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Lockdown–The Coming War on the General-Purpose Computer, and What It Means for Us

This post was inspired by a couple of previous blogs: one, in another blogsphere I wrote a four-blog review on the current state and direction of the Linux desktop, with the advent of “smartphone/tablet”-style desktop interfaces like Unity and GNOME 3, and what that means for Linux and for general computer use. The second was via a comment exchange on Spocko’s diary where Apple’s relationship with Foxconn was discussed.

With that, I’d like to introduce two videos. The first, short one, “Clouds of Loving Grace“:

The second one, a 50-minute one by Corey Doctorow, “Lockdown, the Coming War On General-Purpose Computing“. This is a very engaging talk (the talk itself is 30 minutes, with 20 minutes for questions) and very entertaining. I think that viewers won’t be disappointed.

And the gist of Doctorow’s argument about the trend to turn our computers into “appliances” that we don’t really control and can’t fiddle with:

On the surface, this seems like a reasonable idea: a program that does one specialized task. After all, we can put an electric motor in a blender, and we can install a motor in a dishwasher, and we don’t worry if it’s still possible to run a dishwashing program in a blender. But that’s not what we do when we turn a computer into an appliance. We’re not making a computer that runs only the “appliance” app; we’re taking a computer that can run every program, then using a combination of rootkits, spyware, and code-signing to prevent the user from knowing which processes are running, from installing her own software, and from terminating processes that she doesn’t want. In other words, an appliance is not a stripped-down computer—it is a fully functional computer with spyware on it out of the box.

We don’t know how to build a general-purpose computer that is capable of running any program except for some program that we don’t like, is prohibited by law, or which loses us money. The closest approximation that we have to this is a computer with spyware: a computer on which remote parties set policies without the computer user’s knowledge, or over the objection of the computer’s owner. Digital rights management always converges on malware.

In one famous incident—a gift to people who share this hypothesis—Sony loaded covert rootkit installers on 6 million audio CDs, which secretly executed programs that watched for attempts to read the sound files on CDs and terminated them. It also hid the rootkit’s existence by causing the computer operating system’s kernel to lie about which processes were running, and which files were present on the drive. But that’s not the only example. Nintendo’s 3DS opportunistically updates its firmware, and does an integrity check to make sure that you haven’t altered the old firmware in any way. If it detects signs of tampering, it turns itself into a brick.

Human rights activists have raised alarms over U-EFI, the new PC bootloader, which restricts your computer so it only runs “signed” operating systems, noting that repressive governments will likely withhold signatures from operating systems unless they allow for covert surveillance operations.

On the network side, attempts to make a network that can’t be used for copyright infringement always converge with the surveillance measures that we know from repressive governments. Consider SOPA, the U.S. Stop Online Piracy Act, which bans innocuous tools such as DNSSec—a security suite that authenticates domain name information— because they might be used to defeat DNS blocking measures. It blocks Tor, an online anonymity tool sponsored by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and used by dissidents in oppressive regimes, because it can be used to circumvent IP blocking measures.

In fact, the Motion Picture Association of America, a SOPA proponent, circulated a memo citing research that SOPA might work because it uses the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and Uzbekistan. It argued that because these measures are effective in those countries, they would work in America, too!

With the “computers as appliances” as the model, with the smartphone and tablet model, there is no more Tor, no more strong anonymity, which means no more things like Wikileaks. That is what is being lost when we actually lose the ability to control our devices. We will probably end up with in the digital age with devices in each and every home that are essentially spy devices, in the service of powerful entities and working against ordinary citizens. Any communication between them (like with OWS) might be easier to monitor.

Now, I’d like to quote myself from my last blog post:

“So the next question becomes: then why are companies promoting these products?

The answer to that question returns to what has happened in the US and the West in general during the last 40 years. The election of Ronald Reagan and the implementation of Reaganomics (which we still live under today) and its policies of low taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, a dearth of any large-scale public domestic investment, wage repression, business deregulation, and an ideological prohibition against any energy policy that would end oil dependence—all these marked in essence the end of America’s high-growth economy. Instead, what has replaced it is no- or slow-growth economy where wealth is to be gained in the form of transfer payments (from bottom to top) and by financial speculation more than by wealth creation.  Today’s America is no longer the win-win system of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s where the rising tide floated all boats; it is a win-lose one (I get richer by making you poorer).

