Doctorow’s Three Laws: One Problem, Zero Solution

Cory Doctorow is most known for his science fiction novels and his “internet activism” (he used to be the European Director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation), in a keynote speech at Stockholm’s Internet Days-conference he tried to connect the two. Doctorow presented a view where free speech online is restricted not so much by the entertainment industry’s ambitions to contain piracy, but by the lock-in effects that those actions create with the internet platforms. To demonstrate this, Doctorow articulated three laws:

1. Anytime someone puts a lock on something that belongs to you and won’t give you the key, that lock isn’t there for your benefit.

According to Doctorow, digital locks (i e DRM) serve to protect the intermediary rather than the content. Using the Hachette-Amazon dispute as an example, Doctorow described how difficult it is for a consumer to move content it has invested in with one online supplier, to the detriment of competition. (He also spoke very convincingly about the “consensus hallucination of the distinction between streaming and downloading”).

2. Being famous won’t make you rich, but no one will give you money unless they’ve heard of you.

Doctorow said the counter-piracy measures insisted on by the entertainment industry has only served to reinforce the domination of the internet platforms, raising barriers to entry and thus stopping competition. Doctorow used the example of Google Music which first negotiated with the four major labels, then forced that deal on the independents to make this point.

3. Information doesn’t want to be free

Very true, information doesn’t have any wishes, it does not get disappointed if it doesn’t get what it wants. In Doctorow’s words “information is an abstraction”. It is people who want to be free. Doctorow used this to make a point about the surveillance and censorship being unacceptable and though there may be bigger problems in the world (gender inequality, climate change, corruption etc), he said the battles on these issues will be fought on the internet.

In all, a very eloquent and emotional keynote, in fact one of the best I’ve seen in conferences like these (and I have been to quite a few, for better or worse). There are more aspects to some of these points of course. DRM may not be the only or most important factor in niche dominant players, rather the logic of the network implies that a single Ebay or Wikipedia work better than two separate. Competition comes not in the form of a similar offer but a different use pattern (Google sees Facebook as a bigger threat than Bing).

For all his insight, Doctorow’s conclusion is surprisingly vague. He says he would be happy to give up his income as a writer if that means the internet can be without surveillance or censorship. But why should that be the sacrifice he has to make? In what way would giving up his livelihood stop tech companies from collecting big data on their users or dictators to demand network operators track down dissidents or stop hardware makers from locking content to its devices? From a science fiction writer, I would have expected the power of imagination to create a vision of a future where he would not be faced with such a choice.