February 6th, 2013 | by RUTH BROWN Arts & Books | Posted In: Books

Hotseat: Cory Doctorow

The Boing Boing co-editor and novelist discusses surveillance, jailbreaks and the impact of his friend Aaron Swartz's suicide.

doctorowCory Doctorow - Photo by Jonathan Worth, jonathanworth.com

Cory Doctorow is very worried about the future of your cellphone. 

As the co-editor of massively popular blog and self-described “directory of wonderful things” Boing Boing, Doctorow finds all the links you will be looking at two weeks later on Reddit.

On the day we speak, he’s written about a Doctor Who scarf, 3-D printers, a 1962 magazine called Famous Monsters of Filmland and a very disturbing sweater covered in photos of gummy bears. But it's a midday missive about the new U.S. ban on unlocking cell phones that seems to be weighing most heavily on his mind.

When he's not curating the Web, the 41-year-old Canadian-born, U.K.-based writer is also a prominent technology activist, resulting in a mind perfectly tuned to extrapolate the Orwellian consequences of such a law: If we lose the right to poke around inside our phones, we lose the ability to find out who is listening in. 

It's the type of scenario explored in Doctorow's 2008 young-adult novel, Little Brother, set in a not-so-distant future where teen hackers fight the government's increasingly draconian levels of surveillance inside their computers, schools and even their library books. 

This week, Doctorow releases a sequel, Homeland, which picks the story up a few years on, but draws on what’s been happening in real-world America since his first novel: drones, Occupy, online leaks, and the growing divide between the rich and the rest of us.

Doctorow visits Portland this week to promote Homeland’s release. He spoke to WW from his home in London.

WW: Your first novel, Little Brother, served as a warning about the slippery slope of relinquishing digital freedoms in the name of security. Now five years later, are we better or worse off? 
Cory Doctorow: On the digital side, we’ve gotten worse and worse. We’ve had our full measure of Orwell, and now we’re having our full measure of Huxley. We’re being offered, in the form of comfort and ease, sets of velvet handcuffs that have real steel underneath them. 

The copyright office just this week changed the rules so that you will no longer be allowed to unlock your phone, and it seems likely to me they will also take away the right to jailbreak your phone the next time they review this.

What does that mean for us?
The significance of that is that your phone is a device that has a microphone and a camera, and it’s privy to all your conversations: the ones that you have on the phone and the ones that you have near the phone.

You take it to the bathroom with you, and it knows who all of your friends are and knows where you go and has your banking passwords and is also the thing that you use to record some of your most intimate memories. And we are increasingly designing these phones so that it’s actually illegal for us to know what they’re doing.

That's what it means for it to be illegal to jailbreak your phone, to change the operating system: That it's illegal to know what that potential little snitch in your pocket is doing. 

And right as that’s happening, we’re also getting an expansion of lawful interception powers from governments who have noticed that if you either lean on phone companies or manufacturers or both, you can get an enormous amount of information on people.

You can essentially outsource your spying to not even the phone companies, but to us. We personally end up paying the cost of spying on ourselves, because we pay a monthly subscription fee to be spied on. 

Little Brother and Homeland are both written for the young-adult market. Are teens better tuned in to these issues of privacy?
It's a really hard class of problems and I don’t think kids are very good at it but neither are the rest of us. But kids are in a uniquely bad position, because thanks to laws that are intended to protect children, we actually make it a punishable offense for kids to take any steps to protect their own privacy. 

For example, every school and library that receives federal funding has censorware on the network that’s supposed to stop kids looking at bad Web pages. And it doesn't do a very good job of it.... But one underappreciated effect of this censorware is that it’s also spyware. There’s no way to stop you visiting a bad website without looking at all the websites you visit.

The companies that run this spyware for libraries and schools are really dirty. Their major customer bases are Middle Eastern dictatorships. They just repackage their software for schools.

