The long computer registry and IT control

When meeting with some members ofparliament I have useda gun control analogy to explain digital locks applied tocommunications technology. A minor form of gun control isbeing hotly debated in parliament and the media in the context of aprivatemembers Bill C-391, which has “repeal of long-gunregistry” in its title. A highly controversial form ofthird-party control over communications technology is part ofcopyright Bill C-32,even though this key aspect of the bill is not yet adequatelyunderstood.

I felt it might be aninteresting thought experiment to compare and contrast these twoproposals and the political debate surrounding them. In my case thisthinking was useful for me to better understand the opponents of theCanadianfirearms registry, and thus it may be helpful in allowingothers to better understand opponents to legal protection fortechnological measures.

Here is how the analogy goes: Imagine a form of gun control where all guns are locked. Legalprotection is granted to these locks such that it is illegal for theowner to unlock without permission, including for uses of the gunthat would otherwise be lawful. In order to use a gun, its ownermust call up an animal rights activist to get permission.

This is the essence of legalprotection for technological measures applied to devices. Thecommunications technology is locked by the manufacturer. Legalprotection is proposed to be granted in Bill C-32 to these locks suchthat it is illegal for the owner to unlock the communicationstechnology without permission, including for uses of the technologythat would otherwise be lawful under existing Canadian copyright lawas well as the traditional definitions of copyright. The permitteduses of the communications technology are restricted to thosenegotiated between the hardware manufacturers and the incumbentcontent industry, with the incumbent content industry being the leastlikely to grant permission. This is a set of companies successfulprior to the invention of this new technology, and that wish thatthis new communications technology never existed in the first place.

The following are, in pointform, some comparisons in how these two different restrictions oftechnology are understood and being debated. To save space I willuse the acronym TPMs (technological protection measures) to describetechnologies used to grant someone other than the owner control overcommunications technology. It is easier than writing communicationstechnology control, digital rights/restrictions management (DRM), orthe whole slew of other related terms to describe these ab(uses) oftechnology.

  • When a gun is used, theresult can be death. The death may be the intended target, or anunintended target, but the most common use is to cause the death ofsomething that was previously living. Many abuses of guns arealready illegal under a variety of different laws.
  • When information technologyis used, the result is knowledge is shared. It may be beneficial orpotentially harmful for various parties for that knowledge to beshared. The most common form of potentially harmful sharing iscopyright infringement. Some copyright infringement leads to loss ofrevenue, while others have no effect or increase revenue. Theeconomic analysis of copyright infringement is quite complex. Otherpotentially harmful forms of communication are regulated, where it isthe specific idea being communicated and not the technology itselfthat is being restricted.
  • Many members of theConservative party in Canada oppose mere registration of firearms. On the other hand, the same party is thus far pushing legislation inthe form of C-32 which legally protects someone other than the ownerof technology being in control of that technology.
  • Many members of the NDP arestrong supporters of gun control, with there being a split in thecaucus about the long gun registry. The NDP has Charlie Angus astheir critic on copyright, and he has been an outspokencritic against legal protection of TPMs and C-32. Charliewas also supportive of repealing the long gun registry, but maychange his mind because of politicalinterference from Conservatives who seem intent to defeattheir own proposal.
  • The strongest supporters ofthe registry and TPMs are people who, when being honest, will admitthey wished the underlying technology didn't exist at all. It is notjust registration or manufacturer control they are ultimatelyinterested in, but abolishing. Registry and manufacturer controlover these technologies are just seen as steps in the rightdirection.
  • “Something must be done. This is something”. I have heard this from both supporters ofthe long gun registry as well as supporters of legal protection forTPMs. They are generally unwilling to discuss whether this specific”something” helps or hinders the alleged problem they aretrying to solve.
  • Many supporters of the longgun registry are supporters of gun control. They see the registry asa form of gun control, while many opponents don't see how it relatesto gun control at all.
  • Many supporters of TPMs aresupporters of stronger copyright protection. They see TPMs as a formof stronger copyright protection, while opponents don't see how TPMsrelate to copyright at all (Note the Bill C-32 FAQwhere I argue TPMs are a matter of contract/e-commerce law).
  • Police forces generallysupport the restrictions. Police forces may not give adequate weightto the benefits to society and/or the individual citizen oftechnology which has both beneficial and harmful uses. As a matterof policing it is simpler to reduce the existence and/or citizencontrol over the technology. This is not an insult of police forces,but a recognition of human nature.

Please add in the commentsother ways in which these two policies and the debates around themare similar or different.

Russell McOrmond is a self employed consultant,policy coordinator for CLUE:Canada's Association for Free/Libre and Open Source Software,co-coordinator for Getting Open Source Logic INto Governments (GOSLING),and host for DigitalCopyright Canada.

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