Archive for April, 2009

Digital Rights Management and Anthropology

Running alongside the open access debate, are debates as to what kinds of information should be shared and how to go about doing it. As I mentioned in the previous post, “open access” is not synonymous with “universal access”, as was stressed by Peter Suber on his “open access overview” page that I linked to.

Thanks to conversations with Max Forte, I realize that the discussion is actually about good old DRM – digital rights management.

Little did I know, that anthropologists and the recording industry have so much in common!

Both are fighting against the “information wants to be free” slogan (who’s author I can’t track down.. someone help please). Both are arguing for some kind of control over how the information will be used. The recording industry has spent millions working on technologies to do this – they want to know who is using what, and they want to control how it is used. Unfortunately for some, their efforts have pretty much failed, and regardless of how many lawsuits they have laid or DRM schemes they created, copyright (read controlled) music finds a way to escape any locks placed on it.

This reality probably spawned the slogan “information wants to be free” since no matter how hard people try to lock it down, it finds a way out – as if it was never meant to be locked down in the first place.

But what about anthropologists? They are taking a different perspective than the artist who depends on copyright to earn a living. For the anthropologist DRM would not be about earning a living, or ensuring payment. It would be about making sure the right people are given access and the wrong people are kept out.

As Max points out, there is a problem with the open access philosophy of “share it with everyone interested” since by making it available to those people, it becomes far too easy for the information to make its way into the wrong places. Here we find the need to establish “degrees of access” as opposed to simply looking at it as “universal” or “closed”. We also need ways of changing such controls as political contexts change. What Max is arguing is that information we consider safe today may not be tomorrow and in this case perhaps it is foolish to share ideas openly, if one also has the option to limit access and therefore limit collateral damage.

It is a debate about control, but perhaps it should be about content. I believe information wants to be free, in that you cannot control how it will be used. DRM will not protect it. The only answer is to establish a chain of responsibility among owners – asking that they do not share it with the wrong people. This is perhaps possible. But if someone really wants it, they will either invent it independently, or find a way to gain access.

So does “Open Access” refer to removing price-barriers to academic research, or simply to making anything accessible on the internet? Ie: I never considered blogging to fit into the Open Access label, but perhaps it does?

Anthropology and open access

As the open access debate creeps into journal articles, having been a hot topic for a number of years now, we begin to see how scholarship likes to make things more complex and perhaps more confusing than need be. One big confusion is the way anthropologists are interpreting “open access publishing” and the “open access movement” in new ways.

“Open access publishing” refers to making published material freely accessible on the internet. It was not meant to refer to making “any information” freely accessible on the internet. It is about taking things that would normally require payment to access, and to removing that barrier.

The point here is that there have always been ethical issues involved in creating and disseminating ideas – and these issues are not new to the Open Access movement – they tie in to publishing in general.

Ethical discussions as to what information should be shared are at the heart of anthropology, but I think we should be careful not to overly complicate the term “Open Access”.  Ie: one question is “should it be published at all”, while the other asks “now that I want to share it, how can I make sure the people I want to read it see it”.

Does information want to be free? (and who pioneered this phrase?) -> Yes, because in the sense used in the open access movement the information has been shared openly already, but is restricted by a price-barrier which results in no one reading it.

Does this refer to all information? Hell no. It never did! Should we admit we are making very little progress in our thesis on a blog where ones supervisor can read it? Probably not! The open access movement is not asking people to share every secret. It is trying to make the stuff we decide to share more accessible.

Check out Peter Suber’s “open access overview” page:


Open access is not synonymous with universal access.

  • Even after OA has been achieved, at least four kinds of access barrier might remain in place:
    1. Filtering and censorship barriers. Many schools, employers, and governments want to limit what you can see.
    2. Language barriers. Most online literature is in English, or just one language, and machine translation is very weak.
    3. Handicap access barriers. Most web sites are not yet as accessible to handicapped users as they should be.
    4. Connectivity barriers. The digital divide keeps billions of people, including millions of serious scholars, offline.
  • Even if we want to remove these four additional barriers (and most of us do), there’s no reason to hold off using the term “open access” until we’ve succeeded. Removing price and permission barriers is a significant plateau worth recognizing with a special name.”

What anthropologists can add is that along with schools, governments, and employers, there are numerous individual and cultural reasons for maintaining access barriers to information.

[universal != open]

regime change

Welcome the new thesis regime.

  1. wake up.
  2. run
  3. eat / coffee
  4. write thesis 9am – 12pm
  5. eat again
  6. look outside at sunshine
  7. find summer job—> Yes its similar to the last one I came up with – but I’m sticking to it this time.

    [Goal: Finish final draft of thesis prior to start of Montreal Jazz Fest at end of June.]

Some hope for Omar Khadr

Proving Stephen Harper is an “a-hole”, Janice Tibbets reports,

A federal judge has ordered the Harper government to seek Canadian Omar Khadr’s repatriation to Canada.

“The ongoing refusal of Canada to request Mr. Khadr’s repatriation offends a principle of fundamental justice and violates Mr. Khadr’s rights under . . . the charter,” wrote Federal Court Justice James O’Reilly in a ruling released Thursday.

After being tortured and held in captivity for years, I’m hoping Omar Khadr will be set free on his return to Canada.

That is if our Prime Minister will get of his ass and stand up for a teenager being locked up and tortured.

I would smile now, witnessing a judge shame Stephen Harper so publicly and so badly – but Khadr is still in jail, and his government continues to sit on its ass.

just me and my thesis

and a latte… this is montreal.