They’re really not the kind of people you want to be custodians of children's morality, much less privy to the entire gamut of children’s intellectual development. You are essentially taking war criminals and perching them on your children’s shoulders. Moreover, you're telling them if [they] take any affirmative steps to hide what they're doing from these creeps, they're kicked out of school or they're in big trouble or can't use the computers anymore. 

If I had my way, we would teach kids to circumvent every censor wall, to jailbreak every device, to get outside of every proxy as a matter of course and as a matter of network literacy to understand how their information is being filtered, who can see what they’re seeing and how to get around it. And I think we do the opposite. I think it’s creating a generation of kids that is being trained to systematically undervalue their privacy. 

You offer all your books for free on your site in addition to selling physical copies. Why?
Well, to be more precise, everyone’s books are available for free. I’m the one who doesn’t threaten to bankrupt you for doing what everyone’s doing already. 

It’s been beneficial to me in three ways. The first is commercial.... So long as there are more people who become new customers than people who stop being customers because they can get it for free, I have a net gain. I don’t care if everyone who reads the book pays for it.

One is artistic: We live in the 21st century, and copying is not going to get any harder. There’s not a future in which there’s going to be fewer copies. Hard drives aren’t going to suddenly become less capacious and more expensive. So if you’re making 21st-century art, you should assume that art will be copied by people who love it.

And if you’re not making art with that assumption, you may be making good art, you may be making great art, but you’re not making contemporary art.... It's artistically important to me that my work look like a 21st century work, which is that it has a network and moves around that network easily.

The last dimension is a moral dimension. Copying is a feature, not a bug. I’ve copied all my life.... As an adolescent, we copied using less efficient means: We copied using the photocopier and reel-to-reel or cassette dubbing decks. But I did copy with every ounce of my energy at every moment of my day.

So for me to say that when I did it, it was a legitimate course of my artistic development, but when you do it to me, that’s just thieving, it makes me feel like a jerk and a hypocrite.

There’s a moral dimension to not condemning other people for doing what I’m doing and certainly for not allowing my work to be part of the rubric for terrible Internet and censorship laws we’ve gotten in the name of defending copyright.

The suicide of Internet activist Aaron Swartz has really thrust a lot of these issues of freedom, both online and in regard to information, into the mainstream media.
Aaron helped write Homeland. And he wrote one of the afterwords. So obviously this is an issue that’s very close to my heart. 

Do you think this attention will have any sustained impact?
Among Aaron’s friends, and the people that care about the things he cared about, his death has galvanized us. It wasn’t that we were sitting around doing nothing, but perhaps we feel a sense of urgency that wasn’t there before. 

So many of us, myself included, know this is a long fight. We’ve lost the sense that any particular battle is one that we must win.

This unwillingness to surrender on any one battle, that every battle is crucial and every battle must be won. I think that was Aaron’s example for us: that youthfulness that he had that gave him the vigor and the passion that when you’ve been doing it for 10 years or 20 years or 30 years, that turns into a much more mellow, longer-term vision. And I think a lot of us are feeling that fire again, that every fight matters. I think that’s down to Aaron.

Is the battle for online privacy a “long fight,” as you say, or actually an endless fight?
What I think is that the number of people for whom the Internet is something more significant than an option for staying in touch with friends, or one of many ways to be entertained, and has instead become their lifeline—that number of people is going up and up, and the number for whom this matters become more diverse.

[My grandmother] never had much interest in computers until my daughter was born. She lives in Canada, and I live in London, so she had to figure out Skype. So for her now, fights over the destiny and regulation of the Internet are not just fights about a group of people who she’s tangentially involved with. They’re direct questions about how she interacts with her family. That is a microcosm of things being played out all over the world. 

And the future of this fight?
The time we spend fighting over Orwell—over surveillance and control—is probably going to decline in the face of the amount of time we have to spend fighting about Huxley. 


GO: Cory Doctorow will be at Powell’s Books at Cedar Hill Crossing, 3415 SW Cedar Hills Blvd., Beaverton, 228-4651. 7 pm. Free. All ages. You can download Little Brother and Homeland at craphound.com.
 
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