In which Gruber and Moltz miss the point

I was catching up on The New Talk Show the other day, during which @gruber and @moltz discussed the EFF’s press release describing the iPhone as a “Crystal Prison”. I agree with them this is a mischaracterisation and, preferring Apple platforms myself, I agree that the iPhone and iPad being “locked down” is a feature and not a bug.

But I think they were thoughtlessly dismissive of the wider point. It’s not about the neckbeards intent on destroying their own productivity by installing Linux on their iPhone, it’s about what Cory Doctorow calls the war on general purpose computation (video.) Doctorow makes a compelling case that copy protection, DRM, the DCMA, SOPA, PIPA and ACTA are not battles that have been fought and won but skirmishes in a war whose endgame makes it actually illegal to own a completely programmable piece of general-purpose computing hardware.

3D printing is personally accessible to geeks and their friends today and available as a service to the wider general public. Already this brings up moral and ethical questions and copyright issues. Over the next few years as home 3D printing becomes cheaper and more common you can bet the plutocracy will attempt to buy laws to make the enabling technologies (i.e., general purpose computers) illegal. But this is nothing: wait until the pharmaceutical industry realises their patented drugs are easily reproducible by computer moderated biological processes anyone can perform at home. Wait until law enforcement realises Anonymous have access to more, cheaper and better autonomous drones than they have. Un-skippable FBI warnings on DVDs will be the least of our problems.

It’s a pity Richard Stallman is such a boor because he’s actually right about some things: if we aren’t vigilant, the general public will have its legal right to build and run arbitrary software on hardware they own eroded to the point where it’s impossible to do so legally.

I believe this is the thinking behind the EFF’s proposed “bill of rights” for mobile computer users: nobody wants or needs to log in to the root prompt on their iPad on a daily basis but it’s incredibly important it remains possible and legal to do so.

UPDATE: Oh hai, Fireballers! That was unexpected. Just wanted to respond to John’s commentary by reiterating what I said in my first paragraph: breaking the secure boot chain for iOS would be a horrible decision and make the user experience worse. Nobody wants that. But maybe Apple could find a way to allow a user to sign their own code—either an app or a whole OS—such that it could be loaded onto that individual user’s device. This maintains the integrity of iOS but allows users’ full access to the general purpose computing hardware they bought.