Regulation Will Always Play Catch Up To The Computer’s Rules

The problem of how to run business models in a world of digital savants, hackers and maker culture is a fraught one. Cory Doctorow provides an important reflection on the root causes of this issue.

Old approaches to regulation are likely to be increasingly redundant in the face of the transformations ubiquitous digital iterability will cause to many industries. But even in areas where it’s methods are ill suited, the mechanisms of regulation can still exert a considerable degree of force, but Cory Doctorow argues the time has come to give serious consideration to who will feel the weight of that force most.

Contemporary technological advancements and an increasingly prominent ‘Maker’ (and Hacker) Culture are likely to see regulation wrangles kick things up several notches in coming years. To gain some insight into the paths regulation will follow Doctorow infers a parallel with the MP3 and copyright infringement battles of yesteryear. This industry crisis illustrated that the principles upon which the universal computer (and by extension the networks run on these computers) operates simply cannot foreclose the possibility of these unanticipated and industry challenging usages occurring.

And with regards to regulation, the fallout of the filesharing wars is also instructive:

It proved that prohibition is remarkably ineffective at stopping people who really want to get through. Even the staunchest defendants of anti-copying technology and network blocks will tell you that they are intended as “speed bumps” that will discourage casual filesharers

Nowadays the speed bumps are becoming more sophisticated (World of Warcraft comes bundled with spyware that can examine and tamper with every file on the player’s computer, in the name of preventing cheaters), but they can still be circumnavigated by those who are savvy about how their computers operate. And unfortunately sidestepping these control measures isn’t always a mere act of ‘sticking it to the man.’ This sidestepping can also easily be used to exploit customers who may not even be aware of the presence of such software on their computers.

For each of these control measures, the question isn’t whether they’ll fail, but when they will, and who will hijack their capabilities.

This is where the ethical question of regulation presents itself. The spyware model will deter casual deviants but it will provide little more than a hurdle for those who really want to get through. And the means by which the spyware model operates will then afford the determined subverters more means to exploit other machines, should they wish to do so.

Today’s business world is full of companies that have built their fortunes on the idea of designing a computer that can only run certain approved programs. But building a computer that can run every program is infinitely simpler than building a computer that can run any program except for naughty ones… (and) it’s because the potential for harm is so great that we can’t afford to put our faith in magic computer-controlling technology

Doctorow’s article considers how the problem of industry protection versus customer protection applies to future technologies such as  bio-printers that can output organisms, pharmaceutical compounds, and biological material.

Cory Doctorow

The Guardian: “Beware the Spyware Model of Technology–Its Flaws are Built In”

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