Piracy, Privacy, and Big Brother

As an initial aside: Linux betas really are betas, nothing like the relatively polished (in comparison) betas that Redmond released.

Piracy or ‘Avast Me Mateys!’

I don’t spend a lot of time talking about software or music piracy, largely because I think that there are alternate sources that more effectively aggregate and deliver news about it. That said, I couldn’t resist commenting on Jennifer Pariser’s (head of litigation for Sony BMG) statements surrounding digital technologies. When under oath, Pariser responded to Richard Gabriel’s (the lead counsel for record labels) question of whether it was wrong for consumers to make copies of music they have purchased, stating,

When an individual makes a copy of a song for himself, I suppose we can say he stole a song.” Making “a copy” of a purchased song is just “a nice way of saying ‘steals just one copy’ (source).

Her comments directly point to why fair use is under such duress. More importantly, however, even when we apply the principle of charity to her general position, her comments seem to defy the public’s position on the matter. I don’t want to suggest that because people generally believe something that the law should reflect their beliefs – if that was the case then racial segregation would be more prominent than it is – but that when extensive public discourse has been undertaken and a common position is held by the deliberative participants, that their shared consensus should operate as the basis for developing legitimated law. I think that this discourse has, and continues to, occur in North America.

While there are some consumers that rabidly resist the notion of ‘paying the man’, I think that most are willing to pay a price that is in close relation to a product’s value. It’s possible that the decreased desire to pay for music has to do with its perceived value – not simply financial, but cultural, as well. The 50s-70s saw music that literally influenced the shape of the world; is this still the case with contemporary music? If it was perhaps more true, would people be willing to pay for the music they were interested in? Perhaps more to the heart of Pariser’s comments, should culture be relatively accessible without being unfair to the production teams that provide the mechanics that facilitate cultural development, or should musical culture be entirely privatized, kept away from the members of the public who lack sufficient market agency?

Privacy, eh? Let’s Talk Price…

Let’s say you’re applying for a job. Moreover, let’s say that you don’t think your boss and the rest of the world should be able to gather a quick digital profile on you – you think that your constitutional right to privacy should be recognized, even if it means that you have to do something to substantively realize that right. In light of your strong views, you look to the private sector companies that will work to keep you from the public eye as much as is possible.

These kinds of ‘privacy services’ exist, but what’s interesting is that even though people are ‘concerned’ about their privacy they’re generally unwilling to pay a private body to protect their privacy. I want to briefly suggest a few reasons why this might be the case:

  1. Implicitly, citizens feel as though they shouldn’t have to pay a private company to perform an action that allows citizens to substantively realize their rights to privacy. It’s the role of government, not corporate America, to protect people’s rights.
  2. Without apparent and persistent threats to their privacy people are unwilling to take out the equivalent of privacy insurance plans. If breeches are taken to include the unwanted and unwarranted collection of personal information to develop digital dossiers, then individuals experience dozens of breeches every day without ever being made aware of them – secrecy is central in preserving the value of these databases. Thus, their unwillingness to adopt these services is because they don’t realize the value of adopting them
  3. People just don’t know about these services.

Those are the first reasons that hop into my head – feel free to add others.

Orwell, aka The United Kingdom

Given the genuine possibilities/likelihoods of having one’s personal information disclosed to others, it has become a (relatively) common practise to encrypt personal communications. As the practise of data encryption has become more commonly known about and used, government bodies have experienced difficulties when trying to extract particular information about individuals without the individuals becoming aware of the surveillance – in the case of terrorists especially it is important that the surveillance be secretive.

In light of these difficulties, the UK recently saw laws imposed that made it illegal to refuse to provide authorities with the keys to encrypted data. It is important to note that this law only affects data that is held on UK servers, and does not pertain to encrypted data that transmitted “on the Internet via the UK” and cannot be used to coerce foreign citizens to decrypt their communications under the auspice of jail time.

The fact that the data would be decrypted is not the real source of the problem – what is a problem is the power of the UK government to gain access to keys that are (potentially) involved in global telecommunications. Consider this: if you’re a banker in London, and your bank is a transnational body that uses the same underlying encryption system, this would allow the UK government access to the entirety of the bank’s communications and records. That’s genuinely a frightening issue. Whereas historically having to relinquish an analogue (i.e. physical) key required the authorities to arrive at each locked door to open it, in today’s digital era authorities can access the entirety of a corporate or private database without an agent ever leaving their chair.

Because of the global expansiveness of modern corporations and (oftentimes) private databases, this law highlights one of the challenges to nation-states in asserting their laws and expecting that they will remain constrained to the nation-state. Without developing some kind of a federated or supranational body, it is questionable whether nation-states will be able to continue the practise of legislating laws that affect constituents in other areas of the world, regardless of whether they consent to the imposition or not. The EU was born out of the need to develop a relatively harmonized capital and juridical block capable of meeting the advances of capitalism and intensification of globalization – one has to wonder if it will be enough.