The geeks are in fine fettle, Tom – get with the program

Common cause is not monoculture

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Counter-Opinion Whichever one of my colleagues posted Tom Steinberg's guest editorial earlier today will have anticipated (gleeful rubbing of hands) much lovely, lively and enraged feedback. But probably not from me.

Well, screw that, here we go. Tom is to some extent having his cake and eating it by dancing nimbly between condemning monoculture based on a rigid checklist of beliefs, while on the other intimating that he agrees with some of these, but not specifying which these are, or which he disagrees with. But I'll let that pass. Whatever, I am not a geek (if I were I would not be such a klutz when it comes to subnets and bridging, for example), but nevertheless I feel the position he defines for them here is a good, just, and honourable one:

"The geek world seems to line up in universal opposition to the RIAA, to the RIP Act, to Echelon, and, of course, to Microsoft. We support Sklyarov and DeCSS, and damn Valenti and the DMCA, mainly through the medium of our wickedly subversive t-shirts. Geeks may argue about which Linux distro is best, but they all know that a Good OS Has to Be Free. NTK and the Register, like the Daily Mail or the Guardian, have become strangely predictable in their world view - can anyone guess what they're going to say about a new attempt to defend existing copyright arrangements? You bet."

He misrepresents the role of the t-shirt by presenting it as the single and somewhat risible weapon being used, but apart from that I've got very little to argue with him about, and if he tunes that paragraph up a little we'll see if we can put it on a t-shirt. Do not underestimate t-shirts. A killer t-shirt can be a devastating and powerful weapon, particularly in the geek world, but it is by no means the only weapon. Might I suggest the press as another? There are a few of us about, and if he finds us predictable, perhaps it's because we're right, consistent in our moral stance, and persistent in our campaigning.

Would he like us to introduce a little inconsistency in order to tickle his breakfast table? Perhaps we should do a special pro-nazi edition to prove to him we're still intellectually flexible? Or perhaps not.

Being of left-wing persuasion and roots myself, I naturally regard Tom's claim that the philosophical origins of 'love of privacy and free speech' are different and contradictory to those of 'hatred of Microsoft and spam' as muddle-headed and wrong. But as we on the left habitually view one another's stances as being muddle-headed and wrong, I'm not about to pull him up too hard on this. That's not the point, and it's not a problem anyway. Personally I do not see any philosophical contradiction in supporting all of these things, I see nothing to be ashamed of in doing so,* and what you agree about is far more important than what you disagree about anyway.

While waxing politically wise on the origins of the 'standard-issue beliefs', Tom misses two key political points that are blatantly obvious to old leftie lags like me. First, in order to get a message across it has to be reduced to just a few key soundbites and hooks that will appeal to a broad coalition of campaigners, and that can be readily understood by a growing mass of support. So if the message, say, on DMCA is beginning to sound over-simplistic and monotonous, great - it means we're winning. Out of the ivory tower and onto the streets with you, laddie. Second (and this one obviously relates), if more than one person agrees on a single issue as being important, then it generally does not matter how much else it is they disagree on. OK, maybe some of the people I'm lined up with happen to be (in my opinion) addle-brained gun nuts who believe Klingons exist and who'll shoot all the liberals when armageddon comes, but that's cool, let's not argue about that right now, let's get on with what we agree on without bothering to query one another's philosophical consistency or mental stability.

Tom puts forward a couple of points regarding DRM and TCPA which have a certain validity, but misapplies them. For example: "If DRM comes crashing down on our heads, and we can't do anything about it, do we all have to spend the rest of eternity fighting the last war? And if we're fighting that war, who's going to be taking care of the next one?" The question as posed is a largely sterile one, first because we haven't lost yet, and second because in the unhappy event of us losing, I expect we'll notice, pick ourselves up, and be in some kind of order just about in time for the next war.

There is some sense in considering what, if any, measure of DRM might be acceptable as part of a radical rethink of copyright, intellectual property and the way authorship should be remunerated, and that's really what he should be asking about here. But as currently the entertainment business shows no signs of willingness to consider any of the above, the situation is by definition polarised. If any of this is to be discussed, the entertainment industry has to be convinced that it can't win, and if enough people just plain blanket reject DRM, then that might be pretty convincing.

There is also a possible argument in TCPA, but regrettably I can't see it in Tom's editorial. One of the more interesting and less publicised cunning dodges at the moment is the commingling of protecting your rights with defending their commercial interests. If you are pro-privacy, anti-spam, anti-whatever, then you're likely to agree that some kind of trust relationship in communications would be a good thing. Do you want your mother to know it's you? Of course. Do you want to have spoofed emails identified to you and/or rejected? Whyever not? Do you want a secure and virus free operating system? Gordon Bennett, I've been bitching about them not building this (see footnote) for more than ten years.

In constructing systems which purportedly will deal with these issues, however, the industry mysteriously contrives to facilitate the defence of commercial interests. These two should be separate issues (and there should be a third issue regarding trusting the architects of the trust systems), and their commingling is in fact counter-productive, because if people reject TCPA and Palladium because they are enablers for DRM, neither privacy, security nor commercial interest will be satisfied. Again, you can see that there are much more complex issues underlying the soundbites, but to put it simply, if absolute rejection of DRM is maintained, and this threatens to undermine systems that are in any way associated with DRM, then those systems will be under pressure to be re-architected according to a format that is more acceptable. If they are not, then they too will become subject to absolute rejection.

And maybe that's the next war. Looks to me like we could be working on it already, Tom. Your big problem, essentially, is that you've seen what you were looking for, and nothing else. You've read the headlines, but you've not gone any deeper into the issues. Having just found the headlines, you've tagged them as the standard-issue, inflexible commandments of belief. You've courted a bit of controversy, been looking for a bit of response, well, here you go then it worked.

By the way, the reason for the "complete non-existence of grass-roots counterpoint campaigns across a remarkably wide range of technology issues" is frequently because the opponents who exist are wrong, commercially compromised, inarticulate, stupid, maybe all of the above. And no, nobody can "set out a principled, techno-literate argument against ... P2P [or] absolute online privacy." Can't be done without money coming into it somehow, and in that case it's not principled.

As I said earlier, I'm not a geek, but I'm pleased to be allied with them and to agree with them on many things, because they/we are right, and decent and honourable people with a proper appreciation of t-shirts. We'll take care of the many issues we agree on first, and argue about subnets later. ®

* Minor point. Despite appearances to the contrary, I do not hate Microsoft, I merely have very many problems with what Microsoft is and does. I have explained this many times to the many people who have emailed me asking 'Why do you hate Microsoft so much?', and for the sake of brevity will not do so here. So 'hatred' should be read as useful shorthand.

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