If code is law, then programmers rule

Impressions of the Open Rights Group conference, Orgcon 2010
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
26 July 2010

Cory Doctorow told a BBC anecdote during my panel at OrgCon on Saturday, the conference organised by the the Open Rights Group on the controls over our increasingly digistalised society.

He was on a European panel of some sort considering technical standards for Intellectual Property protection, Digital Rights Management and how it could be implemented in hardware. The body had industry representatives - Microsoft, etc - and many were British-trained broadcast engineers, often having started their professional lives at the BBC. Relaxing in the pub after  sectarian wranglings in the committee room, the engineers started to reminisce about building their first crystal radio set ... the magic of it - you fiddle around in the garden shed or the school work-bench with a lump of coal  and some wires and suddenly, out of all the crackling, comes a voice. The wonder and delight of that moment comes from a combination of demystifaction and awe: a radio is pieced together in a way that can be reproduced by any of us; yet these simple components produce such a stunningly advanced result.

The engineers talked about how formative an influence that had been on them in deciding to become engineers. Cory pointed the irony of their position out to them: here they were, representing the corporate interests who wanted to lock down hardware and transmission signals behind encryption walls and yet they were expressing the importance to their own lives of having had the sense of empowerment of being able to pluck a voice out of the electromagnetic spectrum with ordinary components. Digital rights management systems are going to deny that right to future generations of engineers, and here they were, part of the lobby for it.

The pleasure of the orgcon event is that it brought together a remarkable concentration of people who understand the power of code - and we're not just talking technologically here. It is the power of code in society and as a transformational experience; a vision of code as a social tool, not a mechanism of control. As the plenary session on the passage of the Digital Economy Act made clear, there are many forces lined up who oppose that vision. Remember the stretching of democratic process that the passage of the Bill represented: the recording industry, and whoever else is behind this extraordinarily powerful lobby, is ready to arm-twist Parliament into abandoning basic principles of law in order to protect its depleting asset-base of mega-star turns. To defend the narrow interests of just one industry, it is now possible to cut off internet access to homes without the slightest proof that those being punished have committed any offense. Next time you watch and enjoy the Brit Awards try to recall that television rights fees to the ceremony get recycled into the lobbying organisation that opposes open rights. 

Hopefully, the orgcon conference will prove the start of a growing alliance of all of us determined to frustrate the lobby for controlled and encrypted  access.


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