“Lending” e-books is a DRM scam: More control for publishers means less freedom for readers

The Wall Street Journal reports that Amazon.com is starting a digital book lending service; readers will be able to download a copy of a book and keep it on their reading device for as long as they want before “returning” it (which really means making it unavailable to the reading device, and thus the reader) by “borrowing” another book. How could this possibly hurt you?

  • You lose rights compared to physical books—a physical book may be read at any time in any place, lent again and again. E-books with DRM (digital restrictions management, also called “digital rights management” by those using the publisher’s propaganda) are under someone else’s control (publisher, reseller, etc.). No matter where the control originates it is not you, the reader. Amazon.com demonstrated this quite effectively in 2009 when Amazon took back legally obtained copies of George Orwell’s “1984” and “Animal Farm” from Amazon Kindle readers. While this is certainly good enough reason to never do business with amazon.com, it’s also good enough reason to never deal with DRM-restricted media.
  • You lose publishing and reading opportunities at the whim of a monopolist—businesses frequently change their terms of acceptable behavior. Today one thing is acceptable and tomorrow that same behavior is objectionable. In 2010 amazon.com’s change in behavior meant that Selena Kitt’s erotic novels went from being publishable to no longer published so for her readers, Kitt’s novels became less available and when would-be customers inquired about the missing novels they were chastised about their reading choices. You should not let others choose what you are allowed to read and you should not have to run an acceptability gauntlet to read what you want. When you take on DRM-encumbered works, only the DRM publisher can set that work as free as its non-DRM equivalent, hence the DRM publisher becomes a monopoly for anyone seeking to do business with publishers/resellers yet not suffer the ill effects of DRM.
  • You could be monitored by the reading device—a device that has as little as a GPS unit and a wireless network device could easily figure out where you are and report your coordinates plus information on what you’re doing via the network to someone else (say, a publisher or reseller). That is enough to effectively track your movements and convey some sense of what is on your e-book reader. By contrast, paper books have no inherent means to report information back to anyone else.
  • DRM only works with proprietary software—if users had the freedom to share and modify DRM software, some users could easily delete the privacy-busting code and keep the privacy-respecting code, then share the upgraded software with everyone else. Proprietary software doesn’t respect your freedom to share and modify, so DRM is a virtual guarantee that you’re working with software you cannot trust to do only what you want. Since you don’t need computers or software to read a book, you shouldn’t use proprietary software.
  • Commercial substitutes for libraries do you no good—if “borrowing” books from commercial interests in this way becomes seen as normal, there will be greater ground to ignore benefits from the local public library system. Public libraries, subsidized by taxes, often buy many copies of books and lend them to patrons (thus putting to rest the notion that DRM is a publisher’s way of making more money; DRM is often about the control publishers/resellers can impose on readers). Our libraries can be run locally by local citizens for collective benefit and libraries treat their patrons with respect, in part by destroying lending records after patrons return borrowed items. None of this need be the case for businesses. Profit-seeking businesses will run their organizations anywhere in the world hiring the cheapest labor available which leads to exploitation and abuse. Records of who copied which book will not be deleted. These records will be leaked long after a customer has finished dealing with them, needlessly bringing disastrously embarrassing results for those who do business with them. Public libraries shouldn’t do business with e-book vendors lest they become a bulwark for privacy-busting themselves.

Related Links

  • The Right to Read—Richard Stallman’s famous dystopic short story on where we’re headed with DRM.
  • Defective by Design—learn more about digital restrictions in a variety of devices and take direct political action.

Wealthy, powerful celebrities who get inadequate levels of bad press for their misdeeds

I’m certain this list is incomplete.

Which VPN Providers Really Take Anonymity Seriously? You’ll never know.

TorrentFreak.com asks “Which VPN Providers Really Take Anonymity Seriously?” for good reasons: people who share files are being tracked down and sued for high sums of money, far in excess of the commercial value of a copy of the work they’re accused of illicitly sharing.

To avoid being found, some users use a VPN or “virtual private network” that can effectively mask a user’s identity by passing the user’s data through another computer before the data is fed to the file sharing network. VPNs are essentially intermediaries that sit between one network and another or different sets of computers.

