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All Complex Ecosystems Have Parasites by Cory Doctorow

All Complex Ecosystems Have Parasites

Cory Doctorow

[email protected]

For the O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference

San Diego, California

16 March 2005


This text is dedicated to the public domain, using a Creative
Commons public domain dedication:

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AOL hates spam. AOL could eliminate nearly 100 percent of its
subscribers' spam with one easy change: it could simply shut off
its internet gateway. Then, as of yore, the only email an AOL
subscriber could receive would come from another AOL subscriber.
If an AOL subscriber sent a spam to another AOL subscriber and
AOL found out about it, they could terminate the spammer's
account. Spam costs AOL millions, and represents a substantial
disincentive for AOL customers to remain with the service, and
yet AOL chooses to permit virtually anyone who can connect to the
Internet, anywhere in the world, to send email to its customers,
with any software at all.

Email is a sloppy, complicated ecosystem. It has organisms of
sufficient diversity and sheer number as to beggar the
imagination: thousands of SMTP agents, millions of mail-servers,
hundreds of millions of users. That richness and diversity lets
all kinds of innovative stuff happen: if you go to
and "send a story to a friend," the NYT can convincingly spoof
your return address on the email it sends to your friend, so that
it appears that the email originated on your computer. Also: a
spammer can harvest your email and use it as a fake return
address on the spam he sends to your friend. Sysadmins have
server processes that send them mail to secret pager-addresses
when something goes wrong, and GPLed mailing-list software gets
used by spammers and people running high-volume mailing lists

You could stop spam by simplifying email: centralize functions
like identity verification, limit the number of authorized mail
agents and refuse service to unauthorized agents, even set up
tollbooths where small sums of money are collected for every
email, ensuring that sending ten million messages was too
expensive to contemplate without a damned high expectation of
return on investment. If you did all these things, you'd solve

By breaking email.

Small server processes that mail a logfile to five sysadmins
every hour just in case would be prohibitively expensive.
Convincing the soviet that your bulk-mailer was only useful to
legit mailing lists and not spammers could take months, and
there's no guarantee that it would get their stamp of approval at
all. With verified identity, the NYTimes couldn't impersonate you
when it forwarded stories on your behalf -- and Chinese
dissidents couldn't send out their samizdata via disposable gmail

An email system that can be controlled is an email system without
complexity. Complex ecosystems are influenced, not controlled.

The Hollywood studios are conniving to create a global network of
regulatory mandates over entertainment devices. Here they call it
the Broadcast Flag; in Europe, Asia, Australia and Latinamerica
it's called DVB Copy Protection Content Management. These systems
purport to solve the problem of indiscriminate redistribution of
broadcast programming via the Internet, but their answer to the
problem, such as it is, is to require that everyone who wants to
build a device that touches video has to first get permission.

If you want to make a TV, a screen, a video-card, a high-speed
bus, an analog-to-digital converter, a tuner card, a DVD burner
-- any tool that you hope to be lawful for use in connection with
digital TV signals -- you'll have to go on bended knee to get
permission to deploy it. You'll have to convince FCC bureaucrats
or a panel of Hollywood companies and their sellout IT and
consumer electronics toadies that the thing you're going to bring
to market will not disrupt their business models.

That's how DVD works today: if you want to make a DVD player, you
need to ask permission from a shadowy organization called the
DVD-CCA. They don't give permission if you plan on adding new
features -- that's why they're suing Kaleidascape for building a
DVD jukebox that can play back your movies from a hard-drive
archive instead of the original discs.

CD has a rich ecosystem, filled with parasites -- entrepreneurial
organisms that move to fill every available niche. If you spent a
thousand bucks on CDs ten years ago, the ecosystem for CDs would
reward you handsomely. In the intervening decade, parasites who
have found an opportunity to suck value out of the products on
offer from the labels and the dupe houses by offering you the
tools to convert your CDs to ring-tones, karaoke, MP3s, MP3s on
iPods and other players, MP3s on CDs that hold a thousand percent
more music -- and on and on.

DVDs live in a simpler, slower ecosystem, like a terrarium in a
bottle where a million species have been pared away to a
manageable handful. DVDs pay no such dividend. A thousand
dollars' worth of ten-year old DVDs are good for just what they
were good for ten years ago: watching. You can't put your kid
into her favorite cartoon, you can't downsample the video to
something that plays on your phone, and you certainly can't
lawfully make a hard-drive-based jukebox from your discs.

The yearning for simple ecosystems is endemic among people who
want to "fix" some problem of bad actors on the networks.

Take interoperability: you might sell me a database in the
expectation that I'll only communicate with it using your
authorized database agents. That way you can charge vendors a
license fee in exchange for permission to make a client, and you
can ensure that the clients are well-behaved and don't trigger
any of your nasty bugs.

But you can't meaningfully enforce that. EDS and other titanic
software companies earn their bread and butter by producing fake
database clients that impersonate the real thing as they iterate
through every record and write it to a text file -- or simply
provide a compatibility layer through systems provided by two
different vendors. These companies produce software that lies --
parasite software that fills niches left behind by other
organisms, sometimes to those organisms' detriment.

