Are we heading for a serious identity crisis?

Are we heading for a serious identity crisis?

Summary: If you've been following our series on Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) [sic], then you know that DRM is wall-building material when it comes to turning the Internet into a bunch of segregated nets or "walled-gardens."  Apple has its walled garden consisting of the iTunes Music Store (as a source of content) and compatible end-user devices (iTunes software, iPods, etc.

TOPICS: Browser

If you've been following our series on Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) [sic], then you know that DRM is wall-building material when it comes to turning the Internet into a bunch of segregated nets or "walled-gardens."  Apple has its walled garden consisting of the iTunes Music Store (as a source of content) and compatible end-user devices (iTunes software, iPods, etc.).  Microsoft has its walled-garden with it's own sources and compatible devices.  Sony.  Now Google.  And so on.  Is DRM simply a blade on the identity management system razor? In a 'bout of may-the-best-stovepipe win, the DRM-politico structure of the industry is returning the industry to the stovepipe structure that the Internet's core protocol (TCP/IP) once promised to eliminate.  The situation has folks like Doc Searls -- one of the more sane voices that I've heard in this digital age -- thoroughly depressed.  Simply put, DRM is a vendor lock-in control point.  With patents to back the various flavors up, DRM is potentially the key to the next monoculture (should one win) -- a monoculture that is far more dangerous and that stretches its tentacles into far more of society than just the computing parts.  Telecommunications for example.  Your cell phones.  Your stereos and televisions.  Your car. 

This is nothing new for the computer industry.  For ever and ever, vendors have worked their way up from the bottom of the most popular software stacks looking for a control point that makes them the toll-taker.  TCP/IP withstood the assault to be extended in a proprietary fashion.  Going up a layer in the stack, so too has the Web (HTTP).  Although a layer higher where the applications (the browsers) sit, havoc has been wrought (yielding what is essentially incompatible Webs).   DRM is just another one of those control points in another layer of the "stack."  Own the control point, and the rest of the stack follows.  At CES last week, Google co-founder Larry Page summed it up rather nicely.  "It" being the key to winning the masses over to one form of DRM or the other -- perhaps giving one DRM provider the keys to the stack.  In response to a question about the Google-specific DRM that will no doubt be a part of Google distribution pacts like the one the search giant inked with CBS, Page said:

There are a bunch of details about that; I remember some of them, but they're not important.  What we've seen with iTunes is that having a pretty good user experience is important.

Page is 100 percent correct.  What Apple has proven with the way it has integrated its iTunes Music Store with the Internet, iTunes software (for Windows or OS X) and its iPods (and to some extent the iTunes phones from Motorola) is that if you can build an absolutely pristine user experience, people will take whatever drug goes with it no questions asked.  Today, Fairplay -- Apple's form of DRM -- is that drug.  And it's very addicting.  Most people who are addicted to Fairplay-protected content (purchased through the iTunes Music Store) have no idea how difficult it will be to exit Apple's walled garden should they choose to do so down the road (for example, if the latest greatest coolest hippest device that everyone must have  isn't sprinkled with Apple's holy water).

DRM is rough stuff.  But what most people don't realize is that even rougher than DRM (if you ask me), is the layer in the stack that lies just below it.  The foundation on which the DRM walled gardens sit. The identity layer. Today, DRM is invariably based on your identity: some key token or combination of tokens like your e-mail address and a credit card that affirms your uniqueness from everyone else out there in userland.  And if you think all the different DRM schemes are incompatible with other, try imagining the identity management systems that lie underneath them.  In referring to the un-interwinable nature of Windows, Sun CEO Scott McNealy used to refer to Microsoft's platforms as a hairball.  One that couldn't be disentangled. The various DRM schemes and the identity systems to which they're bound are the new hairballs; in some ways, an identity crisis in the making.

But lest you think that this is the only pending crisis that's routed in our identity, there are others.  They've always been there, but the light bulb really went off when I started getting suggestions for discussion topics for the upcoming Mashup Camp that Doug Gold and I are organizing (by the way, although it's still very much under construction, Mashup Camp's Web site is up and running).  Mashups are a new breed of software that play the starring role in what I'm calling the uncomputer. Or for some, maybe it's Computer 2.0.  Many refer to it as Web 2.0, but I don't buy that because HTTP -- the protocol that makes the Web tick -- hasn't changed in years. 

