Why Innovation Depends on a Free and Open Internet

The last few months a lot of the media I watch/read/listen to have been up in arms about two topics: Net Neutrality and DRM. Net neutrality means that internet providers should be neutral to the content that people consume through it instead of favoring or limiting some content providers (Facebook, Netflix, etc) over other for various reasons (political, commercial, etc). DRM (Digital Rights Management) on the other hand allows content providers (YouTube, Netflix, etc) to encrypt content on their websites and control who can decrypt it in order to protect their copyright. Advocates of Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), and advocates of an Open Internet have been crying out against the developments with the US FCC proposing to eliminate net neutrality and with the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium) about to adopt a DRM standard called EME (Encrypted Media Extension).

I generally consider myself part of the FOSS community and an advocate of an Open Internet. But with these discussions, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the conversations were often vague, political and full of great principles, but lacked a practical angle. What would these developments mean to me? Why is it bad that everyone in the Philippines is getting free Facebook on their cellphones? It’s not so crazy that Netflix wants to protect their shows from piracy right? It is hard to disagree with these developments. But after some further thought, I do understand what more practical consequences will be of these developments, and why they should be opposed. I will try to explain my view of the discussion with a practical angle, and how it would have influenced my personal development if DRM would have been part of the internet standards from the beginning and net neutrality would never have existed.

I grew up with the early computers and when i was in university, my initial internet connection was with a 56k dial-up modem on our regular phone line (to the annoyance of my house mates when they expected a call). Computer science and IT education was still young. Many of the people that started the large software and IT companies in that time didn’t study anything related to computer science or IT. They taught themselves. These are the people that created and enabled the enormous growth of the internet in the 90’s and 2000’s. I taught myself first network administration, got a job at my uni as system administrator, taught myself more, started doing network administration as a freelance guy, moved into Webdesign, discovered I’m no good at that, and moved on to software development. Now I teach at a university and am an independent consultant working for many different clients. Both my personal development, but also the development of the more successful people in the 90’s that created all the big internet, software and IT giants, all depended on people teaching themselves.

This self-taught development of many, many people depended on the fact that all the information needed for that personal growth was and still is available publicly on the internet. Anyone can write content and anyone can access it. Using a search engine it is really easy to find content. And many people decided to share their knowledge and experience for free. Sure, you give away something for free which might not make sense commercially initially, but people realised that if everyone shares information, everyone profits. And even if there are more people “consuming” good content than creating it, still it allows people to learn more easily and push for digital literacy and speed up adoption of new technologies. In the end, the innovative technology growth of the 90’s and present day wouldn’t have been possible without this open internet.

Even now, when technology education in the western world is well developed and people can learn the things I taught myself through regular educational institutes, there are many new fields that show the same growth: 3D printing, the maker scene, IoT, photography/film/content creation, drones and probably many more fields that I am not aware of, are growing rapidly because people can teach themselves and share knowledge with others on the other side of the world. You don’t need to live in a privileged area of a major city to have access to the resources to teach yourself. This is important in the west, where for instance minority groups from less privileged parts of the US society are being taught that through learning to code, they can create their own chances. But it is also important in developing countries where the level of education is much lower and access to knowledge is often restricted severely to the privileged elite. I see this every day in the Philippines. Here at my university, I tell my students, who are mostly not from the privileged elite, that even if you are from the poorest rural community, if you can manage to get access to a computer with an internet connection (something that is increasingly possible) you can teach yourself anything. You can create your own chances and your own employment. This is what I am trying to help my students with. For these parts of society, a free and open internet is an essential facility that enables economic growth for anyone, regardless of their background and money. I could even go on a tangent that the political troubles in many parts of the world are caused by the large gap between the rich and poor, and a free and open internet can be an essential tool in combating that difference and the violence that stems from it.

