Some things just don’t belong in an operating system; this is one of them

What the hell were they under the influence of when they came up with this crazy idea? Am I in the Twilight Zone?

This article on TorrentFreak discusses a report published by the organizations Black Market Watch and the Global Initiative against Transnational Organized Crime, about ending online copyright infringement in Sweden. The report itself is in what would appear to be Swedish (guessing since it’s about Sweden, though I can only say for sure it’s not in English). What they suggest honestly reeks of George Orwell’s dystopian future: have copyright infringing content blocked at the operating system level.

There are so many problems with this suggestion, so I’m only going to address the most obvious one I see. With copyright comes something called fair use, known outside the US as fair dealing but which is essentially the same concept. Basically, fair use means there are some purposes for which it is allowed to use copyrighted material without having to get the permission of the copyright holder. I am not sure how something in the operating system is going to be able to tell the difference between unlawful infringement and fair use. My guess is that it probably won’t, and will interfere with perfectly legal uses of copyrighted material.

Another big issue has to do with the very basic foundations of computing, and what makes computers and related technology so useful. I have been using computers since elementary school, back when the requirement in Texas for computer literacy class was one semester in middle school. (Now, the requirement is not for a separate class, but that all classes at all grade levels incorporate some form of what is now called technological literacy. This is completely different and shows the difference between technology in the late 1980s versus technology in the mid-2010s; it is quite a stark contrast.)

What made computers so useful then, is that the computer did exactly what one told it to. For the most part, this is still the case, though in more recent times there have been attempts of varying success in eroding this. Examples include things like scanners or copiers refusing to make copies of currency or other documents which pattern-match a list of prohibited items. Sometimes the restriction is on the software running on the computer versus the actual scanner firmware (in the case of scanners), so it’s easy to work around if desired. I haven’t checked lately but it is possible newer scanners may have the restriction in the scanner itself, which to me would fit right in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Another case is DVD copy protection, which is also relatively easy to circumvent. The major obstacle here is the Digital┬áMillennium Copyright Act which makes it a crime to do so, albeit one which is rarely if ever enforced against someone who just wants to watch a DVD on a PC running GNU/Linux without having to spend more money on a properly “blessed” DVD player or non-free DVD playing software. Most of the same applies to Blu-Ray (and HD DVD) copy protection, though it’s a bit more robust given that it came out after the US government relaxed regulations on cryptography export (in 1996, when the first DVD players hit the market, it was difficult if not impossible to export any encryption systems which used keys longer than 40 bits, which even at the time was laughably small).

There’s also an edge case which may seem far-fetched, but may well become real and a very real problem: what if someone’s original work gets mis-detected as copyright infringing by this system, due to a hash collision or something similar? It’s not as far-fetched as it may seem, given stories like the one about Fox appropriating a clip of someone playing the original Nintendo Entertainment System version of Double Dribble. Fox used the clip in Family Guy, then had the original taken off of YouTube due to a copyright infringement claim, possibly through automated means. Now, what if the clip in question is, say, an original computer animation, and an automated system which is part of the computer’s operating system decides to block it (or even outright erase it) based on a similar content matching system after a TV network uses it? If it were my work, I’d be pretty damn pissed off. Wouldn’t you? Worse, that same operating system module could decide to erase it from my backups if I were to try to restore it.

No. Just plain no. We, the computing public, have a right to have computers free from such an absolutely insane and idiotic system. I acknowledge that copyright as it exists today has deviated far from its original purpose, and may even be considered broken, but this is no way to fix it. In fact, this breaks it even more.