posted Oct 21, 2003
in Communication Ethics

Communication Ethics book part for Interaction of Restrictions and Sending. (This is an automatically generated summary to avoid having huge posts on this page. Click through to read this post.)

As our technology continues to improve, and our theoretical ability to control the receiver continues to improve, it's worth carefully examining the restrictions we are considering for the definition of "experiencing" the message they imply. Half of analyzing a Digital Restriction Management system is determining how it defines "experience" for the types of messages it is trying to restrict.

I don't support requiring senders to help receivers archive their works; there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the idea of pay-per-view as such. But what does it mean if we restrict pay-per-view customers from recording the pay-per-view event for their own archives? In the days before it such restrictions were possible, such as in the mid-1990s, one could say that when a customer purchased a pay-per-view event they were paying for delivery. If we restrict what people can do with pay-per-view content, does that mean that the customer is now paying for a viewing, rather then delivery? Does that mean that the customer has legal grounds to demand a refund if they do not actually view the event as planned? In the 1990s, we would have considered that a specious argument because the goods were delivered as contracted. Now, if the customer doesn't view the work, it seems they paid money for a viewing and got nothing in return. Can the pay-per-view provider just tell the customer that it's too bad?

To maintain the principle of symmetry, restrictions on what a receiver can do imply a corresponding responsibility for the sender. DRM that does not account for this is unethical. All DRM systems I know of are strictly in terms of giving the senders control with no mechanism for the receiver to hold the sender to their responsibilities.

Further, the contracts from the providers that boil down to "The customer shall give us money, and we may or may not deign to provide them certain services" need to be stopped as well. They are probably already unenforcable even under current law, so this is no great loss. The more tightly the reins are pulled on the receiver, the higher quality service the receiver should be able to demand.

Natural vs. Unnatural Restrictions

I think it's worth taking a moment to differentiate between "natural restrictions" and "unnatural restrictions". Natural restrictions flow from the technology itself, and are often removed by later technology. It is not inherently easy to record television. It was never the responsibility of the television industry to make it easy for the home user to record. However, once the VCR came along, the industry had no right to restrict their use, either. A natural restriction was thus removed. There is nobody who intends (in the legal sense of "intent") to have these restrictions, they just naturally exist.

Unnatural restrictions are deliberate limitations to the technology, intentionally engineered into the final product (again in the legal sense of "intent"). There may be a little bit of fuzziness here but it's usually pretty clear whether a technology has been deliberately hobbled or not, especially as our ability to sling numbers around improves.

There is obviously a big ethical difference between these two. That nobody could copy compact disks cheaply when they first came out was to be expected ("burnable" CD's are actually quite sophisticated technology and they were not trivial to develop, even though we use them casually now), and the various industries did not have an ethical mandate to wait to use CDs until people could so copy them. The inability to archive or make direct fair use of the digital data was a natural restriction of the technology.

DRM is an intentional technology, creating intentional restrictions. Even when they merely mirror older sets of restrictions, there is a significant ethical difference.


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