When the proposed discussion topics started rolling in (there are already 14), one of them was yelling "hello" at me. Not "hello" like "Hi there big fella."  It was more like "Hellooooooo... did you not see me crossing the friggin' street!"  Identity?  What does identity have to do with mashups?  As it turns out, a lot.  Sure, most of the current breed of mashups have no concept of identity.  But, the mashup ecosystem is just getting started.  Judging by some of the Mashup Camp attendees that I've been in touch with, there's real interest in mashing up mission critical enterprise applications -- the kind where identity management is a pre-requisite.  That got me to thinkin'.  What happens if the two systems a developer is trying to mash together into an identity-aware mashup use two completely different identity management schemes?  Back in the 1999/2000 timeframe, when one of my responsibilities was to oversee the integration of Web sites like job matchmaker into ZDNet (two sites that are identity-aware), reconciling their incompatible namespaces was an impossible task that require a significant amount of custom development.  Now, I'm just trying to imagine this sort of integration -- mashup style -- for the masses (of mashup developers) and I don't see identity aware systems getting bolted together as easily as the first wave of mashups were hooked up.  

Let me rephrase: Is DRM simply a blade on the identity management system razor and are there a whole bunch of other blades that we're not paying attention to?

Topic: Browser

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  • Need to Read This

    "Firstly, the Church-Turing thesis, one of the basic tenets of Computer Science, which states that any general purpose computing device can solve the same problems as any other. The practical consequences of this are key - it means that a computer can emulate any other computer, so a program has no way of knowing what it is really running on. This is not theory, but something we all use every day, whether it is Java virtual machines, or Pentiums emulating older processors for software compatibility.

    How does this apply to DRM? It means that any protection can be removed. For a concrete example, consider MAME - the Multi Arcade Machine Emulator - which will run almost any video game from the last 30 years. It's hard to imagine a more complete DRM solution than custom hardware with a coin slot on the front, yet in MAME you just have to press the 5 key to tell it you have paid.

    The second principle is the core one of jurisprudence - that due process is a requirement before punishment. I know the Prime Minister has defended devolving summary justice to police constables, but the DRM proponents want to devolve it to computers. The fine details of copyright law have been debated and redefined for centuries, yet the DRM advocates assert that the same computers you wouldn't trust to check your grammar can somehow substitute for the entire legal system in determining and enforcing copyright law.

    Each computers' immanent ability to become any kind of machine and the copying of data that happens as part of this, leads the DRM advocates naturally to the point where they want to outlaw computers, or to take them over by stealth, using virus-like techniques.

    The reductio ad absurdum of this is to privilege DRM implementers in law above the owners of the computers on which their software runs, without their effective consent. Sadly, this is exactly what is being demanded by the publishers' lobby."
    Edward Meyers
    • Proprietary


      This is true.

      However, it is only true of DRM systems designed to work on PCs. Much DRM technology is designed to work on devices that are special purpose machines (as opposed to general purpose PCs).

      It is perfectly possible to make simple proprietary technology that may, nevertheless, only be emmulated on the most expensive general purpose computers (i.e. Supercomputers). It is also possible to create proprietary technology that houses trade secrets (e.g. master cryptographic keys). Together, such an approach could create DRM that works in the sense that it makes breaking it too costly to be worth the effort.

      However, you are right to point out that this does not appear to be the route favored by Big Media - who are pitching for superior rights over general citizens. :-(
      Stephen Wheeler
      • RE: Are we heading for a serious identity crisis?

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  • Language, David, language.

    Not walled "gardens." They're prisons. You get "locked" in.
  • Document security.

    When Microsoft was casting around for features users wanted most in the new version of Office, document security was one of the primary responses.

    That means establishing someone's identity in a manner not connected with a single computer and with more elaborate identification than media content DRM requires. Authentication to open something secret appears to require more stringent rules than preventing something from happening to a file.

    I'm also thinking about how many different applications can be tied to a single authentication. Once someone has access to a document, the number of possible actions is limited only by the number of applications to which the authentication applies.

    I expect that you've already considered these points. Care to provide your conclusions?
    Anton Philidor
    • Document security


      >When Microsoft was casting around for features >users wanted most in the new version of Office, >document security was one of the primary >responses.

