Tivo Phone Home...

I want to like Tivo, I really do. Every time I drive home to San Jose from the East Bay on Highway 237 I see that friendly TV character waving at me from the top of their buildings. The damn thing runs Linux, and Andrew Tridgell, the clever part of Samba, spent many weeks hacking their file system internals and channel guide system (they didn't want to sell it in Australia, so tridge decided to just "fix" the US version so it worked there).

Given the malevolent toxic wasteland that characterizes television in the USA (both broadcast and cable) a time-shifting video device is a necessity to avoid the evils of accidentally running into "the Mouth of Sauron" (Fox News, the official twenty-four hours a day voice of the Bush Administration) or even just the innocent vacuousness of endless daytime soap operas (interrupted every fifteen minutes for adverts which until you've experienced it you can't imagine how annoying it is).

But the Tivo phones home. I first heard about it a few years ago when I was seriously considering buying one after a hard sales job from a friend, "you can skip the commercials!" he said. I almost went out and bought one there and then. Then I ran into the news that the software on the Tivo isn't fixed, it auto-updates, that the company can and does consider it their box, not yours. In other words, if they decide that it fits their business model to remove that functionality (ie. the TV networks pay them enough) then after the next phone call home the Tivo won't do that for you anymore. It's not working for you, you see, but for Tivo (the company). That did it for me, I'm not going to buy a Tivo anymore.

I have nothing against auto-updating software, after all it's the only way my Linux boxes have even a prayer of being safe from the auto probes my filters have recently been catching (scary stuff as my home boxes aren't even in any DNS). Thank god for Yum as I like to say. But the software I update is a decision by me, not by Red Hat or Novell. What gets put on those boxes and when it's added is totally my choice.

But for more and more devices (and software too) this isn't true any more. It's worse than just proprietary software; I still run that in the form of the Nvidia graphics drivers on my Linux boxes (sometimes you just have to relieve the tension by firing up an OpenGL first person Linux shooter and just kill everything that moves. Trust me, it's an American thing). It's a device that is malleable, that changes according to the whims of the maker, not the purchaser (and I'm not saying "owner" because the real fact is you don't own these boxes). It started with the realization by Corporations that a device for which a working Internet connection is a necessity, is a device you never have to let go of. You don't have to "sell and let go" of the product anymore, you can sell it and keep it firmly within your grasp.

When software like this is proprietary and unchangeable then what we have is the beginnings of the loss of control over things we previously thought belonged to us; the very devices in our homes and workplaces. The mischief that can be achieved with this is unending and probably unimaginable today. What really worries me is if Governments decide to get in on this very seductive idea. That would be a John Ashcroft and David Blunkett wet dream (excuse me, I need a shower after that last thought). You can see the attraction for the sort of Governments we're leaning towards in our "war on nouns" (Terror, Drugs, whatever...) and the sort of Governments that already exist in places like China.

People forgot in the heady days of the 90's dot-com boom that the Internet was created as a a government network, and right now we're seeing how easily the dreams of the techno-utopians can end up as a regulated utility. In the amazing novel by Vernor Vinge, "A Deepness in the Sky" (if you haven't read it, or his previous "A Fire Upon the Deep" stop reading this article and do so now) he came up with this perfect description of a modern tyranny, one in which "Government approved code must be running on every node in the network".

I know it's a stretch, to go from a Tivo calling home to a "revenge of the Clipper Chip" scenario where parts of every printer, personal computer, router, TV, phone or PDA must be running "phone home" auto-updating software; to wherever that home may be. But not much of one. The attraction of such kinds of devices is obvious to both Corporations and Governments alike, and we all know where "the merger of state and corporate power" leads. There are busy little bees within most major computing companies working on standards for "Trusted Computing", where the entity being trusted certainly isn't the owner of the machine. These efforts are tailor made for this nightmare Internet of the future. I can see the RIAA and MPAA licking their chops already. Remember, in the world we're building, even your doorknob will have an Internet linked embedded processor and software. Who will control it?

What does this mean for Linux and Free Software? Something else to resist as strongly as possible (as if we didn't have enough already). As "Trusted Computing" isn't currently addressed by the GPLv2 then it's something we really need to think about for any future licenses. My dream is that by the time the technology and desire exists to build such a ubiquitous network it'll be economically impossible to scrape together enough non-GPLed software to make such devices run.

But I'm still haunted by a scene from Channel 4's barely fictional "A Very British Coup", where the head of the UK security services says to one of his zealous underlings "I sometimes think, Mr. Fiennes, that you'll only be happy when the entire population of Britain is under permanent, twenty-four hour surveillance", to which the scary Mr. Fiennes replies, with a blank look that explains much of the dull ordinariness of such tyranny, "Happy, Sir? No, just...... satisfied".

Jeremy Allison



Have you yet read Rainbows End? Vinge seems much less bothered by a fully trusted-computing-ified world than he had in his previous books. I have read that he is terrified of the singularity, and this might explain Rainbows End. It's not as good as a novel, but it's great as technological speculation.


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