Mobile Linux Gears Up

As I recently posted, handheld computing is set to take a big step forward, and with the hardware finally becoming suitable, there is a big question: proprietary or open software? Ubuntu is gearing up to make that a real choice [BBC].

As this post on the Ubuntu listserv explains,

it is clear that new types of device – small, handheld, graphical tablets which are Internet-enabled are going to change the way we communicate and collaborate. These devices place new demands on open source software and require innovative graphical interfaces, improved power management and better responsiveness.

Intel, specifically, have announced a new low-power processor and chipset architecture which will be designed to allow full internet use on these mobile Internet devices.

Instead of limited-function services like web browsing over my cell phone — which is so expensive and clumsy that I never use it — we will have general-purpose and freely expandable computing in our hands. This is going to be big.


House Bill to Protect Bloggers as Journalists

Ars Technica highlights a new amendment to the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007 extending source-protection rights to bloggers. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-VA) has a good reputation among the freedom of information/open access crowd for siding with users. He also sponsored the Fair Use Act of 2007 which would protect libraries and other users of copyrighted materials.

And speaking of open access, a couple quick searches at OpenCongress show that both bills are still in committee. Lobbying time…


Harvard Law Prof: "Protect Harvard from the RIAA"

Harvard Law School Professor Charles Nesson writes:

The RIAA has already requested that universities serve as conduits for more than 1,200 “pre-litigation letters.” Seeking to outsource its enforcement costs, the RIAA asks universities to point fingers at their students, to filter their Internet access, and to pass along notices of claimed copyright infringement.

But these responses distort the University’s educational mission. They impose financial and non-monetary costs, including compromised student privacy, limited access to genuine educational resources, and restricted opportunities for new creative expression.

With colleges and universities under increasing pressure from the record labels’ lobby, now is the time to push back. The educational mission is a more vital interest to our schools than collaboration with the entertainment industry to prop up their obsolete revenue model.

[via Slashdot]


HD-DVD Encryption Authority Vows to Fight Key Leak

Ars Technica has the latest in the HD-DVD encryption key leak story (see my previous post). The encryption method in question is called AACS and it’s managed by the AACS Licensing Authority.

“If the local neighborhood gang is throwing rocks at your house, some people might tell you not to call the police because they will just throw bigger rocks,” [AACS LA chairman Michael] Ayers said.

But the bigger point is what happens when you “call the police,” to continue with his metaphor. Yes, the cops can stop people from throwing rocks at your house, so you’ve got to take that risk knowing that those same kids might retaliate next week. But AACS isn’t a house, and encryption keys aren’t rocks. Can “the cops” stop a 16-byte number from existing online? We can peer into the future and see the answer because history is, in fact, repeating itself.

The article goes on to draw the natural parallel between the HD-DVD encryption hack and DeCSS, the 1999 DVD encryption hack. The two situations will end in the same result: the code will continue to be available online. Unfortunately, the AACS LA seems determined to harass a bunch of people with lawsuits before bowing to the inevitable.


Digg Gets Caught in HD-DVD Encryption Fight

As I posted a while back, a method was found for extracting the encryption codes for HD-DVDs and Blu-Ray discs, allowing unauthorized decryption. Basically the problem is that in order to let legitimate users play their movies, you have to give them both the locked version and the key. It’s just a matter of time before someone takes that key and unlocks something else. In the case of HD-DVDs, it’s even worse because the encryption scheme depends on a single master key.

Next came some twists that speak volumes about the current state of “intellectual property” and its radical opposition to free speech. Yesterday the story went around social bookmarking and discussion site Digg that the key had been found. Because the master key was so short, the original poster included it in the title of their post.

Digg received a DMCA takedown notice and decided to comply. Users went nuts. They flooded the site with posts containing the key code and lobbying Digg’s management to fight back. Finally, at the end of the day, founder Kevin Rose posted his decision.

First, this case highlights the fact that even if you have a good method of securing information, there is no reasonable level of lockdown that will prevent this type of “leak”. This is a tangent, but I think an enlightening one: the same thing applies to security from terrorism.

There is no such thing as a tradeoff of freedom for security, because security is an illusion. Inmates in maximum-security prisons still manage to murder each other. Unless you’re willing to impose restrictions on the public greater than those on prisoners, you can’t make violence impossible. If violence is possible, you can’t be secure — only more or less likely to be attacked, more or less likely to live through it.

Any amount of freedom in a society, which I hope we can agree is a good thing, brings with it “security holes”. The fact that we are not constantly at war with each other is a social construct based on alternative effective methods of conflict resolution. We are free to be violent, but mostly choose not to.

Back to freedom of information. Freedom of speech does not exist in a vacuum. Any amount of freedom of expression in a society depends upon the public’s ability to use and repurpose the expressions of others. No reasonable amount of restriction of free expression will achieve full control over access to information. And the crucial point is that with the internet, one lapse in access control leads to full publicity. Therefore the idea of trading freedom of expression for information security, in the public context, is an illusion.

Second, Digg’s reaction is a miniature version of the process that society as a whole is going through to readjust its beliefs and policies to internet technology. Because of the internet, that encryption key is now a piece of public information. And the public is getting tired of corporate interests manipulating the legal system, trying to put the cat back in the bag.