      >That means establishing someone's identity in a >manner not connected with a single computer and >with more elaborate identification than media >content DRM requires. Authentication to open >something secret appears to require more >stringent rules than preventing something from >happening to a file.

      >I'm also thinking about how many different >applications can be tied to a single >authentication. Once someone has access to a >document, the number of possible actions is >limited only by the number of applications to >which the authentication applies.

      You're right to be concerned about this - in my area (healthcare) document security is absolutely critical and hence authentication of the user's identity.

      We are moving at snail's pace towards a dual key authentication system, i.e. token (smartcard) and password. This will reduce but not eliminate the potential for abuse. There will still be users who leave their PC unattended with the smartcard in the reader.

      There is no magic bullet. Any password can be shared or otherwise compromised but it may offer the best protection if users have to use secure password generators and are aware how to maintain that security. Network managers and others could access and copy encrypted files in order to decrypt them off site.

  • Help!


    I am not tired of saying this (yet) but what we need is a debate that starts at the beginning - what is fair, what should artists and journalists get for their work?

    To understand this argument have a look at this:

    As far as walled gardens are concerned - there are so many ways. You mentioned the easiest ways; ID, Crypto-Boxes, File Formats, and so on. Up to now Big Media have struggled to keep the lid on because PCs have developed so fast (and are therefore so powerful) - yet have retained their general purpose architecture. As Doc points out (in one of the links you provide) the next generation of PCs is likely to give Big Media a big boost - so there's one angle you missed.

    Sadly then, yes, DRM really is just a blade in Big Media's server farm.

    BTW I'm not sure that Doc is quite as depressed as you suggest, he ends his post with: "Yet you can still make music and movies that can be heard, watched, produced and distributed outside The System. That won't change. And that's what matters most. Because in the long run, the indies will win."

    I'm with Doc on this point - ultimately, this argument is not about will the Net free us - it's done that. The real debate is how can we speed up the realization of our freedoms that, while they are being hijacked at present, we can win back eventually?

    Sadly, like Doc, I am starting to believe that the debate isn't going to happen anytime soon. That makes me sad because so much potential human cultural value will be squandered just to maintain Big Media's political power (through cultural leverage). :-(
    Stephen Wheeler
    • Paper for DeVry / Society Technology and Culture

      I am writing a paper on DRM's Effects on Consumers and Innovation for my Society, Technology, and culture class. While I can not post it online yet (the professors would like it graded before I release it), I plan on posting it after I graduate on Feb. 23rd.

      I will post it on my website, along with my business and technical white papers on adopting Linux in an enterprise environment, once I am permitted to.
      Anthony S.
    • RE: Help! by Stephen

      YES, "cultural leverage" has destroyed previous civilizations, also. It's sad to even think that this is actually happening to OUR civilization today. :(

      The point that the blog your link directs us to is extremely valid. ;)
    • Artists? Who cares what they make.

      Hmmm, I care about thier income about as much as I care about the janitor's wages working at the mall.
  • MS wallewd garden? Not hardly...

    Unlike Apple, MS licenses it's tech to all comers.
    • As long as it doesn't work on Linux...

      That's fine and good for MS.
  • DRM is a two-pronged attack.

    While we the tech people continue to scream that BigMedia is slowly but surely handicapping our general-purpose personal computers, the rest of the world continues to adopt specific-purpose computing devices at a dizzying pace.

    BigMedia recognizes what Tech people find hard to believe, "that the average person sees computers as a tool that is difficult to use and impossible to understand." Therefore, if BigMedia can serve up a platter of devices that together meet the computing needs of the average person AND are easy to use, the average person will drop their PC. They won't need it!

    The fact that these specific-purpose computing devices are totally controlled by one BigMedia player, and are mostly not interchangeable with the platter dished out by another BigMedia player, will mean little to the average person. It won't even enter their awareness unless the player they've picked drops the ball.

    Witness the Apple iPod 'walled garden'. If you own an Apple iPod, why would you want to use the Sony Music Store anyways?? You wouldn't even consider it as an average user.

    In this way, DRM is a two-pronged attack. It handicaps tech people and makes PC's harder to use, while at the same time protecting the new-kids on the block, the specific computing devices.
  • P is for punishment

    prorection is TOO positive a word. Punishement refers to the habit of suing your customers be thay children grandparents or girlscouts!
  • RE: Are we heading for a serious identity crisis?

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