How the net turns code into politics

by Bill Thompson, BBC

The launch of Windows Vista last week was accompanied by widespread criticism from advocates of open systems, open networks and the free flow of information.

Particular attention was lavished on the digital rights management (DRM) features of the new operating system, the tools that determine whether you can play or copy video or audio on your computer.

Vista's DRM even aroused the wrath of the Green Party, which condemned it for requiring "more expensive and energy-hungry hardware".

It claimed that "there will be thousands of tonnes of dumped monitors, video cards and whole computers that are perfectly capable of running Vista - except for the fact they lack the paranoid lock down mechanisms Vista forces you to use".

Perhaps, though I can't really see home users dumping their existing hardware earlier than planned just so they can download high-definition TV shows and pump them through to their new HD television - they will just get a dedicated HD player instead.

Protect and survive

But the emergence of Vista and the protection measures it affords to certain forms of content gives us a glimpse of a new world, one we are entering almost without noticing. It is the world of protected content and the secured network.

The internet that we know today is changing, turning from an open, enabling and profoundly public space into a communications system which can be regulated, controlled, monitored and - where necessary - curtailed.

A regulated internet does not have to be a closed internet, but the trend is clearly towards increased control and the loss of the freedoms which the net has provided thus far. We must understand how this is happening before we can find ways to resist it.

Today's internet has a technical architecture which expresses certain liberal values, largely concerned with fair access to the net's resources, lack of centralised control, support for freedom of speech, openness to innovation, and resistance to monopoly - either cultural, economic or technological.

These values are implicit in the way that it links computers and networks together and moves data around, because they are a consequence of the way that every computer on the net communicates with other computers.

They are embedded in the network's protocols, the standards which determine how connections are made and how data is moved.

Free flow

One important consequence of this is that anyone can write an application that uses the internet to create a communications channel between any two co-operating computers, and the network has no reliable way of knowing what the data being transmitted means or how it is being used.

This makes censorship, monitoring and control remarkably difficult. They are not impossible, but the network tends towards liberal values just as a flower turns toward the sun.

The idea that the network just moves bits around and does not concern itself with the meaning of the data is generally called the end-to-end principle.

Unlike a political ideology, the end-to-end principle is not an abstract philosophical point but a statement of the technical capabilities of the network.

It tells us what facilities are available to those who write programs that use the network, and is therefore a much stronger determinant of behaviour than a belief in social justice, free markets or even a god.

Just because the protocols embody liberal values does not guarantee that the network itself will be a force for social good.

The freedom that the network offers is available to all, even those who pursue an illiberal agenda, and programs like a web browser or an e-mail client do not have to embody the values that underpin the network as a communications medium.

It is as easy to write the CyberPatrol internet filtering program as it is to write the BitTorrent peer-to-peer file sharer.

Control panel

It is also as easy for an oppressive, illiberal and authoritarian government to make use of the network as it is for a liberal social democratic administration, as we see in China, Singapore and Saudi Arabia.

Yet now governments and corporations around the world are making a concerted effort to dismantle the open internet and replace it with a regulated and regulable one that will allow them to impose an "architecture of control".

The freedom of expression that was once available to users of the Internet Protocol is being stripped away. Our freedom to play,
experiment, share and seek inspiration from the creative works of others is increasingly restricted so that large companies can lock our culture down for their own profit.

If a closed network is built then the losers will be those who want to use the net freely, to share information across borders, to explore ideas or challenge institutions.

With no space for resistance or revolution, the shared social space provided by today's internet could vanish, and the potential for play, exploration, discovery and innovation may vanish with it.

Microsoft's Vista will be used in millions of homes, and people will find it simpler, easier, safer and more stable than previous versions of Windows.

They will appreciate the effort that went into developing the "Aero" user interface, the new security features that protect them more effectively from spam and viruses, and the way lots of things just work, like the improved wireless networking.

They will rarely notice the limitations, because they are not the sort of people who download films from the net or try to make copies of their DVDs.

But the day will come when they do notice. It is not that the features built into Windows are evil, as some of the more hyperbolic bloggers claim, nor even that they are unnecessary.

It is that they change the way our computers work and the way they relate to the network, and those changes could be used to take away our freedoms.

Thanks to the internet we are seeing an unprecedented shift of power from the centre to the people, a shift that we observe in the media, in politics and in the way large companies respond to their customers.

We need to ensure that the freedoms we currently enjoy online are preserved as the network evolves, or this shift could easily end up as minor historical footnote.

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The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey