OrgCon: Cory on the war on general computation

[tldr: Cory Doctorow speech; go to the source instead]
Cory Doctorow thinks the online freedom movement needs to get over the entertainment industry. They just happened to be the first belligerants in a long war”, he says; the big guns are just getting going.

I’m listening to him at the Open Rights Group annual conference, giving a talk he first presented at Berlin’s Chaos Communications Congress last December.

The Coming War on General Computing“, is how he titles it. Military metaphors are omnipresent here. Maybe because this is conference is still a boy’s world. Maybe because of the lingering idea of the “electronic frontier”, virgin territory to be fought over. Or perhaps this is the world seen by a generation of video-gamers, where everybody expects to fight through a series of increasingly-powerful bosses until we finally win.

Cory’s war on general computing, then, consists of many powerful interests reacting similarly to the threat of devices which can be modified by their users. “We’d like it to be able to do everything“, they say, “except this…

Every one of them will arrive at the same place: “Can’t you just make us a general-purpose computer that runs all the programs, except the ones that scare and anger us? Can’t you just make us an Internet that transmits any message over any protocol between any two points, unless it upsets us?”

The RIAA were the first. “We’d like you to be able to share everything“, they thought, “except our music“. Now computing power is breaking out of the box on the table, into the rest of the world, the same pattern is being repeated. “3D printers are great — if only we could stop them making weapons. Or forgeries. Or sex toys“. “Self-driving cars are great — if only the police could shut them down”.

But it doesn’t work like that. User modification really is all-or-nothing. Trying to shut down one use of a computer means locking down the entire system. “All attempts at controlling the PC will converge on the rootkit. All attempts at controlling the internet will converge on surveillance and censorship”:

We don’t know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of running any program except for some program that we don’t like, is prohibited by law, or which loses us money. The closest approximation that we have to this is a computer with spyware

Cory, as a speaker and activist, is a professional optimist. He thinks we can win this battle — we can force the powers to accept freedom over spyware. But if the nature of computers forces us to be this black-and-white, we end up in an unwinnable fight. No plausible government is likely to allow everything without exception. So, even if they 99.9% of uses are acceptable, the last 0.01% will force us into spyware.

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