Hibbard, W. Should Standard Oil Own the Roads? Computer Graphics 37(1), 5-6. 2003.

Should Standard Oil Own the Roads?

Bill Hibbard

University of Wisconsin - Madison

For the past few years my favorite activity at the Siggraph conferences has been the public policy courses and BOFs organized by Bob Ellis. Despite the bursting of the Internet bubble, information technology is the dominant force shaping the future. Because so much of the information flowing over the Internet is visual, Siggraph members have an important role to play in the ways that evolving technology will affect human society. This column is my take on current public policy issues, ending with a short discussion of what will be the most important public policy issue of the future.

Practical Freedom of Speech

In liberal democracies you can say pretty much anything you like. In particular, you can criticize government policy and political leaders. The problem has been that few people could hear what you said unless you had access to mass media like newspapers, radio and TV. Now, the cost efficiency of computers and the Internet is changing that by enabling almost anybody to broadcast their ideas to masses of people. Information technology has created a new practical freedom of speech.

As I described in a Siggraph 2000 panel on free software organized by Bill Lorensen, the practical freedom of speech offered by the Internet was essential for saving my career at one stage. The place where I work was founded by a fine human being named Verner Suomi. As he passed from the scene, we evolved into a mini repressive state. Making Vis5D, Cave5D and VisAD freely available over the Internet gave me direct relations with users and a way to bypass my would-be repressors. And I think Vis5D gave me the distinction of producing the first freeware visualization system.

On a larger scale, information technology has helped people in actual repressive states, by giving them a way to coordinate their actions and by exposing their problems to the world. Ultimately, it is an impossible challenge for repressive leaders to promote the technology necessary for economic progress but still control information flow. In both democracies and non-democracies, the new practical freedom of speech is changing power and property relations, threatening those with power and creating opportunities for those without power.

Intellectual Property versus Freedom of Speech

Nearly universal access to mass publishing capabilities is threatening intellectual property rights and profits. In the past, individuals could make small numbers of copies of music, movies and books using analog technologies like tape recorders and photocopiers. Making copies was expensive, time consuming, and quality decreased with copy generations (i.e., copies of copies). Now, digital media can be copied cheaply, quickly and with no loss of quality. Thus Napster enabled a network of millions of people to make illegal copies of copyrighted music.

Music and movie companies have responded by getting the U.S. Congress to pass the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which makes it illegal to circumvent technological copy protections. This includes making it illegal to publish algorithms for decoding copy protection encodings, even when those algorithms are pretty simple. As I write this I am wearing a t-shirt with the algorithm for decoding DVDs written on the back, and the money I paid for the shirt included $4 to a legal fund to overturn the DMCA. Outlawing publication of decoding algorithms is a new exception to first amendment free speech rights, solely to make it easier to enforce copyrights. This law enforcement convenience, where property but not lives or even health are at stake, should be nowhere near compelling enough for a new free speech exception.

The European Union has its own version of the DMCA, the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD). The DMCA and EUCD are disturbing because they exist in liberal democracies. Outside of these democracies, where there are no traditions of free speech, the situation is of course much worse. At one time China programmed its Internet services to prevent citizens from accessing the Google search engine, and Saudi Arabia recently outlawed cell phones with built-in cameras to stop men from using them to take pictures of women.

A well publicized effort to prosecute copyright violations will discourage almost everyone from doing it. Ordinary citizens won't risk conviction and possible jail terms simply to save a few dollars. For example, during the past decade the University of Wisconsin has been proactive in detecting and eliminating illegal copies of software on all of its thousands of computers, and the same thing is happening in all universities and corporations. For rational individuals and institutions alike, the risks of copyright violation outweigh the rewards. There are concerns about copyright violations in developing countries. But they desperately need World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, and that requires them to enforce intellectual property rights.

Illegal copies of intellectual property may reduce profits of copyright holders. But most people won't take the risk if they see a good enforcement effort, so profits should still be healthy. However, this is not enough to satisfy corporate copyright holders. You don't get to be the CEO of a major media company without being utterly ruthless in maximizing profits.

The Chip in Everyone's Head

A chip implanted in everyone's head is a standard plot device of the science fiction fascism genre. Any politician in a democracy advocating such chip implants would be voted out of office quickly. However, if social interaction is increasingly mediated by technology, it would be almost as effective and more politically acceptable to implant the government chips in everyone's information access devices (e.g., phones, TVs and computers) rather than directly in their heads. Hence the Trusted Computing Platform Architecture (TCPA).

Of course, the TCPA is not motivated by a desire to control what you say or hear. It is intended to prevent you from violating intellectual property rights. But because of the power and flexibility of information technology, the only way to ensure that you cannot make illegal copies is to control everything that you say and hear on-line. Ross Anderson provides a great analysis of TCPA at http://www.cl.cam.ac.uk/users/rja14/tcpa-faq.html, including a link to Lucky Green's DEFCON talk at http://www.cypherpunks.to/.

