Cory Doctorow's "Information Doesn't Want To Be Free" presents his most dystopian sci-fi yet and it's nonfiction

City Paper

In his new book “Information Doesn’t Want to be Free: Laws for the Internet Age,” Cory Doctorow writes that “science fiction writers are terrible at predicting the future.” But, this book, which he will be discussing at Red Emma’s on Nov. 21, shows that Doctorow, primarily known for his science fiction, might be the perfect person to parse our deeply dystopian present—because he shows us that it is not really fucked up in the ways we suspect, but in far more nefarious and disturbing ways. I left the book looking leerily at the device on which I type this, feeling that we really don’t understand how our machines work at all. 

We know, for instance, that the NSA has managed to turn our devices against us in such a way that they “make the dreams of the Stasi seem like amateurish crayon drawings,” as Doctorow puts it, but most of us are unaware of the extent to which the entertainment industry has infiltrated our computers and networks in order to protect its profits. “Give us the power to surveil and censor, the power to control all your devices, the right to remake general-purpose networks and devices as tools of control and spying, or we will die,” is how Doctorow summarizes the demands of the entertainment industry and tech giants.

In the context of this review, that may seem like hyperbole (and Doctorow can occasionally lay on the rhetoric a bit thickly), but, by the time we reach this sentence, Doctorow has spent 150-odd pages showing precisely how this works. Whether it be regional codes or locks that don’t allow DVD players to skip anti-piracy warnings or digital locks that keep your iPhone from running non-Apple software or Amazon’s ability to erase books from customers’ Kindles, the middlemen in the entertainment industry have insisted that your devices disobey you. Doctorow goes on at length to show that these digital locks use the same technology as spyware. “In 2005, Sony BMG shipped six million audio CDs loaded with a secret rootkit that covertly installed itself when you inserted one of those CDs into your computer. Once your computer had been compromised, any file that began with ‘$sys$’ was invisible to the operating system . . . The Sony rootkit was used to cloak a program that watched for, and then killed, attempts to copy music off of audio CDs.” This, and so many of the other examples Doctorow cites, are used to protect copyright, but this isn’t always how it is used. In this case,  Sony was sneaking a program into your computer that could break it, but others realized that any other kind of malware that began with $sys$ would also be invisible to your machine.

In 2009, a school district in Pennsylvania gave more than 2,000 students laptops loaded with software that “could operate the laptops’ cameras covertly (when the software ran, the cameras’ green activity lights stayed dark,) as well as capture screengrabs and copy files on the computers hard drives. This software was ostensibly in place to allow the district to track down stolen laptops,” Doctorow writes, but in reality, the students were photographed in their bedrooms without their knowledge. And this only came to light when a student was accused of drug use. “He denied the charge, and was presented with a photo taken the night before in his bedroom.”

This may seem like a somewhat aberrant case of what Doctorow terms “adversarial appliances,” but, in fact, it is increasingly common both in practice and in law. These adversarial appliances “require that computers’ workings be kept secret, and digital-lock rules impose civil and criminal penalties on people who discover and publicize their vulnerabilities.” Such legal rules would only be increased by proposed, and hotly contested, laws and treaties such as SOPA and PIPA. As Doctorow puts it: “Imagine a home-security company whose burglar-detection system let them secretly listen in on your private moments at home and watch you through your CCTV cameras. Now, imagine that it was illegal to tell anyone about the way that system worked. That’s the world we’re living in.”

So, all of this is pretty scary stuff. But what about the artists? Isn’t that the point of copyright? To make sure artists get paid for their work? As anyone who is a musician knows (see Conflicts of Interest), artists aren’t getting paid. Many artists blame this on streaming or illegal downloading, but, according to Doctorow, it is the record companies, rather than the kids, who are to blame. “These [streaming] companies hand over gigantic sums of money to the music industry—far more per song than radio stations ever paid—but nearly all of it is retained by the record labels, leading many musicians to accuse the services of ripping them off . . . The problem with streaming isn’t that it doesn’t pay copyright holders. It’s that the labels have stacked the deck so that they are entitled to the lion’s share of money.” Additionally, rather than protecting artists, increasingly strong copyright rules designed to protect the middlemen have made certain types of music impossible to make. As Doctorow points out, Public Enemy’s “It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique”—and indeed most classic hip-hop records—would be impossible to make today. 

One of the books’ weaknesses lies in the fact that Doctorow provides scant few sources for his information, so if you want to really check out these claims, you are forced to go elsewhere. But, on the other hand, it helps the book stay punchy and readable, punctuated with sidebars about related issues. 

The picture gets even bleaker as computers control more and more facets of life—from voting machines where recounts are impossible because they might reveal the proprietary algorithms of DieBold to pacemakers and other medical computers that control not just the body politic but the body itself. 

So what is there to do? From Plato up through Marx, philosopher types are much better at laying out problems than they are determining solutions,  and Doctorow is also a lot better at  addressing what is wrong than detailing how to fix it. Nevertheless, he offers a few clear and simple arguments for fixing the system. First, he wants regulatory agencies to recognize the difference between industries and individuals. “Copyright’s test for industrial activity—are you making or handling a copy?—is no longer a good way to sort entertainment industry transactions from personal, cultural, private activity,” he writes. To consider all copying on the same level made sense when it took an industrial power with a printing press to make a copy of a book, but it doesn’t make sense now, especially in an age where “censorship is inextricably bound up with surveillance.” In other words, controlling information increasingly means controlling people. 

Doctorow argues that we should return copyright to its more-limited origins, in which a copyright was good for a seven-year period, which could be renewed (by the author, not the publisher) for a second seven years  and institute a kind of collective licensing—the kind of blanket-license scheme that is similar to the kind of programs that allows radio stations, bars, and the like to play music. He acknowledges that such a scheme is complicated, but that it is essential because of what is at stake. “We all have a duty to stop arguing about whether the Internet is good or bad for us and our particular corner of the world—a duty to figure out how to make the Internet into a force for helping people work and live together, with the privacy, self-determination, and freedom that are the hallmarks of a just society.” Or, as he says elsewhere, we have a choice between the current version of copyright that favors the industrial middlemen and “a world where more people can create, more audiences can be served, where our devices are honest servants and don’t betray us, where our networks aren’t designed for censorship and surveillance.”

So, what is an artist to do? Doctorow uses biological reproduction as an analogy for creation and copying, claiming that we need to stop thinking like mammals who are deeply invested in every “copy” (offspring) and think more like the dandelion whose “strategy is to maximize the number of blind chances it has for continuing its genetic line—not to carefully plot every germination.” The ease of digital copying, according to Doctorow, requires us to adapt this strategy for our creative products. I can understand this argument—this paper has been free in the yellow boxes on the corner since long before the internet forced newspapers into the debate over paywalls. But, on the other hand, whenever someone wants you to write for free—and thereby lower the wages of all writers—they rely on “exposure,” which is the essence of the dandelion strategy. 

And of course, as Doctorow notes, as always, “whatever kind of arts career you’re hoping for, the odds are against you.” But, whatever the few shortcomings of this book, it does succeed in providing a “look at the pitfalls and opportunities for earning a creative living in the age of the Internet.” 


Cory Doctorow will talk about “Information Doesn’t Want to be Free: Laws for the Internet Age” at Red Emma’s on Friday, Nov. 21, at 7:30 p.m. For more information go to redemmas.org.

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