Open Rights Group Conference

Open Rights Group ConferenceI just had an interesting day at the Open Rights Group Conference (#ORGcon). As someone that doesn’t identify with any political party, it’s the only (mildly) activistic group I’m involved in. That’s probably due to the close connection with the tools I use everyday at work, like the Internet. 

A few things I learned from today…

From Cory Doctrow:

  • Politicians struggle to regulate computers/networks in effective ways because computers are fundamentally flexible tools, you can’t restrict how they work without preventing them from working. (E.g. It’s like trying to regulate how a car works by changing the wheel.)
  • Efforts to restrict the functions of computers always end up in software like root-kits. (E.g. the Sony rootkit they installed when people played CDs, or Nintendo’s methods of restricting content on their DS3.) I recommend checking out ‘What’s Inside the Box?‘, which questions who should be in control of the software running on computers you get into (e.g. cars), and those put into you (e.g. hearing aids).
  • Efforts to restrict content end up in censorship. Part of his theme on “Censorship is inseparable from surveillance“, pre-internet preventing someone from buying a book could be handled at the publisher end of the equation. Now everyone can be a publisher, attempts to control copying mean checking every book you read.
  • Software used for restricting internet access in schools is generally:
    • Ineffective, as kids routinely route around it.
    • Anti-education, as often teachers find resources they were going to use blocked.
    • Opaque, you cannot tell how it works. There is no central standard, so the black/white lists are either maintained by local sys-admins, or the company providing the software.
    • Provided by the same organisations supplying the countries we tend to think of as undemocratic.
  • Copyright / copying is really only ‘level one’ of a war on general computing, as other industries will find these universal tools that run software hinder their business model. For example, 3D printers making small goods at the press of a button.

Should Digital Archives be open?

The presentations from Nick Poole and Ben White kicked off a couple of ideas, the issues seemed to focus around the institutions having missions centred around physical access, and not having the resources to digitise or share their resources effectively.

Reducing costs: I wonder what would happen if Libraries and Museums took a Seti/BitTorrent approach to distributing their digital resources? I.e. Allow interested people to install a programme that stores a tiny little bit of the site or resources. When requests are made through the central website, it proxies through to one or more people who are looking after the content. For larger resources it would make sense to use a protocol like BitTorrent so that it distributes the load over several computers/connections.

I could see people running that at home, and plenty of Universities would probably be happy to do that.

Making money: It seems the battle ground between institutions and the public is over the headline resources, the stuff people (in general) actually want to see. A win-win method might be to reverse what Pinboard did, which was to charge a little more for every subscriber to the service.

Institutions could charge a small fee for each item, but that fee decreases every time someone pays for it, becoming free after a certain amount of money has been raised.

That would take advantage of the long-tail of (mostly) Academics who would want to delve into niche areas, but the popular stuff would be free for all.

Defeating Acta

A great French duo treated us to a serious and funny couple of presentations, and although I didn’t follow it all, the politics involved are both intriguing and disturbing. At the very least Acta should be booted out because it’s trying to make legislation without going through the parliamentary process.

Realising the fight we’re in

Professor Lawrence Lessig is a very compelling speaker, and even though I’d seen some aspects of it before it was a great performance. It was one of those presentations where you won’t get much from just looking at the slides, so keep an eye out for the video on the ORG website soon.

The general argument was that copyright issues are important, but actually the core issue is the (over) influence of large business interests in the political system. A lot of the examples are from the US, but given that the same types of law are passed in the UK, there is something going on here as well.

Some of the points made me wonder about what type of organisations are best suited to different things. For example, the US has terrible broadband, and in many states they legally prevent citizen groups from providing their own. The for-profit science journals cost 9 times as much as not-for-profit organisations. In the UK we have better competition in mobile providers and much better deals than the US.

It seems that when dealing with a resource that cannot be competed with (e.g. cable broadband or the source material of journals) for-profit organisations seem to have the wrong incentives.

Where the aim is to provide a resource in a non-competitive situation, for-profit organisations are not effective.

Prison’s in the US are another recent example, where lobbyists for private prison companies are literally drafting laws that will put more people in prison, and they often get passed.

The undercover economist uses health insurance as an example of why a non-mandatory insurance will simply never work well for health care.

Back to Lessig’s presentation, and his core theme was that we need to attack the roots of the problem, which is how money affects politics. Although he didn’t mention it directly, I had already come across Rootstrikers, which outlines the plan.