The basic problem is that information technology is so empowering for individuals. Controlling how individuals can use it requires increasingly radical limitations of the technology. But these limitations on individuals give institutions much greater control. The TCPA will enable the owners of software to mark files produced by their software so that competing software cannot access them. For example, word processors, spread sheets and other office tools can prevent competing software from accessing the files they produce. This will enhance the power of monopolies to exclude competition. And while computers and the Internet make it increasingly cheap and easy for artists to bypass large music and movie companies to do their own production, the TCPA will enhance the power of those companies to effectively prevent artists from distributing their productions.

As outlined by Ross Anderson and Lucky Green, the DMCA and TCPA challenge the viability of the free software movement, by requiring TCPA certification fees every time software is modified. Public statements by the operating system monopoly make it clear that it is trying to destroy the free software movement, and the TCPA will be a powerful new tool for achieving that destruction. The approximately half million software developers registered on SourceForge are a powerful force that could challenge the monopoly.

Where is Teddy Roosevelt When You Really Need Him?

If the behavior of Standard Oil had not been restricted by antitrust prosecution at the beginning of the twentieth century, it could have extended its oil monopoly to a monopoly over all auto manufacturing by simply refusing to sell gas and oil to anyone driving a car they had not manufactured. Ultimately, they could have extended their control to the entire U.S. economy.

More recently, we have seen the operating system monopoly drive others out of the web browser business and become the browser monopoly. The U.S. Department of Justice in the new administration doesn't see anything wrong with this. In the future, the TCPA will greatly increase the power of the operating system monopoly to extend its monopoly to other markets. They will be able to extend their control to the Internet, and even to the entire economy. Except of course at some point the public will get fed up and elect a government that will enforce the antitrust laws. It also appears that countries and emerging industries are shunning the operating system monopoly out of fear of being controlled.

Monopolies do more harm than simply raising prices. As long as companies have real competition, the best technology decisions are the best business decisions. But once a monopoly is established, the best business decision is often to suppress the best technology decision. For example, just as the world needs formats for text, image and sound information that can be exchanged between all computers, it needs a format for exchanging programs. That's what Java is. But a format for exchanging programs threatens the operating system monopoly. So they are promoting their own system, technically very similar to Java but without the clause in the license requiring all implementations to maintain compatibility.

Infinity = 20 + 20 + 20 + . . .

In 1897 a bill was passed in the Indiana House, but not the Senate, to set pi to several implied rational values including 3.2 but not the often quoted 3. The current U.S. Congress has demonstrated a much greater mathematical sophistication, having grasped the meaning of Peano's Postulates. While the U.S. Constitution says that copyrights must have limited terms, the congress has learned that they can create an unlimited term simply by increasing the term by 20 years once every 20 years. This approach has the advantage of keeping the movie and music industries on the hook for campaign contributions for an unlimited term.

The latest extension, passed in 1998, is being challenged in the U.S. Supreme Court, but the court is likely to uphold the extension. There is little doubt that the congress will continue to extend the copyright term to keep most music and movies of the twentieth century out of the public domain. But some time before the year 2398, when the term is due to be extended to 495 years, the court or the voters will finally stop it.

The Future, When Things Really Get Interesting

Long before the year 2398, information technology will confront society with its most important policy issue: the development of machine intelligence. First we must recognize that intelligent machines will exist. Neuroscience is discovering all sorts of detailed explanations of mental behaviors in terms of physical brain functions, leaving no doubt that eventually all mental behaviors will have physical explanations. They will just be very complex explanations, because of the large numbers of neurons (100 billion) and synapses (100 trillion) in the human brain. And then our advancing technology will build machines with minds, quickly advancing to machines with minds much more intelligent than human minds (in part because machine minds will contribute to their own development).

The Internet is upsetting power and property relations in human society, but this is nothing compared to the way machine intelligence will upset those relations. Despite our prejudices, brains are actually very democratically distributed among humans. The highest IQ in history is only about twice the average, while the largest trucks, buildings and computers are thousands of times larger than their averages. Machines will ultimately have much greater intelligence than humans. Upsetting the rough equality of intelligence among minds will reverse the long-term trend toward human social equality, unless the public becomes active in understanding the issues and determining policies to protect their interests. The debate will be over whose interests are served by intelligent machines. Given the dominant power of superior intelligence, this debate will determine whether the world continues its evolution toward increasing democracy or whether it reverts toward totalitarian rule by a few. The issues of machine intelligence are discussed in greater detail in my new book, Super-Intelligent Machines, at http://www.ssec.wisc.edu/~billh/super.html.