Thursday, April 22, 2010

ACTA - the fair, the bad, and the just plain silly

The full negotiating text of the long-secret 'Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement' has finally been released.

As everyone and her dog has long known, the agreement has little to do with "counterfeiting" as we English-speakers know it ("trying to pass something off as something else"), but is rather about protecting the revenue streams of the US congress by "harmonising" international copyright law. Apparently, the six existing international treaties on the subject just aren't cutting it. True counterfeiting (trademark infringement) does get a mention, but it is very much an afterthought. The real meat is all in 'copyright'.

In the Kafka-esque process of negotiating this secret treaty, there have been several rounds of "consultation" in which we, the public, have been invited - albeit very quietly - to comment on various aspects of the text that we've never been permitted to see. In the last such round, I sent in a short submission to the NZ delegation on the aspect that most bothers me, which is an area known in NZ law as "technological protection measures".

TPMs sound complicated and obscure, but in fact they're not nearly obscure enough. They are what prevents you from playing your Region 1 DVD in a Region 2 DVD player, from using your backup copy of your software CD, from copying the text from your legally-purchased e-book, from saving a streaming media file to your desktop to listen offline.

All of these actions are, at least in NZ and the UK, explicitly permitted by law - that is to say, a copyright holder has no right to prevent us from doing them, without asking permission, even if they want to. Yet TPMs are used to nullify those laws and stop us anyway. And - and here's the kick in the teeth - the publishing industry wants it to be illegal to "circumvent" a TPM, regardless of the circumventor's motives or their use of the product. That is what I'm fighting to keep out of NZ law.

In the event, the text is so convoluted that it's hard to see who's winning. Omitting footnotes, and condensing without loss of meaning (note: ellipses mark excisions for brevity; square brackets are in the original):
Effective technological measure means any technology ... that, in the normal course of its operation, [controls access to a protected work, performance, phonogram, or protects any copyright or any rights related to copyrights.][is controlled by the right holders through application of an access control or protection process such as encryption, scrambling, or other transformation of their works, performances or phonograms, or a copy control mechanism, which achieves the protection objective.]

[4. In order to provide adequate legal protection and effective legal remedies against the circumvention of effective technological measures that are used by authors, [performers or producers of phonograms] [the right holder of any copyright or related rights or owner of an exclusive license] in connection with the exercise of their rights and that restrict unauthorized acts in respect of their works... each Party shall provide for civil remedies, [or] [as well as] criminal penalties in appropriate cases of willful conduct, that apply to:

[Each Party shall provide for adequate legal protection and effective legal remedies... against the circumvention of effective technological measures that are used by authors, performers or producers or phonograms in connection with the exercise of their rights and that restrict unauthorized acts in respect of their works, performances, and phonogram. These shall apply to:]

(a) the unauthorized circumvention of an effective technological measure [that controls access to a protected work, performance, or phonogram]; and
(b) the manufacture, importation, or circulation of a [technology] ... that is: [marketed] or primarily designed or produced for the purpose of circumventing an effective technological measure; or that has only a limited commercially significant purpose or use other than...
I think I begin to see why the Americans finally agreed to let this be published. The various options and alternate clauses are so divergent, I could be headed for a famous victory or a disastrous defeat; it's literally impossible to tell.

A TPM may be something that "controls access to a protected work... protects any copyright or any rights related to copyright [name three - Ed]". Or alternatively, it may be something that "is controlled by the right holders through application of an access control or protection process". It doesn't take a Hallam or a Holmes to see that these are two very different definitions - one based on what it does, the other on who does it. Then comes a third definition, much better than either of these: measures "that restrict unauthorized acts in respect of [protected] works".

It would be tremendous vanity to see my own fingerprints here, but that last version is exactly what I'm aiming for: tying TPMs to the limited set of rights that they are allowed to protect. An act that is explicitly protected by law cannot be "unauthorized" - therefore, something that restricts it is not a TPM within the meaning of this text.

All is not lost. There is plenty of text here that, if allowed to stand, would make a decent, liberal, liveable treaty. There is also some extremely bad text that, if allowed to stand, would enforce a new world order in which you could no longer lay claim even to the contents of your own memory. Which way will it go?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Time to support the other thugs

Gordon Brown has named the day for his date with density. In the now time-honoured manner of government stories it was extensively leaked in advance, which allowed it to be reported as news for three days running; but now, apparently, he's told the queen, which is the final step. Time was when Her Maj would have been the first to know, but tempora mutantur and all that. I wonder if she minds, hearing it from the BBC?