The new model for business has thus become a rentier model.  Rather than sell something and relinquish ownership, one should find a way to in essence “rent” a good or service to a consumer to produce a revenue stream, a monthly payment. These revenue streams then get traded on Wall Street as increasingly esoteric “financial instruments”.  As the unregulated speculation on Wall Street inevitably produces a “bubble economy” of wildly unrealistic expectation of profits and possible returns, companies are encouraged by Wall Street wise men to divest their perfectly-profitable stable businesses making modest returns and throw everything into businesses predicted will make outrageous profits. When these profits aren’t or stop being realized, when the bubble bursts (as it inevitably does) then often these very same companies are swept out in the wreckage.  (Of course, the financiers themselves are shielded by this fate as they use their political influence and bought politicians in Washington and in European capitals to bail them out and re-inflate their bubbles). The whole tale of the de-industrialization of America (and to a lesser extent, of the West) is encompassed by this.

The end result of Reaganomics is a class of rentiers (“nobles”) and renters (“serfs”), the latter owning little or nothing themselves and having to return ever-larger fractions of their ever-diminishing real incomes to the “nobles” for just the necessities of daily life.  You see this everywhere you look. You see it in the proliferation of credit cards and payday loan/title loan sharks (because people increasingly need to borrow on diminished incomes for things their fathers could afford to pay with cash). You see it in reverse mortgages—the goal being that you essentially never own your home, you just rent it and give it back to the bank to make up for retirement income lost by the real decrease in Social Security payouts, the loss of pensions, and the collapse of 401ks in markets busts.  This is really not surprising in historical perspective; the end result of conservatism in practice is a return to a class structure like that of Merrie Olde England, with even the law in effect treating “nobles” with extreme deference while harshly cracking down on “serfs” (hint: zero bankers have been jailed for what has been going on of late, whereas even deceased  grandmothers who download free music in violation of the DMCA get prosecuted).

That’s why you see the ads you see. That’s why you see all these ads for smartphones and smartphone connectivity, for luxury car leases, for reverse mortgages, and for alcohol. Fostering dependency on your product is a great business model, and in fact it’s really the own game in town left in Reagan’s America.

It should be obvious in light of this why companies are pushing mobile devices instead of more traditional devices like desktops and laptops. One, the profit margins on the latter are smaller (the IPhone could have been made with an estimated 50 % profit margin inside the US, but Apple decided it wanted even bigger profits by abusing Chinese child workers so badly they commit suicide). Two, the serfs actually still *own* the latter devices–once a serf buys one, it’s a done deal, with no continuing rent payments.  With mobile devices, in the US at least, connectivity providers are allowed to “lock in” devices to create barriers between switching (that’s not true elsewhere in the world, though; this is politics at work, not technology).  And while these devices are formally owned by the serfs, their breakage rate and the fact that even the most minor of repairs or service have to be done by professionals in essence that by repair or replacement, in one way or another, a revenue stream is maintained. The connectivity itself is outrageously expensive which also guarantees a high “rent” payment compared to more-established home broadband. In short, mobile computing is being pushed on us for reasons that have everything to do with what’s in the interests of the “nobles” and little to do with ours.

Insofar as computing is concerned, Apple has been the biggest offender in trying to retain de facto ownership of their products and impose rental costs on users after they’re sold–via the special screws, the unibody cases, the bricking of IPhones, etc. Microsoft has eyed Apple’s abilities to do this with some envy and has hinted that it would like to rent Windows and Office licenses instead of selling them, and has quietly experimented with this in some countries. While renting people their copy of Windows and threatening to disable it (and their computers) if they don’t pay a monthly bill is no doubt appealing to Microsoft, they have been restrained from doing so by a number factors—because of technical obstacles, because copies of current and previous Windows versions are still in circulation as CDs, because of potential reaction by the government, and finally because of the fear that a significant part of the current Windows user base would go over to Linux.

With this, it’s time to bring up Windows 8. First of all, the screenshots of its previews remind one a lot of what you see in Unity or GNOME 3:

Apparently, Microsoft too is hankering for those huge profit margins off smartphone and tablet sales by making the next version of Windows like a big smartphone interface.  Moreover, to the point, Microsoft is insisting as a security-enhancement that UEFI “secure boot” be enabled with computers shipped with Windows 8–which could be implemented as a means of forever preventing Linux or any other OS save Windows 8 being installed on that computer. Whether or not this happens depends on public reaction, and there are encouraging signs that because of this reaction Microsoft is backing off and re-assuring users that they will be able to control these settings themselves. But I also don’t doubt for a minute that from its past practices that if Microsoft *could* get away with getting OEMs to sell hardware which was Windows-only compatible, they would. Again, they would do so because it’s what Apple tries to do and what the cell phone providers already do. They would do so because that’s lock-in and dependency is the best business model in Reagan’s America.

Finally, I know that some will protest about “the free market” and “competition”. But we don’t have a “free market” any more in most markets. In the absence of regulation and antitrust action, we have oligopolies.  A characteristic of oligopolistic markets is that firms make decisions to enhance profit margins more than in response to consumer demand–a classic case was with the old US “Big Three” auto industry, which did things like abolish those useful triangular front window panels and vents which provided excellent ventilation and cooling in lieu of more expensive and profitable air conditioning.  There was no “consumer demand” to abolish those, the Big Three just decided on their own to do so in unison, leaving consumers with no choice. Likewise, there is little “consumer demand” to make desktops look like smartphones—reading the comments of Windows users, Windows 8 is getting the same response many users gave GNOME 3 and Unity.  There’s even really not much consumer “demand” (as in response to a pressing need, objectively determined) to even promote smartphones for the general public. This is being done not for our benefit or because of our requests, but to enhance their profit margins.

In the computer OS market, despite the Kabuki theater promoted by Apple vs Microsoft, Apple is really not a seriously competitor with Microsoft.  Rather, Apple leaves desktop dominance to Microsoft while promoting Apple mobile devices and Apple entertainment services. That’s a legacy of Steve Job’s gawd-awful control-freakish behavior on hardware; even if all current PC users decided tomorrow to ditch their Microsoft PCs and buy Apple computers Apple could not possibly build enough computers to meet the demand.  Microsoft needs Apple around to provide the appearance of OS market competition instead seeing something else arise that might actually really compete. That’s why Bill Gates bailed out Apple when it looked like it might go bankrupt in 1997.  (I’ve come to see Democrats as akin to Apple and Microsoft akin to Republicans; as Obama’s and Clinton’s presidencies have shown, Democrats don’t really challenge Republican hegemony and basic policies any more than Apple tries to displace the Microsoft PC OS monopoly. Instead, like Apple, the Democrats try to make their supporters feel smarter, more hip, and cooler by voting Democratic while milking them out of every possible fund-raising dime they can extract, all for promises that the Dems never intend to deliver).


The Apples and the Microsofts promote a vision of computing as computer users as passive consumers, people who simply use their devices to passively “consume” entertainment and as a conduit for making other consumption choices. Apple is the most preeminent in promoting this; your device (which you dare not tinker with) is just a way for you to watch movies and buy music (from ITunes, of course) and consume other things. The paradox of Apple’s approach to computing is despite the imagery of its famous “1984” ad, it’s Steve Job’s adamant stance against user “tinkering” which reminds me for all the world of the first-generation Star Trek episode involving the faceless supercomputer “Landru” micromanaging a whole planet under the motto that “I reserve creativity for myself”.  The consumer appliance view of the computer and its OS is not unlike the dystopian visions of Ayn Rand–the few create; the “herd” merely exists to consume.

I think Linux offers a contrasting vision. With Linux, the user is an engaged participant, someone who learns, contributes, develops, instructs, plays. Linux also offers freedom and transparency. You really do own Linux as you own your device itself, its yours to do as you please, and (borrowing an image from the Wizard of Oz) there is no man behind the curtain manipulating things to your detriment. There is no man behind the curtain simply because there is no curtain. It’s the difference of a system designed for participating citizens rather than consumers, or serfs.

The latter gives me hope. Microsoft bested Apple in the initial contest in the 1980s and early 1990s because, despite having the inferior product. Microsoft won because Windows to an extent represented both the  economy and the *freedom* that Apple denied.  Low cost and freedom won the day back then, and I can’t see why it can’t still win now. Linux represents even greater economy and more freedom than Windows ever did.”

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