So how do DRM and net neutrality affect this? How is it bad that “poor people get free access to services” like Facebook on their cellphones? Surely that can’t be bad? This argument is the main argument often heard against net neutrality. People say that if internet providers (Globe, Comcast, Verizon, PLDT) can make deals with content providers (Facebook, Google, Netflix, etc) to allow faster or cheaper or even free access to the content, it is easier for “poor people” to access this content. In the Philippines this is happening very clearly already. All cellphone providers have deals that basically means that access to Facebook from you cellphone is free. This affects the Philippines so much that it became the country whose people spend the most time on Facebook in the world. What’s wrong with that? It created a generation in the Philippines that treats the internet and Facebook as equals. They ONLY use Facebook. Companies don’t have websites anymore, people don’t use email, there are many webshops that use Facebook only. People don’t use anything else. Even professional communication uses Facebook messenger instead of email here. I have never seen anything like it. And this means that Facebook now by itself completely controls the content that people here consume. Because the rest of the internet is not free, people still don’t have access to the wealth of information that exists outside Facebook. And of course Facebook doesn’t do this out of philanthropic motivation. By having all internet traffic and communication being channeled through them, they have a wealth of data that they sell for marketing. So letting go of net neutrality gives internet providers the ability to prefer some content providers and limit other content, without any transparency about their motivation (legal, commercial, etc). This doesn’t help anyone, it only has the potential (and makes good on this potential already in the Philippines) to restrict people to access publicly available content.

The same is true for DRM. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the governing body that wrote many standards that make the internet what it is today (HTML, CSS, etc). They are now about to endorse a standard that describes the encryption of content on the web in a way that allows the content provider to control who can decrypt and view the content. This is what Digital Rights Management (DRM) is. But in addition to that, US law stipulates that it is illegal to break this encryption, even if you have the legal right to view the content. So if you bought music or a video, but want to play it on a device that does not support the DRM software, or the company that provided it doesn’t exist anymore and thus making the DRM inoperable, it is still illegal for you to circumvent the DRM. And even if someone doesn’t even have the copyright to a piece of content (many old books and music is not copyrighted anymore, or made available for free), if they encrypt it for DRM, it is still illegal for you to break the DRM. But what about Netflix and YouTube, that want to make sure that the money they invested in creating content is earned back and people can’t “steal” their content for free? For them DRM makes sense right? As a principle: yes. But no form of DRM has been created yet that hasn’t been broken anyway. And while sharing that content is already illegal under copyright law, it hasn’t stopped people from pirating it anyway. This won’t change by creating a DRM web standard. People who pirate content will continue to pirate content, DRM or no DRM. And it is already illegal for them to do it. So DRM doesn’t really provide any protection beyond what is here.

The real problem lies in the fact that DRM is going to be made a web standard, just like HTML, CSS and many others. Right now, any company can create their own DRM mechanism. Spotify and Netflix already create their own apps that can implement any form of DRM they want. Of course, that has also been broken, but nothing is standing in the way of any companies to implement some form of DRM right now. The only thing that an open web standard from the W3C will do is make it much easier for companies to implement DRM strategies. And making this easy will severely push the adoption of DRM. Right now a company needs to invest quite serious resources to implement DRM and implementing DRM may require users to install additional software, thus inconveniencing them slightly.But this is a good thing. If it is worth it for a company to invest the time and money, they can do it, but people won’t implement DRM on a whim. Once people can implement DRM on a whim because the browsers support it out-of-the-box, the amount of content protected by DRM will increase rapidly. Content that might otherwise have been made available for free, now all of a sudden might become protected by DRM. And the IoT and cloud connected devices on Kickstarter have shown that it is quite common for companies to go bankrupt, and thus bricking the devices that their clients bought because their servers go offline. If DRM is adopted widely, this same problem will start with content which you won’t be able to decrypt once the content provider’s servers go offline.

So adopting an open DRM standard doesn’t really protect content providers against illegal piracy anymore than current copyright protection that already exists, while it will probably reduce the amount of publicly available information greatly. Together with abandoning net neutrality which will cause only content to be available to the public that is commercially interesting for the internet providers, I fear that in the long run these developments will greatly limit the ability for people to innovate and self-educate, and will prevent the innovative economic booms that we saw in the 90’s and 2000’s.