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?


3 responses to this post.

  1. Great post Owen as it has very good insights and point of views.
    It looks like you had a wonderful and fruitful conversation 🙂

    You wrote:

    “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”.
    can you clarify how this can be possible and how one can identify the wrong people ( they would not tell you we are the wrong people). So, how we can tell they are the wrong ones?

    Also you wrote,

    “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”. Can you give us an example of “information we consider safe today may not be tomorrow” and how we can limit its accessibility. My sense is telling me that this type of limitation is related somehow to the code of ethics Max wrote about a while ago, yet how one can limit such accessibility?


  2. Posted by Owen Wiltshire on May 11, 2009 at 3:54 pm

    Dear Sara,

    Thanks for your questions. I’ve been trying to focus my time on the thesis and haven’t been paying much attention to the blog. Also, your questions are tough ones so I needed to procrastinate a long time before answering.

    How can we tell the right people from the wrong when it comes to sharing information?

    Maybe a secret hand shake? Just kidding.. well… maybe I’m not… A great example to use is the project Kimberly Christen worked on and writes about – The Mukurtu Archive. (

    The site was developed to show how cultural barriers to information can be respected on the web.

    But the example isn’t perfect. It achieves what Christen set out to do, to impose cultural barriers to information… But it isn’t perfect because with Max’s angle on Open Access such information really isn’t hidden. It can be accessed by those who don’t respect the technological and cultural barriers. So imposing DRM on information isn’t a way to protect it from being used by the wrong people.

    Also, Christen’s project isn’t an academic publication targeted at scholars, so it isn’t about Open Access so much as it is about Digital Rights Management.

    Now let’s get down to the gritty:

    I’m not as convinced as Max is, that anthropologists provide good intelligence that can be used in war – although I’m quite convinced that everyone should be careful about what they publish online, and everyone should consider how the information can be used.

    I’m also of the opinion that since you don’t know how it will be used, there is just as good a chance the information gets used in a way you are perfectly happy with.

    Much of the tension comes from recent pushes to make social science a weapon of war as has developed the U.S. armies HTS program. HTS workers don’t officially provide information for military targets, but other officers pick through their information to do so.

    Do they also pick through anthropology journals? Yup.

    But what do they find? I’m not sure. It’s hard to lock down what exactly is “sensitive” information… Anthropologists I’ve met don’t publish real names, or even real places, out of fear of such misuse… I’m the only one in my program publishing real names of interviewees in my thesis.

    The strength of the argument made by Max, and by Kimberly Christen, is that publishing can be irresponsible. We shouldn’t assume sharing information is a good thing.

    How can we limit accessibility? Through DRM, as Christen shows… but this doesn’t limit it enough to say its safe from intelligence communities. (as the DRM used by the recording industry shows).

    Max is trying to make it harder for the military to integrate social science, or at least anthropology, into its programs. To do this, the kinds of questions and information published need to be of a kind that doesn’t help leverage State power.

    To publish everything Open Access makes it very easy for a computer program to “mine” it for information. Computers can be setup to find and record everything written by Max, or you, on the internet.

    Open Access makes it that much easier for information to be collected and found, for all parties. Perhaps the argument is that since certain groups have a power advantage already, they benefit more from OA than the disadvantaged.

    However, I believe the CIA has a much easier time accessing Anthro Source than I do. Given that, I want everything in Anthro Source to go Open Access.

    That the CIA is so interested in collecting the information also bolsters anthropology’s public image as being valuable. It can’t be irrelevant and useless if the CIA wants it!

    But say I was to study Falong Gong. As soon as I post this message, Chinese internet programs will automatically flag my post, and my name will be in a database. One of thousands of censors will check it out eventually, based on its automatic archival. From there, say I posted the name of someone involved in the group here in Montreal, that information would be automagically included in Chinese security databases.

    Same goes for posts on Free Tibet. Activists working in such fields have to deal with constant internet surveillance, including direct hacks of their computers by Chinese authorities. It would also be silly to assume every other government in the world doesn’t have, and isn’t willing, to use these strategies.

    I’d write more, but this post is turning into thesis procrastination again 🙂

    THANKS again for stopping by and helping explore these questions!


  3. Posted by Owen Wiltshire on December 14, 2009 at 1:35 am

    “Google’s philosophy is that the more open information is, the better it is for everyone, especially the search giant, which makes money by organizing said information and then displaying as relevant as possible ads beside it.”


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