Digg recognizes that its value is dependent upon its social nature. Placing restrictions on users will dry up that well of participation and cause Digg to fail. It’s precisely the many-to-many nature of the internet that makes explicit the radical dependence of content and service providers on the good will of their users.

Without waiting for the market to sort out the problem, Digg listened directly to its users and made the right decision. In a sense, actually, the users made the decision. That’s a fundamental shift in the way things work, which is making its way through every institution — though mostly at a slower pace than Digg’s one-day turnaround.


Joost Readies Launch

Joost is a p2p streaming video system. Basically you watch TV on your computer; I’ve been using the beta and it works really well. The limitations are 1. you can’t save the videos, only stream them, and 2. your favorite show is probably not on Joost (yet).

Ars Technica reports that Joost will come out of beta later this month with content from CNN and other Turner networks, in addition to existing deals with CBS and Viacom.

While other net video services like YouTube and Google Video have been hugely successful with short clips, TV networks want more control and more DRM. I’m sure they’re also happy to save on high-bandwidth streaming servers and pass that task to users’ network connections. Joost is a few steps ahead and seems well-positioned to give the networks what they want.

I do think it’s cool that the old media are trying out new distribution methods. But they seem to be sacrificing some key features of web services — searching, repurposing, linking, and layering content via standard, open protocols and APIs. They’ve rebuilt the one-to-many TV network model on top of the many-to-many internet. This may be necessary to secure participation of the old media players but let’s not stop demanding full functionality — which means open interoperability — of these new services.


Koha Library System

The SLC library currently uses proprietary catalog software. It’s expensive, we can’t add features we want, and it won’t interoperate with our other systems like web servers, image databases, and our learning management system (which is a whole other problem in itself). So everyone was pleased when the opportunity arose to consider a different solution: Koha. It’s an open source integrated library system.

The bad news is that it’s still an immature product and lacks some features we would need, like a reserves module. The good news is that some of the developers close to the project have started a service company, LibLime, which will develop features and customizations and add them to the software. Rather than paying a software license fee to the proprietary vendor, who has little incentive to implement our feature requests, we could directly pay the developers to build the software we want.

LibLime’s approach is to treat customizations as preferences — switches that can be flipped to give different functionality from the same build of the software. This prevents forking and versioning issues, which were my key concerns with mission-critical open source software. The developers themselves take an integrative approach; they seem very interested in developing an extensive feature list in response to what librarians need and dealing with any conflicts at the preference level.

Often with proprietary software, one preference is forced on all users because that is less work for the developers. To the contrary, the paid-development/open-source model means that the developers get paid for exactly how much work they do, so they can afford to do things the hard way if that’s what users want.

Down the road, I’m concerned with making sure that the systems we implement are standards-compliant and talk to each other. The possibility of tying together a catalog/search solution like Koha with a web platform like Plone, another open source software, really raises the prospect of free and easy information flow around campus. The open source model means that these tools keep getting better and more available; what starts in the library and expands to the campus continues to spread across the entire internet.


Webcasters Lose Appeal of Rate Hike

As I posted earlier, the U.S. Copyright Royalty Board negotiated a sweetheart deal for the RIAA and music publishers, mandating webcasters pay extremely expensive royalties. Webcasters, led by NPR, appealed the decision, but that appeal was rejected.

The new royalty scheme goes into effect May 15. Unless something is done now, a lot of radio stations, new media outlets, and anyone else who wants to stream but can’t afford it, will have to shut down their webcasts.

If there were a principled reason within copyright law to stop this, it would apply to radio as well. Record labels tried and failed to get royalties whenever a record was played over radio (see Lessig’s Free Culture). There is no principle here, it’s just a question of whose pocket the copyright administrators and Congress happen to be in.


Amazon to Sell DRM-free Music

Ars Technica reports that Amazon will sell DRM-free music from its new online store in May. This follows Apple’s and EMI’s announcement of a similar arrangement on the iTunes music store, also to be launched in May.

Amazingly enough, Steve Jobs may have precipitated an industry-wide change with his “Thoughts on Music” essay. The industry now seems ready to rethink its revenue models [NYTimes] — the digital marketplace is set for a big shakeup.

To be pessimistic for a moment, the worst-case scenario is that both the Apple/EMI and Amazon ventures fail and that failure is blamed on the public’s disinterest in, or toleration of, DRM. It must be noted that even if you buy non-DRM music (e.g. CDs), under current law, you can still be sued for copyright infringement if you share them. By technical or legal means, music buyers are prevented from fully using even DRM-free tracks.

So the upcoming competition between DRM and non-DRM downloads will be inconclusive even if you believe the market can sort out this issue. On the other hand, I bet Amazon will be quite successful… and Apple has already won the PR points it was looking for.


Linux Proliferation

Linux is free. It does pretty much everything Windows does. So why hasn’t Linux taken over as the most popular desktop OS? Open Source Learning’s Jan Stedehouder answers that it’s a combination of factors but mostly inertia and politics.

This analysis is pretty straightforward; the new idea is to explicitly create an international working group with the goal of Linux proliferation. I happen to think that the consumer market is not the best solution for every problem. This is a case where it has really failed to pick the optimal solution and therefore intervention is a good idea.

On the other hand, open source software development is really a peculiar form of activism; in addition to those who identify as “freedom fighters”, it appeals to apolitical engineers and political bystanders who just want to see the best tools made available. Will their commitment to these tools extend into the explicitly political sphere?