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)
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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
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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