The crocuses have bloomed and classes are over. My window stays open at night finally – fresh air feels goooood.

A quick medical note: after living a year with a bizarre feeling in my left ear, and having it checked out by numerous doctors, I was finally sent to a specialist who removed an enormous amount of what he called “debris”. He did not react like the previous nurse, who gasped “what the hell is this stuff in your ear”, nor did he freak out like the previous doctor, who said “oh look at that.. I think you have an ear fungus”.

Instead, he reached into his torture drawer and carefully selected the right tool – for this job a curved set of tweezers – which he manipulated a bit too joyfully.

Fungus? He wasn’t sure, but he did confirm the debris. 15 minutes later and I was out the door, less an earful.

I feel lighter now, and my hearing is much much better.

Yes, this is chapter 1.

On Canadian content and the internet

A recent article at asks if Canadian media content is getting enough visibility online. The author argues that it isn’t, and he argues that new media (the internet) is the same as old media:

“You see, just like television, new media is simply another platform for viewing and distributing programming content.”

He then asks how Canadians can find “their own” content… Heres where my cosmopolitan self comes out and I scream “why would I want to prioritize Canadian content over any other international content?” The idea here is that our industries need help and support to compete with larger ones – ala Hollywood. I understand this perspective, and think subsidizing Canadian film and TV has worked for the better – creating some really great shows that would not otherwise exist. Not to mention I hate Fox news and would be happy to put an enormous levy on its bullshit. When it comes to associating the internet with traditional broadcasting, I start to spazz. There is more Canadian content available now than ever before – and this is because of the internet. Google even helps us find Canadian content by searching “for pages in Canada”.  The blogsphere is filled with Canadian content. So no, the internet is not the same as broadcasting… Content is created more by amateur canadians than professional ones.

“The bottom-line is, whether you are watching an episode of Corner Gas on your TV or, you are enjoying a “broadcast” and the CRTC is obligated under the Broadcasting Act to regulate it.”

No, actually when you watch a tv show online, it is NOT a broadcast in any way whatsoever. It’s completely different. You can broadcast information online, but when it is streamed to individual people, at individual times,  it is not a broadcast. The author continues to call it “new media broadcasting” and hopefully someone will correct him. So let’s look at the authors suggestions:

First, those who are streaming live programs from Canada, through the Internet or to mobile receiving devices, must be licensed and subject to rules equivalent to conventional TV broadcasters. Second, those who are using new media to make programs available from Canada for viewing at a time and place chosen by the viewer must be licensed and subject to regulations equivalent to other “on-demand” programming undertakings. Third, if the CRTC is going to create space for Canadian stories in new media, there must be stories to fill that space. To that end, a levy should be imposed on Internet and wireless service providers to fund new media production, modelled on the levy on cable companies.

Huh? An internet levy? What is that? Some tax for an internet connection? What if I play more video games than I watch TV? Is it really that hard for Canadian content to compete with American content? If so, then tax the American content, not the internet, which is used for so much more than TV. I would be more sympathetic of these Canadian content companies if they would at least try to get their content online. Right now, it’s easier to pirate tv shows than to pay for access to them online. If they can’t even make the shows available on the internet in 2009, then they certainly do not deserve an internet levy!

Do you feel Canadian content needs help being found online? Do your surfing habbits cause you to miss out? Do television companies deserve government help, or are they lazy bastards who haven’t bothered to put their content online? [are legal issues in the way of letting them do this? Are they locked down by cable/satellite companies perhaps? (hey wait, those are the internet providers too… hmmm)]

Kimberly Christen – Access and Accountability

(by way of Max’s twitter feed)

If you haven’t already, check out Kimberly Christen’s recent article “Access and Accountability: The Ecology Of Information Sharing in the Digital Age“, published in Anthropology Now.  Then check out the website referred to in the article.

The essay addresses the importance of respecting different norms for sharing information. She introduces the idea of creating knowledge sharing protocols that respect existing “ethical systems”.  Her work is one of the best examples I’ve found that considers anthropological sensitivities in relation to open access:

“As users maneuver through the site they can access information about specific places, their cultural significance and history. But within each area a random sampling of content is tagged with protocols that disturb their viewing. As a visitor begins to get acquainted with a place, a video clip may stop halfway through because the material is restricted by gender, or audio of a song may fade in and out because elements are restricted to only those who have been ritually initiated, or a photo may be only half visible because someone in the photo has died.

In every case, users must grapple with their own biases about information freedom and knowledge sharing online. After each restriction pops up with a short textual explanation, an animation plays describing the Warumungu protocols for that specific type of content. The site is designed to frustrate Internet users who function out of an “information wants to be free” paradigm—that is, those who expect that clicking on something or searching for information should necessarily result in unrestricted access to the materials they find. Our goal was to use the medium itself as a means of reflecting on the limits of the Internet to value other knowledge systems, and at the same time challenge people to take seriously different types of information distribution and production systems.”

(Christen 2009)

Another professor of mine shared similar concerns about open access sharing in an interview I held with him. I don’t have permission to post the discussion here, but he mentioned how he had done fieldwork among a group that considered certain kinds of information should be shared during certain seasons. For this reason he was unable to publish certain stories he had collected, as it would be disrespectful to the groups desire to share the information at certain times.

Big thanks to Kimberly Christen for a great article, and for stressing the valuable contributions anthropology can bring to the open access debate.


“Two Sides to Sharing Knowledge”