Skip navigation

Monthly Archives: June 2011

Copyright, and DRM are some of the biggest issues in the entertainment world today.  From plagiarism to fair use, copyright law is used for both good and bad every day.  DRM, or Digital Rights Management is a field where publishers desperately try to stop crackers from illegally accessing their products, with the honest customers usually suffering in the crossfire.   Both of these things are rife with controversy, and vast numbers of people have dedicated their lives to eradicating or promoting these practices.


Copyright laws have been around for centuries.  At first, it was a way for governments to control the spreading of ideas and information. In more recent times, copyright is more about protecting the rights of a work’s creator.  Unfortunately, it’s begun to venture back into oppression territory at the hands of large publishing companies.  It’s not uncommon now to hear about a popular video being removed from Youtube because it contains a small clip from a television show.  This is a mild example, however.  There have been many incidents where copyright law is abused to silence those whose opinions are a threat.  That’s not to say copyright is an inherently bad thing.  It’s important for creators to control how their works are displayed and distributed.  In most cases, copyright law is implemented to protect those who may not have the influence to protect their works themselves.   As with any law or practice, there is a lot of confusion about copyright.  Brad Templeton has a good article that explains a lot of myths and confusions commonly held about copyright.

Copyright Controversy

A lot of the controversy surrounding copyright comes from it’s abuse by publishers, and how easy it is to violate.  In the early 2000’s, a program called Napster had become very popular.  While today it exists as a legitimate music-provider, it’s early purpose was to share files, usually music.  When publishers and artists discovered that users were sharing and copying their music without paying for it, they were understandably upset.  Napster was ordered to actively prevent copyright infringement by it’s users, and this resulted in it’s collapse.  The branding of napster has changed hands since, but the original Peer-to-peer service has been shut down permanently.  More recently, the Bittorrent protocol has filled this void, with the additional controversy of it’s notorious bandwidth consumption.  Lawsuits against BitTorrent tracking sites such as The Pirate Bay and Demonoid have resulted in bringing their existence into the public consciousness.  Many people believe that copyright is an outdated and unnecessary concept, however, and there exist strong anti-copyright movements in much of the developed world.  The Open Source software movement is driven by the belief that software should be free and open for anyone to use and modify as they see fit.  This has a lot of support for a number of reasons.  The obvious cause being that open source software is free as in beer (no cost). However it is also free as in free speech (anyone can use/modify it).  Copyleft is a concept that incorporates both ideas.  A copylefted work may reserve some rights for the author, but leave others free.  The controversy over copyright will probably continue for years, decades, or even centuries, but It’s unlikely to ever disappear entirely.

Digital Rights Management

Digital Rights Management seems like a new concept to many people, but it’s actually been around for quite some time.  DRM refers to technologies used to prevent unauthorized use of  a product.  DVD region coding is an early example. has a good explanation of that technology.  The purpose there was to prevent differences in DVD release schedules from being circumvented.  Many would argue that it’s real purpose was to force consumers to buy multiple copies of a DVD.  While most people would never encounter this DRM in action, it proved extremely annoying for those who travel a lot, or who order foreign DVDs.  As with any digital security system, the system was quickly cracked, and there is a thriving market for unlocked DVDs and players that can play all DVDs.  This is true of any DRM.  The encryption key for Blu-Ray video disks was cracked not long after they became widely used, which circumvented much of it’s DRM.  The MPAA began an aggressive campaign to prevent the key from being distributed, demanding it be removed from websites under the DMCA.  It led to a “cyber-riot” where users on the popular news site Digg posted the key repeatedly.  Eventually, they had to relent, and the key can be found in numerous locations on the web.

DRM in Gaming

Another field where DRM is prevalent is computer games.  Electronic Arts has become notorious for draconian DRM practices, often requiring an active internet connection to play their games.  Valve has come under similar criticism for the inherent DRM-like features of their Steam Digital distribution system in the past, but since has gotten better.  Like with DVD region coding, Game DRM appears to mostly punish legitimate users while letting pirates off mostly unhampered.   What often happens is someone cracks the DRM, uploads the crack to the internet, and before long anyone with an internet connection ca play the game for free.  A study released in 2009 concluded that for the most part, DRM only hinders legal users.  So why does DRM still exist?  It exists because no matter how ineffective or annoying it is, it provides a measure of peace to those who stand to lose from piracy.  Fortunately, some companies are trying to come up with better ways to deal with the ineffectiveness of DRM.  Amanita’s game Machinarium suffered from a 90% piracy rate due to it’s lack of DRM.  Their response was to conduct an “amnesty sale.”  The game’s price was dropped from $20 to $5, in an attempt to convince players to pay some small token amount for the game.  Another interesting ‘solution’, if it can be called that, is focusing the game on its multiplayer component.  The majority of pirated games cannot be played multiplayer over the internet, because it’s very easy to authenticate a game client that way, and very hard to circumvent that authentication.  Multiplayer-only games like World of Warcraft are only played over the internet, and as a result, have a virtually nonexistent piracy rate.  Unfortunately this requires an active internet connection to play the game, but the blow of this is softened by the fact that the game simply doesn’t exist offline.  It’s unlikely that there will ever be a catch-all solution to the annoyance that is DRM, but hopefully game developers will bend to player hopes for less oppressive DRM.

As a programmer, my initial instincts here are to just make a post that says “Hello, World!” Clearly that won’t do.  So this post is about privacy.  Specifically about privacy on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit.  Facebook is an absurdly popular social networking site (Like you diddn’t know that.)  Twitter is a microblogging tool that lets people broadcast their every thought. (More novelty!

