Our future is bracketed by two writers. George Orwell thought we would be destroyed by the things we hate. Aldous Huxley feared we would be undermined by the things we love. For much of the last century, Orwell seemed to have the upper hand. And although the forces of Big Brother (the UK Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act and the new EU Directive on cybercrime) are still alive and kicking the hell out of civil liberties, it's beginning to look as though Huxley's nightmare will dominate the twenty-first century.
How come? Well, it's all to do with our lust for packaged entertainment, particularly films and recorded music. The advent of digital technology, and especially the rise of the Internet as a mass medium, created a formidable problem for the huge companies that control the "intellectual property" embodied in movies and music.
Their initial responses to the challenge were clumsy and inept. Long after the MP3 horse had bolted, for example, the record companies tried to lock the stable door with their own-proprietary and controllable-file-compression software.
The world yawned and gave its answer in the shape of Napster, an MP3-fuelled file-sharing service that signed up 60 million users in its first 18 months of life. Because Napster was a company seeking to make profits, it was easy to bring to heel. The existing laws of copyright proved sufficient for the purpose. What the furore over the case obscured, however, was the incredible lengths to which the copyright lobby is prepared to go to secure its intellectual property-and the implications of this for civil society.
What has emerged is a formidable three-pronged strategy to secure these property rights. The first-and most obvious-strand is aggressive use of existing copyright laws. The second involves the use of encryption and security technology to counter the technological challenge of MP3 and the like.
The third involves the effective suborning of compliant and ignorant legislatures (notably the US Congress and the European Parliament) to create a new legal framework that gives unprecedented privileges to copyright owners over other groups in society. It's the combination of technology plus compliant legislatures that threatens to bring about Huxley's nightmare.
We're already seeing the effects of this with DVD discs. DVD movies are encrypted using a system called CSS and can be played only on devices that are equipped with approved decryption software. The industry tries to use this to control who can see which version of each movie: DVD discs purchased in the US cannot be played on European DVD players. But the encryption system is relatively easy to crack. Now 'hacked' DVD players can be obtained (if you know where to look) and a decryption program (called DeCSS) is available on the net, so owners of Linux-based computers are able to play DVDs on their machines.
But here's where the double whammy strikes. The copyright lobby persuaded the US Congress to include a clause in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that makes it illegal to write software like DeCSS. And not only are people being prosecuted for doing so, but a computer magazine is being sued in New York for publishing the DeCSS code.
The program is relatively small. It is possible to print it on a T-shirt-and indeed such garments already exist. Under the DMCA, wearing one in public may be a crime. DeCSS has also been published as a haiku. Does this mean that certain kinds of poetry will eventually be outlawed simply to appease the holders of intellectual property? This stuff is no longer about technology; it's about freedom.