We live in an era of digital abundance, an era where we can genuinely rethink the underlying economics of information creation and dissemination as the cost of creation, storage, and dissemination infrastructures approach zero. Against fears that this threatens to ‘undermine’ content production we see the rise in the quantity of content that is produced and, correspondingly, a rise in novel approaches to profit from the generation of that content in an abundant bitscape. We should resist efforts to undermine abundance through Digital Rights Management protocols.
As reported by Ars Technica, the IEEE is developing a novel kind of DRM that would see ‘content’ folders encrypted and only accessible after individuals used decryption keys to access that content. For rights holders and some content producers, this is seen as having the merit of securing their ‘goods’ by attempting the replicate the scarcity of atoms in the bitscape. Consumers would ‘benefit’ because they would not longer have to deal with onerous licensing terms: they would own the keys and the keys would have value because of their capacity to ‘open’ content streams. Of course, this would also introduce the pain in the ass of key management, something that few consumers are likely to want to suffer through any more than the already existing consumer ‘protection’ measures they regularly encounter.
The IEEE’s motivations behind this DRM system are to remedy problems caused by non-rivalrous digital content. Paul Sweazey has stated that;
…a truly non-rivalrous system makes commerce too difficult, even impossible, and that we need to create ways for the digital world to mirror the constraints of the physical one.
The creation of this rivalrous system is seen as a ‘middle road’ between advocates of abundance and total DRM lockdown. I would suggest that what we’re really seeing is just another attempt to undermine (arguably) the most significant quality of the bitscape, which is the capacity to replicate information across networks spanning the globe without diminishing the ‘holdings’ of whomever held the original copy. Moreover, it demonstrates a continued unwillingness and/or inability to experiment with novel business models that, while perhaps reducing overall revenue compared to past years/decades, will enable companies to continue delivering profits in the long-term. Value continues to be perceived as existing in the sales of digital things, and instead of seeking out novel ways to extract derivative value from their ubiquitous existence resulting from widespread copying there is an attempt to totally monetize all copies. This is in defiance of demonstrably successful freemium strategies, as well as other related schemes that work to gain widespread brand awareness and capitalize off the sale of rivalrous goods to a small percentage of users.
I have incredible doubts that any key system will remain secure over the long-haul (and, by long-haul, I mean just 10-20 days of the system being deployed). There are just too many parties that will do everything in their power to break the encryption and key management system, and history has proven that the attackers tend to far outstrip the defenders in the field of content protection algorithms. Central is that technological security systems tend to be incredibly brittle, fail poorly, and enable modes of attack that relatively ineffective against human-based security. Schneier, in his 2006 book Beyond Fear, notes that;
Technology gives attackers leverage because they can do more in an attack. Class breaks give attackers leverage because they can exploit one vulnerability to attack every system within a class. Automation gives attackers leverage because they can exploit vulnerabilities a million times.. Technique propagation gives attackers leverage because now they can try more attacks, including ones they can’t even understand. Action at a distance and aggregation also give attackers leverage because now there are many more potential targets (p. 99).
A DRM scheme that aims to use encryption keys to establish digital bits as rivalrous will fall prey to each of the items noted in that quotation.
Making customers screw around with encryption keys, have adequate key management systems, always requiring connections to the ‘net to access keys, or any other ways that engineers imagine customers dealing with key management is almost destined to fail. Engineers are, in this case, trying to stuff the genie back in a bottle instead of working with progressive MBAs and innovators who are trying to create (and often, though certainly not always, succeeding) novel business models that leverage add-on services, scarce extras, and other things that are genuinely exclusive to monetize digital distribution systems. Focusing on protection, in this case, is the dead wrong way to to and highly unlikely to do much other than waste a lot of people’s time that could otherwise be productively exercised.