So we have "Trusted Computing," a system that's supposed to let
software detect other programs' lies and refuse to play with them
if they get caught out fibbing. It's a system that's based on
torching the rainforest with all its glorious anarchy of tools
and systems and replacing it with neat rows of tame and planted
trees, each one approved by The Man as safe for use with his

For Trusted Computing to accomplish this, everyone who makes a
video-card, keyboard, or logic-board must receive a key from some
certifying body that will see to it that the key is stored in a
way that prevents end-users from extracting it and using it to
fake signatures.

But if one keyboard vendor doesn't store his keys securely, the
system will be useless for fighting keyloggers. If one video-card
vendor lets a key leak, the system will be no good for stopping
screenlogging. If one logic-board vendor lets a key slip, the
whole thing goes out the window. That's how DVD DRM got hacked:
one vendor, Xing, left its keys in a place where users could get
at them, and then anyone could break the DRM on any DVD.

Not only is the Trusted Computing advocates' goal -- producing a
simpler software ecosystem -- wrongheaded, but the methodology is
doomed. Fly-by-night keyboard vendors in distant free trade zones
just won't be 100 percent compliant, and Trusted Computing
requires no less than perfect compliance.

The whole of DRM is a macrocosm for Trusted Computing. The DVB
Copy Protection system relies on a set of rules for translating
every one of its restriction states -- such as "copy once" and
"copy never" -- to states in other DRM systems that are licensed
to receive its output. That means that they're signing up to
review, approve and write special rules for every single
entertainment technology now invented and every technology that
will be invented in the future.

Madness: shrinking the ecosystem of everything you can plug into
your TV down to the subset that these self-appointed arbiters of
technology approve is a recipe for turning the electronics, IT
and telecoms industries into something as small and unimportant
as Hollywood. Hollywood -- which is a tenth the size of IT,
itself a tenth the size of telecoms.

In Hollywood, your ability to make a movie depends on the
approval of a few power-brokers who have signing authority over
the two-hundred-million-dollar budgets for making films. As far
as Hollywood is concerned, this is a feature, not a bug. Two
weeks ago, I heard the VP of Technology for Warners give a
presentation in Dublin on the need to adopt DRM for digital TV,
and his money-shot, his big convincer of a slide went like this:

"With advances in processing power, storage capacity and

Heaven forfend.

Simple ecosystems are the goal of proceedings like CARP, the
panel that set out the ruinously high royalties for webcasters.
The recording industry set the rates as high as they did so that
the teeming millions of webcasters would be rendered economically
extinct, leaving behind a tiny handful of giant companies that
could be negotiated with around a board room table, rather than
dealt with by blanket legislation.

The razing of the rainforest has a cost. It's harder to send a
legitimate email today than it ever was -- thanks to a world of
closed SMTP relays. The cries for a mail-server monoculture grow
more shrill with every passing moment. Just last week, it was a
call for every mail-administrator to ban the "vacation" program
that sends out automatic responses informing senders that the
recipient is away from email for a few days, because mailboxes
that run vacation can cause "spam blowback" where accounts send
their vacation notices to the hapless individuals whose email
addresses the spammers have substituted on the email's Reply-To

And yet there is more spam than there ever was. All the costs
we've paid for fighting spam have added up to no benefit: the
network is still overrun and sometimes even overwhelmed by spam.
We've let the network's neutrality and diversity be compromised,
without receiving the promised benefit of spam-free inboxes.

Likewise, DRM has exacted a punishing toll wherever it has come
into play, costing us innovation, free speech, research and the
public's rights in copyright. And likewise, DRM has not stopped
infringement: today, infringement is more widespread than ever.
All those costs borne by society in the name of protecting
artists and stopping infringement, and not a penny put into an
artist's pocket, not a single DRM-restricted file that can't be
downloaded for free and without encumbrance from a P2P network.

Everywhere we look, we find people who should know better calling
for a parasite-free Internet. Science fiction writers are
supposed to be forward looking, but they're wasting their time
demanding that Amazon and Google make it harder to piece together
whole books from the page-previews one can get via the
look-inside-the-book programs. They're even cooking up programs
to spoof deliberately corrupted ebooks into the P2P networks,
presumably to assure the few readers the field has left that
reading science fiction is a mug's game.

The amazing thing about the failure of parasite-elimination
programs is that their proponents have concluded that the problem
is that they haven't tried hard enough -- with just a few more
species eliminated, a few more policies imposed, paradise will
spring into being. Their answer to an unsuccessful strategy for
fixing the Internet is to try the same strategy, only moreso --
only fill those niches in the ecology that you can sanction. Hunt
and kill more parasites, no matter what the cost.

We are proud parasites, we Emerging Techers. We're engaged in
perl whirling, pythoneering, lightweight javarey -- we hack our
cars and we hack our PCs. We're the rich humus carpeting the
jungle floor and the tiny frogs living in the bromeliads.

The long tail -- Chris Anderson's name for the 95% of media that
isn't top sellers, but which, in aggregate, accounts for more
than half the money on the table for media vendors -- is the tail
of bottom-feeders and improbable denizens of the ocean's thermal
vents. We're unexpected guests at the dinner table and we have
the nerve to demand a full helping.

Your ideas are cool and you should go and make them real, even if
they demand that the kind of ecological diversity that seems to
be disappearing around us.

You may succeed -- provided that your plans don't call for a
simple ecosystem where only you get to provide value and no one
else gets to play.


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