So TorrentFreak.net posed some questions to some VPN service providers who ostensibly provide some anonymity for their customers, and TorrentFreak.net reported the answers. But there are a few things you should know when you interpret these answers (or any other claim of online anonymity):

  • All of their claims are unverifiable. No service provider verifiably gives all comers access to all of their logs. Some providers claims to log nothing. But how would you determine whether they’re telling you the truth? How much trust can you put in a service provider with no real information about them? We face this challenge all the time: how would you know if that restaurant’s dishes are clean enough to eat from? Will your therapist really keep the details of your session a secret? It’s another gamble you’ll have to decide on your own using whatever information you choose to trust.
  • One-time verification attempts are useless without complete source code under a free license. If a service provider attempts to prove their trustworthiness by releasing some of their alleged source code, there’s no way to know if they use that code at all. Even a one-time dump of complete corresponding source code under a non-free license (such as one that allows inspection but not making derivative works) is insufficient to prove anything because code rewrites are easy enough that one could put in new code not listed before.
  • Even if you get great service today, will the service provider deliver that level of service in the future? Terms of service change. Seemingly small obscure technical decisions made by system administrators have a dramatic effect on your service. People steal equipment: is sensitive information stored anywhere such that stealing the server hardware would reveal what’s really going on? Service providers can sound promising until there’s real pressure on them from bullying nations like the United States.

Also consider the problems you’ll face with intermediaries you don’t directly do business with: the Internet is a network of networks and your VPN is only one host in the chain of computers that route your data between your computer and your intended destination. What about all of those computers that aren’t run by your trusted VPN provider? Do they log information? If so, what is logged? Who would report data in those logs to others?

It’s not easy to securely anonymize data and determine whom to trust.

Richard Stallman on Steve Jobs’ death: respectful, well-written, concise


On October 6, 2011, one day after Steve Jobs died, Richard Stallman (rms) posted his reaction to Jobs’ death:

Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, “I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone.” Nobody deserves to have to die – not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.

Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.Richard Stallman, October 6, 2011
an update on the Washington quote and more on Stallman’s views of Jobs

My thoughts

I find Stallman’s reaction to be very well written: clear, respectful, concise, but most importantly it has its priorities straight:

  • Nobody deserves to have to die. No matter what people do, the dead cannot learn and become better people. Stallman’s words brought to my mind the death penalty, not because it applies here (Jobs died as a result of his pancreatic cancer) but because America has many states which do kill “people guilty of bigger evils than theirs” and Stallman’s phrasing somehow reminded me of recent state-sponsored murders (a topic which strikes me as far more important than Jobs’ death).
  • Everyone deserves software freedom. Whether Apple was building proprietary derivatives from FLOSS, supporting patent pools that threaten FLOSS users (Apple contributes patents to MPEG-LA which spreads FUD about Theora and VP8, Apple wants to patent spyware), trying to dissuade people from controlling their own computers (see also FUD), or setting up services aimed at locking users in (iTunes service has many titles with DRM): Jobs’ life work was proprietary computing. A less effective proprietor means a chance that more users will enjoy software freedom.

I feel compelled to consider death as Peter Tosh said: (but Tosh was talking about matters far more important than consumer electronics)

Let the dead bury the dead now
And who is to be fed, be fed
I ain’t got no time to waste on you, no, no
I am a livin’ man, I’ve got work to do, right nowPeter Tosh, “Burial”

I think it’s unfortunate Jobs died, but the US kills a lot of people who lived lives filled with struggle. We don’t know their names, we are encouraged by corporate media to think of them as collateral damage and not-quite-people. Jobs’ life was too short but I think it’s safe to assume he wanted for nothing and got as much treatment for his cancer as anyone can.

Reactions to rms’ post

Of all the disagreements with rms’ post I’ve read, none were written well. The best of the lot is Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols’ criticism, to which this post is mostly a response.

Regarding Vaughan-Nichols’ grandmother’s aphorism If you don’t have anything good to say, then don’t say anything at all.: Apparently she was a fan of censorship (though her rule seems to apply only selectively as Vaughan-Nichols apparently feels quite free to violate the rule by criticizing rms). I am not a fan of censorship. One of the followups to Vaughan-Nichols’ article mentions Voltaire’s quote which is far better:

To the living we owe respect, but to the dead we owe only the truth.

It’s more important to put Jobs’ life work in its proper place; Stallman did that far better and more concisely than anyone else I’ve seen.

Vaughan-Nichols says I’m glad to say that the vast majority of open-source developers don’t agree with Stallman’s myopic views: Stallman was never and is not now an open-source developer. His movement is the free software movement which is older, philosophically different, and at heart a social movement. Stallman talks about this distinction at every talk he gives as well as writing about it in multiple essays. Vaughan-Nichols isn’t alone in trying to co-opt Stallman into the open source movement but no matter how many people do it, it’s still wrong.