And I find myself in the awkward, even embarrassing, position of rooting for the Tories.

It's nothing to do with the wars, or taxation, or the economy. On those topics I see no reason to believe that Mr Cameron's gentlemanly thuggery would be any better than Mr Brown's randomised blundering. (Speaking of which, I can't believe that Mr Brown is running on his record. Or that the British public is, apparently, inclined to see him as a "safe pair of hands". "Yes, Sweeney Todd may have slipped a couple of times, but you can't deny his razors are sharp.")

No, there are two good philosophical reasons for ditching even the very well founded ideological conviction that the Tories are a bunch of crooks who are just waiting for the opportunity to shovel the tax money to their friends instead of Labour's...

The first is the National Identity Register - or as it's also misleadingly known, the national ID card. A massive, detailed, authoritatively maintained database of who is and, by exclusion, who isn't a British citizen. It's hard to define "fascism" with any degree of rigour, but one of its most consistent features is a hard, definitive clarity about who is Them and who is Us. I don't think I want to be a citizen of such a country.

The Tories have been encouragingly hostile, in a discouragingly non-specific way, to major government IT projects in general. Personally I think this is a big mistake. It means that the contractors will tend to side against them (on sound precautionary principles), but because they haven't made specific commitments to scrap specific projects, the rest of us won't credit them. We will simply assume that the Tory plan is, as usual, to divert money from Labour-supporting shareholders to their own. If Mr Cameron really wants to mobilise the popular vote on this issue, I suggest promising a complete moratorium on all government IT spending for at least five years. No new computers, no new software, no maintenance payments, all training to be provided exclusively in-house for that time. If you're going to create cushy, subsidised jobs, at least make them in the civil service where security and continuity are king - not in the private sector, where profit and growth are the motivators.

Best of all, it will keep the government from growing too efficient. In theory this should appeal to the Tories. An inefficient public sector, after all, is one you can't rely on. It's the best possible insurance against the unconstrained growth of the state, and against the all-pervasive intrusion of the state into private business. If only they could think straight, and rid themselves of the ridiculous fetish for "value for money"...

But one thing the Tories have specifically promised to scrap is the NIR. This is, of course, a 180-degree reversal from the days of Michael Howard, who thought it was the best idea ever. That's what a couple of terms in opposition will do for you.

Which brings me to the second reason: the natural cycle. When any party has been in power for over ten years, you can absolutely guarantee that it has long since run out of anything that might be called "good" ideas, and is now mostly jerking its knees when tapped by the tabloid press. Voting for an incumbent government, at this stage, basically means voting for Rupert Murdoch.

Voting for the other lot, on the other hand, gives them a chance to implement some of the policies they've come up with in opposition. Some of which may actually be good ideas. They'll be tapped out in, at most, two terms, and then the pendulum can swing back. But it's not good for anyone that it takes too long to swing.

If the National Identity Register comes to pass, the best I can hope for is that the Scottish Nationalists sweep to power and declare independence from the UK. I haven't read the specification for the NIR, but I have learned a thing or two about databases these past three years - and I'm guessing that an independent Scotland would render it obsolete at a stroke.


It's some months, now, since my mother's visit.

After a lifetime of studiously avoiding the southern hemisphere, it was a big deal for her to come here. Not least because she's even older than me (go figure), to the point where travelling isn't as easy as it could be. On the plus side, she could afford to fly business class, which (as I've learned) makes a huge difference on a long flight. (The difference between $2500 and $5500, for a start.)

So we were absolutely chuffed to see her, take a week off to drive her around some of the more accessible picturesque bits of the island, and put her up in our excellent spare room while she was in town. (I say "excellent". It's on the cool, south side of the house, which is nice in summer; it's next to the kitchen and the downstairs bathroom and the wine cellar, so all necessary conveniences are close at hand. We should have more guests.)

And like everyone who visits, she got introduced to the Wii.

It didn't take her long to fling together her Mii. Now, "mumsie" is permanently added to our roster of playable characters. (Not that anyone else would play her, of course. That would be rude.) And she has an impressive record of Wii Fit achievements, games played and unlocked, to say nothing of her ratings at sports. The Wii misses her.

And she, apparently, misses it. Because she's been and bought her own. I wish I could have seen my father's reaction. He does a good line in 'flabbergasted', he's the only person I know who can register that particular reaction properly.

But she can't work out how to recreate "mumsie" properly. So just for her, these are the images from our Wii. And for my other readers, enjoy it, because this is the first time I've posted a picture of a friend or family member here: