A Hidden Threat to Free Expression: DRM

Thanks in part to organizations like Free Press Action Fund, the movement to protect free expression online is strong — for proof look at the millions of people fighting to save Net Neutrality. But there’s an important problem that many free-expression advocates aren’t aware of because it usually lurks just beneath the sleek interfaces of our devices and software: DRM, or digital restrictions management.
 
DRM is a broad class of technologies that give the manufacturer of a digital good special control over the ways people use it. DRM has been around since the 1990s and has colonized personal computers, smartphones, game consoles, cars, tractors and more.
 
DRM harms free expression most when it interferes with our use of media like videos, books and music. This DRM is the underlying technology that prevents you from copying Amazon Kindle e-books on to a Barnes and Noble Nook, from downloading a clip of a movie on Netflix for use in a documentary or from sampling a song from Spotify in a new piece of music. DRM exists primarily so that Hollywood studios, big music labels and streaming services like Netflix and Spotify can use it to artificially corral us into spending more money than we would if we were able to make full use of media.
 
Media DRM hurts free expression in a variety of ways, but at the Free Software Foundation we believe these two are the most important:
 
First, DRM throws up arbitrary barriers to making and participating in culture. There’s no way to know how many musicians are unable to reach potential audiences because DRM is locking their music, how many books go unread because they can’t be salvaged when an old e-reader begins to deteriorate, or how many filmmakers are unable to deliver important messages because DRM prevents them from using clips from other films. In the worst cases, DRM can make media entirely inaccessible, as Amazon demonstrated when it remotely deleted DRM-encumbered copies of George Orwell's 1984 from thousands of Kindles without warning.
 
The second way DRM harms free expression is a bit more complicated. In an attempt to stop people from breaking DRM and accessing media on their own terms, the music and film industries, along with U.S. trade officials, have successfully lobbied for “anti-circumvention” laws around the world. These laws make it illegal for anyone to discuss methods of removing DRM — or from even mentioning details of how DRM systems work. Many public-interest technologists say that this curb on free expression makes it harder for them to protect the public from malware and criminals. It also sets a dangerous precedent by expanding the types of expression that government can limit. 
 
Any time there’s a restriction on free expression, we need to ask whether it’s justified. For example, some would argue that limiting hate speech is justified. But limiting free expression because Hollywood studios, big music labels and streaming services want to prop up their business models? That’s something we should never accept. We need to abolish DRM, starting by repealing the anti-circumvention laws — like the Digital Millennium Copyright Act Section 1201 — that give it special protection.
 
I'm excited that on Sunday Free Press Action Fund is participating in the International Day Against DRM, a yearly day of action organized by my group, the Free Software Foundation. To protect your right to free expression, please take action on Sunday at DayAgainstDRM.org. There are many ways to pitch in, but simply sharing a post on social media helps expose this problem.
 
Zak Rogoff is the campaigns manager at the Free Software Foundation. You can follow him on Twitter @Zakkai and on status.fsf.org (federated with Mastodon) @Zak.
 

People + Policy

= Positive Change for the Public Good

people + policy = Positive Change for the Public Good