Vaughan-Nichols favorably compares Jobs to Walt Disney and Henry Ford: Disney is widely known for proprietary derivatives of works in the public domain. The Disney corporation is known for following suit by backing copyright extension efforts to disallow the public from doing to Disney’s movies what Disney did with the Brothers Grimm stories. Apple is currently switching compilers from GCC (licensed under the GNU GPL) to LLVM (licensed under a permissive FLOSS license). If Bradley Kuhn of “Free as in Freedom” is correct—Apple will be making their own proprietary LLVM derivative when that compiler gets to a point where it’s more useful (local copy). Apple’s entire compiler switch to LLVM is part of a larger strategy to get away from GPL’d programs. This strategy probably has roots in Apple’s GPL hatred after NeXT got caught committing copyright infringement illicitly distributing their GCC derivative years ago. Apple would later make copyright infringement against free software a habit with their app store (1, 2).

I don’t recall what Jobs did that would make him comparable to Henry Ford. The article Vaughan-Nichols links to compares Jobs and Disney. One of those points is “Disney knew about land grabs” well so did Ford—Fordlândia—Ford’s billion-dollar Brazilian rubber plantation where he could more efficiently exploit the natives through what Greg Grandin described as a combination of intense paternalism and intense surveillance. Intense surveillance is one thing that would fit Apple as proprietary software gives any proprietor an opportunity to closely track what their users do. But Ford was a nastier man than people commonly credit: he mistreated his workers and he sympathized with nazis, nazi sympathizing is something I don’t associate with Jobs. As for Ford’s chief invention, the assembly line, I can’t imagine how Jobs’ computers or his animation company are an apt comparison. The assembly-line was far more culture-changing than anything Jobs’ companies ever made.

Lots of people are poor at critical thought when they’re feeling sad. It should be an adults responsibility to see things as they really are and keep perspective, not maintain an atmosphere where people are too afraid to speak freely (like how Apple treats app store users by keeping so many things out of that store). The limits Apple and proprietary software impose will adversely affect people far longer than any malaise brought on by Jobs’ death. As people get some more time to let this pass they’ll be more willing to part with their indignation. In so doing perhaps they’ll re-read Stallman’s words and come to see how reasonable, well-worded, and appropriately respectful Stallman’s assessment was while simultaneously keeping his eye on the prize: all users deserve software freedom.

Related Links

See labor issues at Apple and Apple’s suppliers.

The FSF does hard work and you can help with more suggestions!

Juan Rodriguez posted his dissatisfaction with the Free Software Foundation’s tactics in recent free software campaigns. This is a response to that post, but I thought it a good opportunity to raise awareness of various FSF posts and positions for a wider audience at the same time.

The FSF asks people to use more free software (naming specific programs such as The GIMP), but some of Rodriguez’s alternatives are against FSF’s ethics and therefore cannot be done. If anyone has suggestions for the FSF, don’t forget to send the suggestions to FSF Executive Director John Sullivan johns@fsf.org as well. He has solicited your thoughts on what the FSF should do.

On recommending Fedora GNU/Linux: The FSF defines guidelines for free system distributions but Fedora GNU/Linux does not qualify. The FSF lists completely free OSes which qualify. As I write this there are 9 such systems (including one based on Fedora — BLAG Linux and GNU).

On starting a free tablet system, perhaps based in Android: Richard Stallman, head and founder of the FSF, recently wrote an essay for the Guardian which describes that Android is not really free software. I believe anything based on Linus Torvalds’ fork of the Linux kernel is non-free in the same way because Torvalds includes proprietary software in his fork of Linux. In his essay, Stallman includes a valuable explanation of a principle free software activists take seriously: the power of doing without; where can free software activists (including himself and the FSF) do without features in the pursuit of freedom:

Important firmware or drivers are generally proprietary also. These handle the phone network radio, Wi-Fi, bluetooth, GPS, 3D graphics, the camera, the speaker, and in some cases the microphone too. On some models, a few of these drivers are free, and there are some that you can do without ”“ but you can’t do without the microphone or the phone network radio.Richard Stallman, September 19, 2011

Reading e-books: In one of the followups to his post, Rodriguez said he desired to read recently-published e-books. One can certainly do with reading a paper copy of the book instead. In the US there is an added incentive for readers to prefer a paper book over some e-books: right of first sale is all too easily taken away from people via DRM. Ask George Hoteling about this with regard to audio tracks, for instance (more on this from EFF). The same is true for any electronic media, it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about a book, audio track, movie, or anything else. When people give in to DRM the fight against DRM is made that much more difficult because their money ends up being used to fight against them.

