Digital rights and actual wrongs

Sony has been caught tampering with its customers' computers. This is just a taste of what such companies would like to do

Sony is rightly embarrassed. By trying to slip half-baked malware past a technically aware audience, it has demonstrated that it knows as little about public relations as it does about appropriate corporate behaviour or computer technology. Undoubtedly, the experience will change Sony's behaviour — but not for the better.

There is no sign that Sony actually thinks it did anything wrong. In its eyes, it retains an absolute right to hold its customers in contempt and impose whatever limits it sees fit, however badly implemented and whatever the repercussions for its users. The only thing the company will have learned is that it can't do this by stealth — therefore expect it and its media chums to attempt to do it by imposition.

Let's join the dots. Over in the US, Hollywood is proposing the Analog Hole Act, which would make it illegal to own anything capable of digitising video unless it has studio approval. And that means following whatever rules they might set, whenever they set them. Any computer would of course qualify, and would need a full suite of digital rights management (DRM) software in order just to be legal — and that DRM would be under the control of the content providers. We know what they'd like to do, given the chance — and this would be just that chance.

Don't expect any protection from the law. The Computer Misuse Act was used to prosecute and convict Daniel Cuthbert for entering a suspicious URL with no malice at all; while in the US the Digital Millennium Copyright Act already make the acts of Mark Russinovich in discovering the Sony malware of borderline legality. These are not laws passed to help the individual, or indeed society.

The next step would be to equate DRM with anti-terrorism — if that hadn't already happened — and thus make any attacks on DRM tantamount to terrorism itself. Couldn't happen? We've seen octogenarians arrested under terrorism laws for heckling at a party conference, and computer encryption raised as a reason for holding people for 90 days without charge. Nothing seems too outrageous.

If nobody's going to help us maintain our rights, we'll have to do it for ourselves. Take a look at the work of the Electronic Freedom Foundation in the US, and if you like what you see and want to help something similar here, join the Pledge Bank to make it happen. This is the most positive and effective move you can make — and if you don't, who will?

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