The long computer registry and IT control

(Note: In the 41'st parliament bill C-32 became bill C-11, and Bill C-391 became bill C-19)

When meeting with some members of parliament I have used a gun control analogy to explain digital locks applied to communications technology. A minor form of gun control is being hotly debated in parliament and the media in the context of a private members Bill C-391, which has "repeal of long-gun registry" in its title. A highly controversial form of third-party control over communications technology is part of copyright Bill C-32, even though this key aspect of the bill is not yet adequately understood.

I felt it might be an interesting thought experiment to compare and contrast these two proposals and the political debate surrounding them. In my case this thinking was useful for me to better understand the opponents of the Canadian firearms registry, and thus it may be helpful in allowing others to better understand opponents to legal protection for technological measures.

Here is how the analogy goes: Imagine a form of gun control where all guns are locked. Legal protection is granted to these locks such that it is illegal for the owner to unlock without permission, including for uses of the gun that would otherwise be lawful. In order to use a gun, its owner must call up an animal rights activist to get permission.

This is the essence of legal protection for technological measures applied to devices. The communications technology is locked by the manufacturer. Legal protection is proposed to be granted in Bill C-32 to these locks such that it is illegal for the owner to unlock the communications technology without permission, including for uses of the technology that would otherwise be lawful under existing Canadian copyright law as well as the traditional definitions of copyright. The permitted uses of the communications technology are restricted to those negotiated between the hardware manufacturers and the incumbent content industry, with the incumbent content industry being the least likely to grant permission. This is a set of companies successful prior to the invention of this new technology, and that wish that this new communications technology never existed in the first place.

The following are, in point form, some comparisons in how these two different restrictions of technology are understood and being debated. To save space I will use the acronym TPMs (technological protection measures) to describe technologies used to grant someone other than the owner control over communications technology. It is easier than writing communications technology control, digital rights/restrictions management (DRM), or the whole slew of other related terms to describe these ab(uses) of technology.

  • When a gun is used, the result can be death. The death may be the intended target, or an unintended target, but the most common use is to cause the death of something that was previously living. Many abuses of guns are already illegal under a variety of different laws.
  • When information technology is used, the result is knowledge is shared. It may be beneficial or potentially harmful for various parties for that knowledge to be shared. The most common form of potentially harmful sharing is copyright infringement. Some copyright infringement leads to loss of revenue, while others have no effect or increase revenue. The economic analysis of copyright infringement is quite complex. Other potentially harmful forms of communication are regulated, where it is the specific idea being communicated and not the technology itself that is being restricted.
  • Many members of the Conservative party in Canada oppose mere registration of firearms. On the other hand, the same party is thus far pushing legislation in the form of C-32 which legally protects someone other than the owner of technology being in control of that technology.
  • Many members of the NDP are strong supporters of gun control, with there being a split in the caucus about the long gun registry. The NDP has Charlie Angus as their critic on copyright, and he has been an outspoken critic against legal protection of TPMs and C-32. Charlie was also supportive of repealing the long gun registry, but may change his mind because of political interference from Conservatives who seem intent to defeat their own proposal.
  • The strongest supporters of the registry and TPMs are people who, when being honest, will admit they wished the underlying technology didn't exist at all. It is not just registration or manufacturer control they are ultimately interested in, but abolishing. Registry and manufacturer control over these technologies are just seen as steps in the right direction.
  • "Something must be done. This is something". I have heard this from both supporters of the long gun registry as well as supporters of legal protection for TPMs. They are generally unwilling to discuss whether this specific "something" helps or hinders the alleged problem they are trying to solve.
  • Many supporters of the long gun registry are supporters of gun control. They see the registry as a form of gun control, while many opponents don't see how it relates to gun control at all.
  • Many supporters of TPMs are supporters of stronger copyright protection. They see TPMs as a form of stronger copyright protection, while opponents don't see how TPMs relate to copyright at all (Note the Bill C-32 FAQ where I argue TPMs are a matter of contract/e-commerce law).
  • Police forces generally support the restrictions. Police forces may not give adequate weight to the benefits to society and/or the individual citizen of technology which has both beneficial and harmful uses. As a matter of policing it is simpler to reduce the existence and/or citizen control over the technology. This is not an insult of police forces, but a recognition of human nature.

Article also on IT World Canada's blog >>