One does oneself a disservice by calling people names (“PETA nuts”, “Green Peace crazies”) without facts to back up what one is saying. Such language is certainly not forbidden, this is a practical concession to readers who are eager to dismiss what one says. Sadly, people give one another permission to use name-calling as an excuse to ignore what you’re really trying to say (think of the conversational consequences to Godwin’s Law); some readers will not choose to ask for details to justify the language. Instead you should ask the FSF why they don’t “create a store of their own” and go from there. Perhaps there is a recent recording of an FSF representative giving a talk where an audience member asks this question. I don’t represent the FSF but I’d bet their answer is remarkably practical and focused, something like: starting such a store is for billionaire multinationals which can sustain the unprofitable early years. Furthermore, stores in no clear way address the reality that the suppliers can simply opt-out of selling through an ostensibly DRM-free FSF store. I think that in time more people will come to see how defending the interests of proprietors was and is unwise but this realization will take time and more disasters.

Fortunately for DRM objectors, every DRM story is ultimately a loser for the DRM proponent. What the customer loser is minor enough (music tracks, a few books, and the like) where people can learn the lesson the hard way without risking something truly important like their health and civil liberties. As DRM enters health equipment (like heart monitors) and adversely affects our civil liberties, we may have to learn these lessons regardless of our wishes.

Why didn’t Obama’s strike team bring Osama bin Laden to justice?

As Democracy Now! headlines described today: A trial is underway in Cambodia for the four most senior surviving members of the Khmer Rouge. The former officials face charges that include crimes against humanity, war crimes, genocide, religious persecution, homicide and torture. The Khmer Rouge is believed to have killed at least 1.7 million Cambodians during the late 1970s. All four of the accused have plead “not guilty” to the charges against them. Stephen Rapp is the U.S. ambassador at large for war crime.

This is such a traumatic event in the history of this country that touched every single person here, a quarter of the population murdered and a country that was turned back to the year zero. An understanding of why it happened and how it happened is really critical to going forward, and that is why there is such an outpouring of interest here and why it is so important that the international community support this trial to the end.Stephen Rapp, U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crime Issues

There is “an outpouring of interest” in the crime of 9/11 as well and “it is so important that the international community support [a] trial to the end” for what happened then too. But instead of a trial for Osama bin Ladin, who we’re told is one of the masterminds of 9/11, President Obama had bin Ladin killed. One must wonder why murder is a preferable outcome to bringing him in alive and trying him in open court with evidence presented against him.

Update 2011-10-02: President Obama’s CIA claims to have 52 separate photos and videos of Osama bin Laden’s body, the U.S. raid that killed him, and his burial at sea, but refuses to release them because publication might inspire terror attacks on U.S. targets according to ABC news.

Obama-Bush profits again: U.S. Defense officials still cannot say what happened to $6.6 billion but it was probably stolen, wars continue apace

Remember when $6.6 billion went “missing” after huge quantities of $100 bills were shipped to Iraq in 2003-2004?
Now President Barack Obama’s government are, according to Sydney Morning Herald author Paul Richter, “finally closing the books on the program that handled funding for reconstruction in postwar Iraq” and it’s a doozy: President “no looking back”‘s council tells us the money was probably stolen. I know, incredibly obvious, right?

Twenty-one giant C-130 Hercules cargo planes each carrying $2.4 billion cash went to Iraq and somehow the cargo went unaccounted afterwards. Stuart Bowen, special inspector-general for Iraq reconstruction, said the missing $US6.6 billion might be ”the largest theft of funds in national history”. While the Pentagon said they could track down the money given enough time, six years later it seems the money is still not able to be tracked. Isn’t that what a thief would say?

As bad as a $6.6 billion theft is, keep in mind that trillions of dollars are spent on all the occupations, invasions, and bombings the US heads up today: Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan, saber-rattling against Iran, …all while Americans are suffering from an illegal and unchallenged foreclosure wave, a larger gulf between the rich and poor than ever before, and no clear indication the American government cares about its citizens woes.

Is any of this really a surprise? How bad do things have to be before millions of Americans find the time to protest in all the major cities at the same time (so as to clearly show solidarity)?

Magnatune partners with library, patrons win sharable music

Magnatune, a music label where you can download and share all of the tracks in their entire catalog, has struck a deal with the Library system of Ann Arbor, Michigan so that library system’s 107,801 registered cardholding patrons can login to a library-made web-based system and easily download Magnatune tracks.

Unlike loaning physical media many patrons can get the music without a trip to the library, many patrons can get tracks simultaneously, and unlike the typical corporate label music these tracks can be legally shared because Magnatune licenses tracks to its members under the Creative Commons by-nc-sa v1.0 license.

Screenshots of the web interface and links to relevant statistics about their library system are available on Magnatune’s blog.

