Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA 1201) makes it illegal to get around any sort of lock that controls access to copyrighted material. Getting exemptions to that prohibitions is a long, complicated process that often results in long, complicated exemptions that are difficult to use. As part of our ongoing to effort to fight this law, we're presenting a series of science fiction stories to illustrate the bad effects DMCA 1201 could have.
It's been 20 years since Congress adopted Section 1201 of the DMCA, one of the ugliest mistakes in the crowded field of bad ideas about computer regulation. Thanks to Section 1201 if a computer has a lock to control access to a copyrighted work, then getting around that lock, for any reason is illegal. In practice, this has meant that a manufacturer can make the legitimate, customary things you do with your own property, in your own home or workplace, illegal just by designing the products to include those digital locks.
A small bit of good news: Congress designed a largely ornamental escape valve into this system: every three years, the Librarian of Congress can grant exemptions to the law for certain activities. These exemptions make those uses temporarily legal, but (here's the hilarious part), it's still not legal to make a tool to enable that use. It's as though Congress expected you to gnaw open your devices and manually change the software with the sensitive tips of your nimble fingers or something. That said, in many cases, it's easy to download the tools you need anyway. We're suing the U.S. government to invalidate DMCA 1201, which would eliminate the whole farce. It's 2018, and that means it's exemptions time again! EFF and many of our allies have filed for a raft of exemptions to DMCA 1201 this year, and in this series, we're teaming up with some amazing science fiction writers to explain what's at stake in these requests.
This week, we're discussing our jailbreaking exemption. In 2010, the Copyright Office granted an exemption to allow you to jailbreak your phone, so that you can run alternative OSes or install apps from stores and sources of your choosing. Then, in 2015, the exemption was expanded to cover tablets and smartwatches.
This time around, EFF is asking for the whole enchilada: we're asking for an exemption that covers "general-purpose portable computing devices...primarily designed or primarily used to run a wide variety of programs rather than for consumption of a particular type of media content, is equipped with an operating system primarily designed for use in a general-purpose computing device, and is primarily designed to be carried or worn by an individual or used in a home."
In other words: if it's got a computer in it, and runs more than one program, and you carry it or have it in your house, you should be able to "enable interoperability of applications with computer programs, to enable or disable hardware features, or remove software."
This means that you would be allowed to change the code and configuration of your smart speaker, your game console, your smart TV, your laptop, your phone, your tablet, your thermostat, and your ill-advised Internet of Things juicer, even if you have to crack open the bootloader to do it.
It's Not Brain Surgery, by Cory Doctorow
The day Brian brought home the voice assistant with its smart-camera, Alanna had said, no way, no way was she going to have an internet-connected camera in her home, where they walked around getting dressed, where their kids played, where they had their most sensitive conversations.
But Brian showed her how the camera's motion sensor was smart enough to stream right to her phone whenever unexpected motion was detected, and it was smart enough to ignore the cat frisking in the mid-afternoon sun that slanted through the living room window, and besides, the neighbor had been burgled and cleaned out last month and...
He wore her down, because there was something undeniably cool and convenient about it. They even used it to capture a family video Christmas message and used an app to stick animated Star Wars characters in it before sending it out all their friends. Porg!
Then came the breach: their device and every one like it had been wide open to hackers since day 0, and at least some of them had been harvesting millions of hours of footage and using machine-learning algorithms to go through them and pluck out embarrassing nudes, sensitive conversations, and other kompromat that was now spilling across the net.
They turned their camera off right away, of course, and Alanna was too aghast to even say "I told you so." She couldn't even speak for the first two days, as they waited in fear for footage of them to show up online -- would it be the time they did some frisking of their own on New Year's Eve, after the sitter went home and the kids were in bed, or...?
But the shoe didn't drop. Or at least, not that shoe. They were burgled. Of course they were. The addresses of everyone who'd run one of these stupid cameras were in the leak, and so burglars now had a ZIP-code-sortable database of people who'd just switched off their home security systems in horror. People with enough stuff to warrant a networked camera, whose cameras were almost certainly turned off.
Brian wanted to bring home a different camera. Alanna said "No way" and made it stick this time. The first company had swore up and down that all the video would be encrypted, but it turned out they'd been fudging: the video was encrypted between the cameras and their data-centers, and between the data-centers and their users' devices. But in the data center, it was all there, every frame, because the data-centers was where the magic machine-learning stuff happened that let their camera tell the difference between their cat and a junkie stealing the jewelry Alanna's mother left her.
The insurance adjuster warned them that their premiums were going to skyrocket if they didn't put in a camera, and Alanna remained steadfast. She was never going to trust another empty promise from a slick tech startup with a cool YouTube video and a product that could comprehensively destroy her life.
But then Alanna saw the ad: "TRUST NO ONE (not even us)." A charitable foundation had been funded by survivors of the hack to write a new operating system for it, one that would run on many popular devices. It was "free software" or "open source" and anyone could look at the code, change it, or improve it, and it had already been audited by a who's who of consumer rights groups and security experts from universities Alanna hoped her own kids would some day apply to.
Now it was Brian's turn to say "No way" but Alanna wouldn't budge. The only way she was going to trust a camera in her house from then on was if she knew that anyone was free to read its code and tell her what it was doing. She couldn't reprogram it herself, but she also couldn't do her own brain surgery, and she could trust the peer-reviewed, open process that designed the procedures they'd use if that day ever came.
"It's not brain surgery, Brian," she said, as she downloaded the code.