December 10, 2007

More Disloyal Machines

chainedbook.jpgToday on Practical Ethics I write about Who is your hard drive working for?

The cause is the Western Digital debacle, where the company software prevents their networked hard drives from sharing many kinds of media files "due to unverifiable media license authentication". This of course prevents people from sharing media they do have the right to share, making many users quite irate.

I reacted too, because I was very close to actually buying one of these drives. There is much to be said for user-friendly packaging and Morse-code subliminal grills. But I also demand loyalty of my possessions.

The blog post goes into some of the issues of property rights, looking at whether they give a basis for demanding loyalty. It turns out that they may not be enough. I have a right to control the use of my property and exclude others from my property, which definitely supports my demands of loyalty, but these rights can relatively easily be circumscribed by contracts, licensing and public goods concerns that break up my bundle of rights. Even leaving out egregious EULAs, information asymmetries between sellers and buyers and misleading advertising there seem to be good grounds to think that we cannot demand absolute loyalty. It is still a good thing though, since it places responsibility on human shoulders rather than relying on rigid rule systems.

Another serious problem with this kind of automated control is that it is ideal for censorship. While Western Digital probably worried about being accused of facilitating piracy under the DMCA, it is not hard to see how the threat of other laws could add further limitations. For example, given the UK rules - and enforcement - against "collecting or possessing information useful in the preparation of an act of terrorism" it would be illegal to have The Anarchist Cookbook on any hard drive, and clearly putting it on a net-enabled drive would be even more illegal. So it would be rational for Western Digital to add screening software for banned books to the hard drives, just in order to prevent any accusations that it was aiding terrorism.

It is also not hard to imagine translating current ISP-level filtering against child porn into automated filtering of what is sent from net drives (the software just needs to update a list of file hashes downloaded from the authorities from time to time). And as demonstrated in Sweden where the police began using the child porn filter against pirate sites too, it is easy to get mission creep. There is a nasty synergy between "protections" against terrorism, child porn and piracy, and once a technical solution to one has been instituted it can easily be extended to the others. Given the weight most people give to them, the overspill, chilling effects and security theatre is excused as regrettable but necessary and criticism as treason and immorality.

This slippery slope has not happened yet. But we better nip it in the bud (sand the slope?) by demanding more control over our hardware and fewer automated decisions (with no appeals) about what we can and cannot do.

Posted by Anders3 at December 10, 2007 08:30 PM