadian and European laws, as well as international treaties.

It's disappointing how many folks outside the US think that the copyright wars, and the broader wars on computation, are solely an American problem.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 5, 2012 22:43 UTC (Thu) by jmorris42 (guest, #2203) [Link]

> But those laws would be unenforceable from the day one and would just fail the same way the Prohibition failed.

Not at all. It could be done. Imagine a requirement that all computers be 'Trusted' environments and that only duly licensed 'Software Engineers' could be permitted access to the signing keys to create software that runs on bare metal. Mere mortals could still be allowed javascript and little VB things in spreadsheets so long as the sandbox didn't allow any interesting things to be done.

Would that work? No in the sense that there are billions of unsecured processors in existance and a lot of C compilers. Yes in the sense that once the Internet would only allow trusted devices to connect those legacy computers would be all but useless. Yes in the sense that while few schools still teach programming to kids now, in that world none would. Yes in the sense that while they probably couldn't outright ban sale or possession of the K&R book to unlicensed programmers, few booksellers would stock it so good luck getting a copy. Worse is that in a generation almost nobody would WANT to obtain a copy because they wouldn't even know why they would want to.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 5, 2012 23:24 UTC (Thu) by ibukanov (subscriber, #3942) [Link]

> No in the sense that there are billions of unsecured processors in existance and a lot of C compilers.

So far the tendency was to get less secure systems, not more. So I am rather "optimistic" that in future there would be more devices that could be hacked and turned into general purpose computers, not less.

> Yes in the sense that while few schools still teach programming to kids now, in that world none would.

Among people I know the best programmers are those who learned programming on their own when they were kids sometime even despite pressure from the parents. Like writing a program on a paper under the blanket with a flash light at night. And if programming would be prohibited for general public, it would give even more reasons for kids to try.

So these days I do not worry that much about SOPA and other stupid and harmful laws that are written by a particular lobby. What really upsets me is that the lawmakers have the power to force such laws on everybody else. I.e. big government and big corporations eroded the free society even in US...

What makes you so optimistic?

Posted Jan 6, 2012 0:24 UTC (Fri) by khim (subscriber, #9252) [Link]

So far the tendency was to get less secure systems, not more.

Not where people are serious about "trusted computing". 15 years ago game consoles protection was circumvented easily and loophole closure was basically impossible without hardware reissue. 10 years ago you needed to periodically update your modchip - but these problems surfaced rarely and you basically had months of "easy" life separated by weeks of "problematic time" where latest and greatest games were uncopyable. Today on PS3 it's more like weeks if "easy" life (where you can play all available titles) and months-long "problematic times". And network play is basically impossible with pirated software on both XBox360 and PS3!

So it's quite possible to create working "trusted computing" scenario for network-attached computers... and if you'll not be able to physically attach "untrusted" computers to network... nightmare scenario described above is more real then you think..

What makes you so optimistic?

Posted Jan 6, 2012 2:16 UTC (Fri) by ibukanov (subscriber, #3942) [Link]

The trusted computing just shifts the attack focus. Sony could not keep access to PS3 account information secured. I suppose it is only a matter of time when somebody manages either to get access to their master private keys or to replace the firmwire update with a custom code on their central servers.

Besides, there are devices where the business model is not based on selling locked hardware cheaply and provide expensive software. In those cases there is little incentives to keep the hardware secure.

This is where government steps in...

Posted Jan 6, 2012 8:24 UTC (Fri) by khim (subscriber, #9252) [Link]

I suppose it is only a matter of time when somebody manages either to get access to their master private keys or to replace the firmwire update with a custom code on their central servers.

This already happened. SONY promptly sued GeoHot and others and now we are back on square one.

Number of people who can crack "trusted computing" is small, but yes, they do exist. If it's just "some company vs everyone" contest then it does not matter: you only need to crack protection once. If law is on your side then you can remove these people from the population (one way or another: physical removal is the last resort, obviously) and then "trusted computing" works.

Besides, there are devices where the business model is not based on selling locked hardware cheaply and provide expensive software. In those cases there is little incentives to keep the hardware secure.

Again: government can easily change the rules and make these devices unprofitable.

"Trusted computing" in a free world can not work - it violates the basic principle: you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time, but government intervention can make it work. And we are talking about laws here, so...

This is where government steps in...

Posted Jan 6, 2012 8:57 UTC (Fri) by ibukanov (subscriber, #3942) [Link]

> Again: government can easily change the rules and make these devices unprofitable.