The library paid a $10,000 flat fee in a licensing agreement that runs through June 30, 2012.Ann Arbor Chronicle

Are more libraries doing deals like this? I figured librarians are the vanguard of caring about non-DRM works, so striking deals like this with media organizations that care about their listeners and artists should be a no-brainer.

Some good causes undermine their own efforts with bad substitutes for real action

I was recently asked to consider signing onto an electronic protest against the US’ Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) recent suspension of a blogger who linked to websites that allegedly distributed copyrighted movies without license. A group called “Demand Progress” rightly complained:

Brian McCarthy ran a website, channelsurfing.net, that linked to various sites where you could watch online streams of TV shows and sports networks. A couple months ago, the government seized his domain name and on Friday they arrested him and charged him with criminal copyright infringement — punishable by five years in prison.

We just obtained a copy of the complaint (below) that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) made against him — and they don’t even allege that he made a copy of anything! Just that he ran what they call a “linking website” which linked to various sites with copyrighted material. Under that sort of thinking, everyone who’s sent around a link to a copyrighted YouTube video is a criminal.

This is another shocking overreach by DHS and ICE — a steamship-era department that’s proving once again that it doesn’t understand the Internet. We need to push back — and fast — before they try to lock up more Americans.

Demand Progress

Demand Progress raises good points and I think that linking to anything ought not be a crime, no matter what one links to. However:

  • the way Demand Progress collects petition signatures undermines their effort. Anyone may put in any name, email address, and zipcode into their website’s form and that address is sent feedback as if they were a signatory to Demand Progress’ petition. No verification is done to make sure the person who uses that email address wasn’t the victim of someone else signing them up for Demand Progress’ feedback (which. if unsolicited, could rightfully called spam). As a result of this any claim DemandProgress.com’s claims of petition popularity are suspect and dismissable. Nobody knows how many of the alleged signatures are actually people interested in supporting the complaint.
  • email is cheap. Handwritten letters, phone calls, and in-person support are all more meaningful. It’s easy to manufacture a large set of email addresses and make it look like a large group of people support your cause. It’s not easy to get people to send handwritten letters or postcards to their Congressional representatives, or phone into a Congressional representative’s office complaining about something and demanding specific action. In-person action is far more convincing than names in a spreadsheet. Marching in the street is, therefore, more convincing than a group of names, email addresses, and zipcodes.

As long as people think clicking a button is a good approximation for political organizing, the status quo wins. Political organizing is more about identifying and doing the legwork that needs to be done, not caving into someone’s objection that it’s too hard to catch someone else’s attention and settling for a self-selected poll.

Corporate parties love torture: WikiLeaks reveals innocents held at Guantánamo

From today’s Democracy Now! headlines a WikiLeaks leak that is making mainstream news as well:

WikiLeaks Documents Reveal Over 150 Innocent Men Knowingly Held at Guantánamo

The whistleblowing website WikiLeaks has begun releasing thousands of secret documents from the U.S. military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. The documents reveal the Bush and Obama administrations knowingly imprisoned more than 150 innocent men for years without charge. In dozens of cases, senior U.S. commanders were said to have concluded that there was no reason for the men to have been transferred to Guantánamo. Among the innocent prisoners were an 89-year-old Afghan villager and a 14-year-old boy who had been kidnapped. Some men were imprisoned at Guantánamo simply because they wore a certain model of Casio watches, which had been used as timers by al-Qaeda. The documents also reveal that the journalist Sami al-Hajj was held at Guantánamo for six years partly in order to be interrogated about his employer, the Al Jazeera news network. Al-Hajj’s file said he was sent to Guantánamo in order to “provide information on…the al-Jazeera news network’s training programme, telecommunications equipment, and news gathering operations in Chechnya, Kosovo and Afghanistan.”

Democracy Now! 2011-04-25

More on this from The Guardian/UK (1, 2).

If you like torture, vote for a Democrat or a Republican for US Congress or President. It won’t matter which candidate or party you pick because apparently you’ll get state-sanctioned torture either way. The illegal, unethical, and ongoing occupations (and commensurate torture) are the preeminent moral and fiscal issues of our day. Virtually all other issues the US faces pale in significance to American occupation. Virtually all other issues the US faces can be remedied if not fixed outright by ending American occupation. That’s because of how much the US spends on occupation (1, 2, and later Stiglitz would say his early estimates were lowballs).

Not only was Obama’s promise to end the prison at Guantánamo a weak promise, the promise was never made good. Guantánamo’s prisoners can be easily moved to Bagram or one of a number of secret prisons the US maintains around the world.

Update 2011-04-26: