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Community Column: Corporatism verses Digital Freedom: An Open Letter to Senator Hatch

Mar 09, 2001, 12:24 (24 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Thomas Corriher)

Opinions expressed by contributors to Linux Today's 'Community Column' are not necessarily those of LinuxToday's staff or management.


By Thomas Corriher

Senator Hatch:

I realize that as a representative in the United States Federal Government your time is probably scarce and highly valued. Therefore, I shall attempt to make my message to you as concise as possible. I have much to say, but I promise not to bore you or waste your valuable time.

This letter concerns certain issues in the world of technology, in which you have recently shown yourself to be keenly interested. You are correct in your observations about the importance of technology issues. They are obviously important in American life today, and will undoubtedly be more important in the future.

We are in agreement that caution must be exercised, or the technical policies of the U.S. Government could become detrimental to technology, and thereby to the people. Precedents can be dangerous.

I am a technology professional. Therefore, my concern for technology's relationship with government is probably even greater than yours. To be candid with you, I have written this because I was recently impressed with your interest in, and comments about, the political fire storm surrounding the issues of intellectual property.

Senator, I do not give false flattery. I am impressed with you. You may not represent my state, but I write this because you appear to be a light in the darkness. Unlike many of the corporate lobbyists that you must encounter, I am an honorable man who is attempting to speak and write to you honestly.

Until now, I felt that any efforts I might make to effect a positive change in government concerning technology would be a futile effort. However, Senator, you appear to be listening.

Thank you. Governmental representatives generally have a bad reputation within the technical community. I do believe that many congressmen have earned that cynicism. However, I am writing this to you with an opened mind. I do not believe in "guilt by association," nor do I believe in a policy of "guilty until proven innocent."

There is a general consensus among technology people that most elected members of the U.S. Government are corrupt, and that they are the puppets of the monied corporations. I ask that you feel not offended by these statements, because I am not pointing them at you personally. I am merely trying to honestly portray the prevailing attitude.

For this reason, it is likely that you infrequently hear from the common people who professionally work with technology. I suspect that the majority of the times when you receive communications from people claiming to be technology professionals: that these individuals are usually paid public relations people.

Certain companies (particularly Microsoft) have become notorious for these public relations games. It is one of the many reasons why they have earned themselves the nickname "The Evil Empire" (analogy to Star Wars - "The Empire"), within the computing technology community. For a particular example of this see: http://www.univ.com.br/acmm/Diversos/ExploDer/microsoft_plans.htm

Let me get to the point, Senator, before I stray off course again. History has repeatedly shown that the world's greatest empires were typically destroyed from within. There is a danger facing America today that is every bit as dangerous to us as the aggressive communist countries once were. Moreover, it is harder to defend against because this threat comes from within.

This threat is Corporatism.

Throughout much of America's short history, Americans have been able to show both their economy and their system of government as an example for the rest of the world. Much of the world has been jealous of our prosperity, and of our liberties. The founder's "great experiment" was a success beyond what they had hoped. Unfortunately, there are now destructive forces at work that appear to have grown much stronger in recent decades. These forces undermine the virtues of America.

These things I speak of are the vices of greed, apathy, corruption, and incompetence. The people of the United States have always made some effort to reduce these vices in the government, with varying results. These qualities have thrived and grown exponentially throughout corporate America. The specifics are far too complex to cover in this letter, though I suspect that you are intelligent enough to think of some examples yourself.

We are approaching a time when the people will be subject to the will of the corporations. They have befriended those in power, and are proceeding to steal public art, science, and technology under the guise of "intellectual property". (I can send examples of this if you need them). The primary purpose of our government is to protect the weak from the strong. It is not intended to maintain, or increase the power of the powerful. My last statement describes what Americans were once strongly opposed to.

Let's look at Napster. The owners of Napster did nothing illegal. They merely provided a means for people to share files. Obviously, some of the site's users took advantage of the site to transmit files which were copies of copyrighted material.

Does this mean all of the Napster users were criminals?

Moreover, the Napster owners were in no way involved. They provided only a communications medium. Using the logic of the court involved, and the logic of the recording corporations, we also should have all telephones, televisions, and radios outlawed. These services have also been exploited in the past to commit criminal activities. Are we in such a pathetic state that we must now have the courts institute policies of both "guilt by association" and "guilty until proven innocent"?

The fact that Napster is now required to determine what each particular song is, required to monitor all of its customer communications, and required to search through all song copyrights for the sake of ensuring the recording industry has a persistent revenue source... is well.. very, very depressing.

Is this the type of country you want to live in, Senator? I frankly feel ashamed that many non-Americans are reading about this around the world. If you read postings across the Internet as much as I did, you would have found foreign people stating: "I thought America was all about freedom". I wish I could argue that it is. What happened to the Bill of Rights?

Napster is far from the only example of how corporate America is using its immense legal resources to make a mockery of a legal system that is supposed to be a system of justice. Unfortunately, people outside of the corporate board rooms do not have the money to fight the erosion of their rights by corporations. Take the example of copyright extensions that occurred. In our nation's recent history, Sonny Bono and Walt Disney Corporation were able to undermine the principle of short term copyrights.

The esteemed founders of our nation, and the authors of its constitution, believed that a period of 14 years was fair for the term of a copyright. Stop and think about this. Sonny Bono and Disney Corporation were able to alter a vital standard in The United States code of law; and they did it merely for the sake of ensuring long term profits for Walt Disney.

Why did our representatives feel obligated to serve the interests of the Walt Disney Corporation; while blatantly disregarding the public loss in the arts and sciences that come from the current 95-year copyright terms? It gives new meaning to the phrase "Mickey Mouse Government" doesn't it?

It makes me wonder how the modern American people can be so complacent when their grandparents would have been screaming in the streets about this. As a senator, I implore you to provide leadership in this area.

The worst legislative blunder to occur was the adoption of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). I do not know your personal stance on this Bill, but I can assure you that it was just plain wrong in both a legal sense, and more importantly, in a moral sense. In the case of the DMCA, the congress absolutely ignored the pleas of veterans in the world of technology. Instead, congress heeded the mass media corporations, and everyone's favorite Evil Empire.

You see, Senator, they don't want to merely sell technology. They want to own it. They get richer, and technology advances for only the highest bidders. The details are far too complex to cover in this letter, but I will cite some of the things that the DMCA does. It places much of the existing research in the area of computer security into questionable legal status.

It completely outlaws the public legal protections known as "fair use provisions" which have always been an important part of copyright law. The aspect that is most disturbing to me is the "guilty until proven innocent" precedent it sets in reference to network service providers and the users of network services.

The law forces network providers to remove network access from any person who is accused of copyright violations. There is no due process required, nor any court issued warrants required for someone to lose network access. The burden of proof is on the accused, and no reparations are allotted for false accusations.

This could be devastating to innocent individuals, and fatal for individuals and companies that rely on the Internet for income. What would you think Senator, if I told you that a company might have a back door (skeleton key) into your computer system? What if I told you that the DMCA made it illegal for you to even test your software by decompiling it to see if there is a back door?

Anyone who found such a thing would be unable to warn you or any other person without implicating himself as a "criminal" for "reverse engineering" the software. I hope this is frightening to you, because it already scares the crap out of me. This is the present and future that corporate America has created for us. I ask you to remember history two centuries ago, when many of our nation's ancestors declared war on the British Government for instituting laws which were frighteningly similar.

Allow me to pause and ask you if you are beginning to understand why technical professionals have become so cynical, and why we feel that we have been sold by our own government? This is not meant to attack you personally, Senator. Although, I do want you to give my comments serious thought. If I did not respect you, and if I did not expect that some good could come from this, then I would not be bothering to write it. Tell your fellow representatives to start listening to us, before we become citizens of the United States of Microsoft, or the United States of Time Warner.

Before I go, I am giving you the link below. It is sadly a typical example of how American corporations are warping our nation's laws to participate in a campaign of blackmail against their own customers. I saved the text in case you have trouble with the link.

http://www.idg.net/ic_430442_1794_9-10000.html

Contact me if I can be of assistance to you, because your leadership is needed. You appear to care about legislative consequences, so I bring you my open honesty.

--------------------- End of Letter -------------------

Change or Die

In the late 1980s, I encouraged my dad, Jack Corriher, to purchase a computer. I explained to him that a computer can be useful to almost any company; and they are especially useful to companies that are reliant on complex mathematics, such as his company. He acted in his true character to my suggestion. He was adamantly stubborn. He told me that the best computer was in his head. He ranted that he would never pay $1000.00 for a machine which he would either become dependent upon, or which would fail him. He lectured me that my attitude was "what's wrong with America today". He said that the youth of America were lazy, and they expected machines to do their work. He proclaimed: "Computers are going to ruin this country!".

While he continually lectured to me about the threat computers posed to the future of the United States, there was something that he refused to admit. It was something that he could not admit to even himself. He was afraid. My father took pride in his macho toughness, yet this same man was absolutely terrified of computers. A computer was a mystical oracle to him. The technology of computing was so baffling to him that it seemed like a type of magic; which had to be approached with extreme caution. Computers were far too dangerous to trust his business with.

Mother nature can sometimes be motivating to father stubbornness. In the early 1990's, my father's failing health, coupled with the fact that he had lost his business partner, forced him to realize that he could no longer perform business as usual. The doctors told him that he had to choose between working less or dying. They bluntly informed him: "change or die". This was tough medicine for him. He did not merely love his work, he was in love with his work. He thought of a solution to his dilemma. He decided that he could continue to work if his burden were lightened by a computer. He informed everyone of his great new idea.

Myopia

You, the reader, are most likely a technical person since you are reading this at an Internet news site. Most of us are more like Jack than we realize. We have our obsessions. Most of us not only love technology; we are in love with technology.

The technical community is a community with its own standards, and value system. My father views hard work as a virtue unto itself; whereas we generally view the creation of solutions as the more noble professional virtue. Most of the time we, like him, cannot see through our self imposed beliefs. Despite a generalized arrogance that exists in the technical community, which I admit to having been guilty of; we have crippling biases.

The technical community is certainly different from any other professional community ever, but we cannot fairly value our differences as better or worse. Our fears, biases, arrogance, and short sightedness have undermined the power of our community.

For those of us that deeply value a collaborative environment of openness and freedom, we have an ultimatum: change or die. With humility, we must accept that if we wish to benefit society, then we must reach out to society. Many in the technical community have seen multiple indicators of a bleak future dominated by corporations who wish to not only sell technology, but also to own it. Many of us fear that they will profit solely from our dreams and efforts.

We post our complaints in the safety of our peers across the Internet in the vain hope that someone outside our community is listening. This is foolishness, fear, and stubbornness. Neither the general public, nor the politicians, bother to read opinion postings from technology news sites.

It is difficult for us to comprehend that most people outside of our community are actually frightened of technology. You know this is true if you are a professional. Corporations have easily and repeatedly manipulated the public by exploiting their fear of technology.

People, and governments, do not make wise decisions when they are being driven by hysterical fears. We must reach out to the Jacks of this world, because the Time Warners already reach them in their living rooms every night.

People in our community can continue in stubborn arrogance until it is too late, like my dad almost did, or we can say to ourselves that it is time to finally make a difference. By persistently expressing our grievances to only our peers, we have expressed silence to the people who might help us.

We must not be silent.

Precedents are being set in the U.S. legal codes, so we must act if we love technology. We have wasted precious time vainly preaching to the choir. Speak to your friends, associates, and family about technical issues. Explain why the technology issues of today will be so important for freedoms in the future.

Explain it in several ways if necessary, but make certain they understand it. If you will not do it for their benefit, then do it for your's. When people outside our community surrender their rights because of ignorance, then you too will have lost your rights. If technology policies continue to degrade into corporate welfare programs, then we are to blame.

If the general public and the politicians are not educated by us, then we have failed them and betrayed ourselves. We are the representatives of technology in our local communities, and we are the "experts". The burden of insuring digital freedoms is upon us.

If corporations are allowed to control the technologies of the future, then they will control the future itself. If you feel strongly, as I do, then write your representatives immediately.

If you are unwilling to trouble yourself with writing a letter, then you have morally surrendered your right to complain. We can make a difference if we are willing. Congress is in session, and the clock is ticking. Both the RIAA and Microsoft have announced that they intend to "educate" congress. The truth may set us free only if the truth is heard. Don't tell it to me, or anyone else here. Tell it to them. Put away your biases and open your hearts.


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