This nicely allow to repeat my opinion: the Prohibition tried to make selling alcohol unprofitable. It did not work and was reversed. I assume the same will eventually happens with SOPA as the amount of black market for devices that allows unrestricted access to cheap entertainment would be even bigger than the black market for alcohol. Especially given that compared with alcohol people would not see or feel the bad effects of using those devices.

Nope. There are huge difference.

Posted Jan 6, 2012 13:54 UTC (Fri) by khim (subscriber, #9252) [Link]

This nicely allow to repeat my opinion: the Prohibition tried to make selling alcohol unprofitable.

Nope. Prohibition tried something entirely different: it tried to ban it. Alcohol excises are nothing new and they work adequately well - as long as they are not too onerous.

Because Prohibition affected millions it was hopeless.

I assume the same will eventually happens with SOPA as the amount of black market for devices that allows unrestricted access to cheap entertainment would be even bigger than the black market for alcohol.

Oh, SOPA is, of course, fail. This is not a problem. As long as you can watch your illegally gotten entertainment on legally bought hardware it's hopeless.

But the next logical step will be to forbid use of any hardware which is not "trusted". And this may work: most people can not do anything about it and you only need to prosecute few oddballs who can actually crack the protection.

Especially given that compared with alcohol people would not see or feel the bad effects of using those devices.

Sure, but that'll only happen if they will actively seek these devices. Thus yes, you'll need not just a stick but a carrot, too: if you can access enough entertainment legally for adequate price then few people will bother with underground. And then you can start rising prices and watch for the reaction: if people tolerate current prices you can continue to raise them, if too many of them seek illegal devices, then you need increase penalties and if way, way, way too many seek illegal devices then it's time to reduce prices somewhat somewhat.

Remember: it's all about money. There are no need to stop all infringers - only enough of them to guarantee that majority of population will pay "fair" (i.e. outrageous) prices. Salt patents show that you can raise prices pretty significantly before the whole scheme will break apart.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 11, 2012 13:24 UTC (Wed) by nix (subscriber, #2304) [Link]

and would just fail the same way the Prohibition failed
You mean they'd cause massive damage to ordinary people and create an entire new criminal underclass that would go on to cause trouble for over half a century?

Yeah, no trouble at all.

The Only Answer

Posted Jan 3, 2012 5:41 UTC (Tue) by ldo (guest, #40946) [Link]

There’s only one way to answer a request to build rootkits, malware, or any such surveillance or restriction systems for unsuspecting customers to run on their own property that they have bought and paid for: as Patrick McGoohan’s character once said in The Prisoner, “You must not ask me that”.

It’s not just that the answer is “no”, it must become seen as an intellectual and moral faux pas just to ask the question in the first place.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 3, 2012 14:06 UTC (Tue) by etienne (guest, #25256) [Link]

Everybody seems to think that we do have, right now, a general purpose computer.
Excuse me to state the obvious, but the nearest thing we have is a computer which is designed to run a commercial operating system, controlled by a single company.
There is no tool to measure how compatible is a PC, so you cannot know before buying if it will even boot Linux or *BSD (1).
There is no documentation of all the basic functions at the hardware level, so you cannot really guaranty a software will work (2).
There is no documentation of all the basic functions at the software level, after BIOS/EFI and SMM have taken their toll.
Some major compoments are evolving (IDE -> AHCI, video mode supported to display a character, USB keyboard/mouse), and some implementation are not fully backward compatible so we can less and less rely on backward compatibility to use them.
Basically previous problems do not matter because the PC is designed to run a single operating system. That operating system is not designed for security but ease of use, so security by obscurity is implemented at lower levels (SMM, BIOS, re-flashing the BIOS/EFI...) - you cannot really hope to implement a secure system on top.

Maybe I am too grumpy at the beginning of the year... I just made a wish to get a clear description of what a PC is, by an independant company, so that I can buy my next PC which will have a "Fully Compatible v1.0" sticker (everything documented).

1) We had a fairly documented BIOS interface, but this one is being phased-out, is less and less implemented and more and more buggy with newer PC. Not every new PC has the newer interface (EFI) so we cannot rely on it neither. Anyway the PC boots the commercial operating system (the only test done, test pass even if some driver spend 90% CPU in their interrupt-lost/recovery procedure) so the PC is sold widely.

2) For instance try to find a working interface to power-down a PC from real mode... APM is phased out, I/O port differ widely.

Doctorow: The coming war on general-purpose computation

Posted Jan 13, 2012 21:43 UTC (Fri) by Baylink (guest, #755) [Link]

Concerning 'bio-printers', three words:

"Script kiddies."

"Ebola."


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