Facebook is often the butt of jokes about privacy, and rightfully so.  I know a number of people personally who avoid Facebook like the plague because of it’s glaring privacy issues.  I know others who adopt a false identity of Facebook in an attempt to use it without exposing themselves.  I even know one person who made a profile for his dog, but has absolutely no mention of himself on it anywhere.  While odd behavior by users is par for the course on the internet, the commonality of such phenomena speaks loudly about how people feel about their personal information being displayed on the web for all to see.  Personally, I’m not a privacy freak, but even I have to admit that the difficulty in hiding things you post is discouraging.  Even more discouraging is that it’s gotten worse over time.  In 2005, the default settings made everything about you invisible to people that weren’t in one of your networks.  Now, in 2011, the default settings make available to the entire internet everying except your photos and wall posts[1].  Facebook would defend this by saying something to the tune of “You can change your privacy settings!” or “That’s what most of our userbase wants!”  The problem with these arguments is a) the privacy setting on Facebook are quite difficult to understand, and b) most of the userbase is unaware of the pivacy issues at hand.  I recently made some changes to the visibility of certain aspects of my Facebook profile, and not only did it take me substantially longer than I anticipated, but I had to actually look things up multiple times.   I’m not one for Interface design, but it’s obvious that the privacy settings for Facebook are either very poorly designed, or deliberately obfuscated.  A number of regular Facebook users that I’ve spoken to were unaware of the issues caused by Facebook’s bad privacy, and were quite disturbed when I told them that jobs have been lost and lives ruined because a user neglected to change their Facebook privacy settings.  Some diddn’t even know the settings existed, and just assumed that things would be kept private.  Fortunately, the privacy holes on Facebook have been starting to get some publicity lately, so the informed userbase will probably grow.  In short, Facebook is a rather poor example of user privacy in social networking.

The next technology I’ll examine is Twitter.  I’ve always thought the concept is pretty cool, and I use it from time to time when I have a short though I wish to share with the world.  And, with Twitter’s default settings they will be.  By default, all tweets are visible to anyone.  This differs from Facebook’s tell-all policy because of it’s context.  Facebook is where you post a ton of personal information, usually with the intention of communicating with friends, and managing your social circle.  Twitter is for sharing thoughts and messages.  Some people use Twitter for communication, but it would be absurd to name that as it’s primary function [2].  Twitter has not been free of privacy breaches, however.  In 2009, Twitter freely gave a user’s personal information to a company.  The reason?  That user has registered the company’s name as her username [3].  There was no process of resolving the “dispute,” the information was just handed over.  The implications of this are concerning.  For instance, if I were to register a Twitter tag of “hoylemd”, and a company with that name desired that handle, would they simply be given my personal information?  In the 2 years since the incident, Twitter may have stepped up their privacy policies, but there’s no obvious evidence to support that.  This brings up another issue about twitter, however: usernames.  There doesnt appear to be any process to confirm that a username for a company or celebrity is actually from them.  Twitter has become popular enough that most public figures already have a Twitter account, but it doesnt seem impossible to impersonate someone via twitter if you pre-empt them.  At the end of the day, Twitter is not exactly a repository of sensitive personal information like Facebook tends to be, but it’s not free of privacy issues, and users should take a look at the account options to customize how private the things they tweet are.

Reddit isn’t as well known as Twitter and Facebook, but in the past year it’s seen a substantial rise in usership.  A reddit[4] is a sort of forum, where threads are usually based around a link.  Users may then comment on the link, or other comments on the link, and there is a built-in voting system known as upvotes and downvotes.  A user upvotes a story or thread if they like it, and downvote it if they do not.  Frequently upvoted threads will be shown higher on a list of threads, and downvoted ones lower. This results in a very good user-sorted news repository.  Reddit consists of thousands of “subreddits”, each about a particular topic.  It also has a very tight-knit, mostly anonymous community.  Usernames are registered, and that’s that.  The ease of registration has even resulted in “throwaway” or “novelty” accounts that people use for jokes, or to discuss something anonymous from their usual handle.  The total lack of personal information would imply that privacy isn’t much of an issue on reddit, but this is not the case.  Being an anonymous social site, Reddit is not free of internet bullying.  In most cases, the internet bullies see themselves as sort of “crusaders,” punishing the wicked for their online crimes.  Someone is found attempting a scam, or posting a false “AMA”[5].  “White Knights” use their considerable detecive skills in tracking down the culprit, and post their personal information on the website, inviting other users to “pwn” them, or prank them.  It rarely goes past prank calls, or pizzas ordered to their homes, but there have been cases where serious harrassment is committed.  The moderators of Reddit recently made a blog post condemning the practice and promising harsh punishment[6], but it will probably never go away.  Fortunately, it’s easy to avoid this type of privacy problem: Don’t be a troll.

At the end of the day, the only way to truely avoid privacy issues on the internet is to abstain entirely from it.  In this increasingly online age, that’s becoming less and less of a feasible option, however.  The optimal solution, like many other issues involving risk, is education.  People need to know what happens when they post something on the internet.  They need to be informed of how they can protect their information from falling into the wrong hands.  Companies who run these websites really need to consider user privacy as well, and make it a priority, as well as making personal privacy control more user-friendly.  It’s an increasingly important issue on the web, and it won’t stay obscure for long.  So remember to educate yourself, and adjust your settings so Big Brother doesn’t know what you don’t want him to know.