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Welcome to the Dark Ages

If you thought that the digital age was going to make information more accessible to more people than ever before, you can think again. Thanks to extensive lobbying by businesses that rely on copyright, and a series of overstated digital privacy scares, we may well be going into a digital dark age.

The Dark Ages were so called because we have almost no information about what happened during them. This was not because very little ever happened, but because no records survived to tell us what did happen. Since the dark ages, some of the most important technological advancements have been those that gave more people better access to information, which have become the foundations of surges in literacy and knowledge.

The great promise of the digital age was not new places to do your shopping, but new methods of creating, modifying, storing and distributing information. With the Internet came new threats to regimes that repress the flow of information, and amazing new opportunities for people to come together and share information. Nowhere has this been more important than in the former Yugoslavia, where the Internet provided a means for large amounts of evidence to come out of the region during its struggles, and for groups throughout the region to co-ordinate efforts at rebuilding their countries.

At a time when literacy is decreasing in the UK, and in many other developed countries, you would think our governments would be rushing to provide increased access to books, web sites and other written works. Not so. With the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD), we will witness the creation of a framework that will open the doors to the tightest controls on information in the world, and these controls won't be regulated and owned by governments, but by corporations.

The EUCD has been floating around in draft form since 1994, and is meant to be an extension of the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) treaty signed in 1996, harmonising copyright law across Europe to strengthen it in response to the rise of digital media. It is also supposed to harness technology to protect copyrighted works with a technique called Digital Rights Managament (DRM), which essentially boils down to digitally signing a work so that it's origin/ownership can always be proved, and optionally encrypting the entire work and only providing the means to then view the work at a price.

What the EUCD does in reality is to replace copyright law with technology. Where copyright law broadly covers and protects the means of distribution, the EUCD covers the methods of use. Where once you were able to buy a book, read it as many times as you like, sell it on second hand to a friend, and share it with a colleague, now publishers will have the ability (and the legal backing) to allow you buy a digital book which you download to your computer, read the book once, and that's it, the book is gone, as is your right to use it. Alternatively you buy a DVD, and get to watch it a certain number of times before you have to renew your license. Sound absurd? This trick with contract law is already being used by software giants like Microsoft to extend copyright law.

The EUCD allows corporations to protect any information they publish with DRM. It then makes it illegal to try to circumvent these controls, and it makes any tool or service designed to circumvent the controls illegal. That might sound like quite a good idea, but in reality it means that Penguin could start publishing digital books with DRM, so your use of the book would be under their control, and any effort you made to circumvent this would be illegal.

This poses problems not only for the public, but for the publishers themselves. The problem with trying to protect information with technology is that it has been shown repeatedly not to work. It only takes one person to crack the protection, and a million people can get a digital copy of the cracked work in days. During DEFCON, a digital security conference held in America last year, a Russian programmer called Dmitry Sklyarov illustrated this by showing how easy it was to circumvent the protection on Adobe's "E-Books". His company then used this information to produce a tool for reading ebooks to the blind. For this service to the public and to Adobe he was arrested and tried by the FBI, under the provision of the DMCA, the American version of the EUCD already part of US law since 1998.

Another high-profile case involving the cracking of DRM is DVDs. Currently they can only be played legally on DVD player units, and computers running Microsoft Windows or Apple MacOS. If you want to watch your DVDs on a different platform, you simply can't, because the makers of DVDs refuse to release the specifications that would allow people to write players. A norwegian programmer duly broke the cryptography, and released his code (called DeCSS) across the Internet, allowing thousands of people to view DVDs they bought legally in the way that they chose. One side benefit of this was that somebody was able to make a few modifications to the system so that disabled people could make the subtitles larger so they could read them.

Disabled access is also an issue with books. Many people can only read one word at a time, and find books extremely difficult or even impossible to read. So one clever person created a computer program that would display books one word at a time, letting some dyslexic people read for the first time in their lives. If the EUCD was in place, and a book they wanted to read was protected with DRM, unless the company went to the trouble of releasing this viewer for them (which would be unprofitable and so a waste of their time), these people wouldn't be able to read.

The problems to the public are horrifying though. Not only will publishers be able to control your exact use of their works, leading to a "pay-per-use" system rather than "pay and use as much as you like" system, but if the publisher goes bust, or the DRM technology they used for a while becomes outdated, the means to view the works under the "protection" of their DRM technologies could completely disappear with the technology. There is no escrow agreement in the EUCD, so twenty years down the line we could simply lose vast amounts of information because of the EUCD.

Librarians and others whose hobby involved collecting large amounts of information have recently been moving much of their information over to open formats, so that the information isn't lost as the formats become outdated. With an open format, even if the creators of the format are long dead, someone can read the specifications and create a new program to view the information. If the information was protected by DRM under the EUCD, they couldn't.

DRM could also be a major blow to the police. Whistleblowers will no longer be able to send documents to the police anonymously, because the documents will be covered in digital signatures saying exactly who and where the document came from. This, ironically, is how it came to light that the Business Software Alliance (BSA) drafted a large part of the EUCD. This also means you can't use undercover agents, because their identity will be all over any documents they use. And academics will lose the ability to work anonymously for research purposes.

Another consequence of the EUCD is that it legitimises several monopoly practices. Corporations have been tying products together for a long time, forcing consumers to buy all or none of their goods. Mobile phones and Microsoft Windows are good examples of this. If a Corporation decides to use DRM to protect their goods, then any attempts to circumvent this become illegal, which has the convenient side effect of forcing you to buy all your new products that work with the original one from the same company, because others won't know how to work with it.

This is a blow to consumers, and a blow to small competitors, throwing one of the main tools of the free market out of the window. We've seen a similar device, in the form of regional import controls on DVDs, console games and other media types, in place for a while now, there simply to get around the fact that these media cost far less in some countries than others. Free market? Hah, nice try, we'll get around that one with the EUCD.

While the EUCD has a resonable basis, it's effect will really be to maximise profits from reasonable use, with the prevention of piracy almost as a side benefit. The legislation is designed so that if you try to circumvent certain technologies for legitimate reasons, such as giving better disabled access, you undermine the entire system, thus putting yourself up against the law of copyright in its entirety.

Whether you agree with copyrights or not, this is disastrous. The legislation is still open to change, but at the moment the draftees simply see it as too much bother even to put in clauses for the disabled. The EUCD won't become law for another 6 months however, so there is time to close the loopholes and put in far more exceptions, so either watch the digital age turn into the second dark age, or find out more about the EUCD and how you can take action at http://www.ukcdr.org.

This article is copyrighted by Tom Chance, 2002, under the GNU Free Documentation License. As such, the article may be reproduced free of charge so long as this notice is preserved and the author, Tom Chance, is notified.

Some links of interest:
The Campaign for Digital Rights pages on the EUCD
[?] The European Electronic Frontier Foundation