Never again to validate one's experience

by Andy Oram

Jillian, hoping that Melinda will confide in her, tells Melinda that
Jillian said nice things about her to Christoph and that Christoph
looked interested. Meanwhile, Jillian tells Christoph that Melinda has
a sexually transmitted disease, because Jillian wants Christoph to get
interested in another friend. If Christoph and Melinda compare notes,
they will discover this odd sort of "man in the middle" attack, but they can't be
absolutely sure what happened unless Jillian made the dumb mistake of writing it all

If content controls come into place on digital media, Jillian can even
write down her lies. Unless Melinda looks over Christoph's shoulder at
his computer screen, they still won't be able to share written

Wouldn't an ill-intentioned bigot find it convenient to put up a Web
site with racist hate speech at the high point of a crisis and then
make it disappear, with no one able to keep a record?

The lyrics to a hip-hop song might change without notice after someone
complains about it. Even neater, the studio could offer a complaint
button, where parents could force the lyrics to change on their
children's system while other people get to hear the original. After
all, what's the value in all the sophistication of modern mixers?

Chairman Mao would have loved copyright content controls. His writings were
edited every few years, but if somebody kept an old Little Red Book they
could find out when the feudal reactionaries turned into the beacons of the

These are all logical outcomes of the trend toward offering
copyrighted material on a limited and subscription basis. PressPlay,
for instance, lets you listen so long as you pay, but not to go back and
check what you listened once the service goes away. Good-bye to the
classic parent/child bonding ritual where the parents play the music
that used to turn them on twenty years before.

Under such conditions, culture loses a layer of its reality. It's harder to
compare what you see and hear to what others see and hear. Researchers
cannot easily point to parts of the transmission and comment on it. A
whole layer of verification and social affirmation disappears.

As we already know, the Internet is weak as an archival medium.
Outside of a few services that try to preserve the
fleeting exchanges, such as Google's sponsorship of the old like DejaNews service, one has little assurance that the posting you saw
today will be there in six months. Many people save a document to hard
disk or print to ensure later access. Content controls may disable
both the archival services and the users' own mechanisms for ensuring
later access.

Up to now, printed and recorded material has long been a major part of
cultural reality. Religious texts have been accepted by many as more
valid than the sights and sounds around them. You cannot imagine the
revolutionary American Colonies without Tom Paine's Common Sense. And
the central role played by culture in our consciousness extends even
to what appears to be trashy commercialism, like television ads and
grade B movies.

The danger is that entertainment will continue to affect people's
opinions and feelings, but that copyright owners will exempt it from
the activities of comparison and analysis that let people evaluate its
effects on them. Whether it's a sociology professor explaining the
underlying significance of a movie scene to his students or one friend
simply trying to dissuade another from taking away a negative message
from what he sees, we will lose the continuity of our cultural

(Full dislaimer dept.: I myself made two minor edits to this weblog since I first posted it. The intent was to clarify fuzzy sentences, not to change their meanings. But it shows what the medium is capable of!)

Will we lose something important to culture if content controls become widespread?


2002-01-09 14:54:44

The language is a bit clunky, but the core idea in your article is absolutely brilliant.

I believe the word you're looking for is "history". Our history depends on the records we leave behind. If a record of something cannot be produced, then you have no proof it *ever* existed.

This is the fundamental danger of a copy-controlled Internet. Information on the Web disappears as rapidly as it appears nowadays, leaving behind no trace. Search engines will sometimes manage to archive a page before this happens, but there exists no effective means to track and save all the relevant information that's out there.

With content controls, the only person/group who has permission to archive anything is the content distributor. Apply that kind of control to the news, and you essentially have the power to *rewrite history*.

This has always been the case of course -- but far more difficult to pull off with physical media, where you have literally thousands or millions of pieces of proof that something was once published. With controlled electronic media, the situation is reversed -- you can only look to the server for proof that something was once published, and only if the person/group controlling that server is stupid enough to leave it up.

(This deliberately leaves out things like Web caches and such -- because it is clear that Microsoft and others are planning ways to make content caches inaccessible to the casual user. See Microsoft's "SecurePC" patent for an example:

This is the grand irony of the Internet -- a medium which allows for redundant ways to *distribute* information, but not to *archive* it. (Whereas all physical media is basically the opposite.)

This is a power that CANNOT be left in the hands of a self-interested few. We've already seen Bill Gates try to rewrite the history of open-source (which is, ironically enough, linked here: The amount of information published to Web sites daily is staggering enough that no one can possibly keep a handle on it all -- let more be able to tell when a subtle edit is made on-the-fly.

Worse, many independent Web sites have simply vanished from the face of the earth due to lack of funding -- taking all their content with them. The irony of the Web is that, as a site becomes more popular, gains more hits, and expends more outgoing bandwidth, it becomes FAR more expensive to maintain. This means that the more popular a Web site becomes, the more likely it is to run out of money and shut down. Even assuming that people wouldn't flood a Web site with hits to put it out of business, most individuals simply don't have the money to deal with thousands of hits a day. The only group that does are corporations -- specifically, media corporations, who as of late have been little more than propaganda machines for the war effort.

This concept of content-controlled history has ALREADY come into play in the world of video games. By limiting the ability to copy a game for backup purposes, you limit the number of usable copies in circulation -- which naturally decrease as time passes by. This is one of the big reasons the arcade emulator movement exists -- there aren't a whole lot of functional arcade boards left, and without emulation and ROM backups, there is no way to *publically* preserve the code for future generations to enjoy.

Content providers, of course, have long argued that only they should have the right to re-release old content -- and in whatever form they see fit. Ironically, many of these companies have had to resort to emulation to do it -- with mixed results. Even worse are the "modern" remakes of classic titles, which have little-to-nothing in common with the originals (Hasbro/Infogrames are the worst offenders).

Copyright control has always boiled down to control of the fundamental elements of popular culture -- but now with the transition from physical to electronic media, it threatens to explode into far more dangerous territory. And let's face it -- in the electronic world, code *IS* law. The implications of being able to control and rewrite vital information on the fly are mind-boggling -- and threaten to change the very nature of history, communication, and society as we know it.