digital knowledge. digital culture. digital memory.


Vista too costly for the Pacific?

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As we teeter at the threshold of Microsoft's release of Windows Vista, I ask, what does this mean for Fiji and other South Pacific nations?

The biggest question is, what is the total cost of Vista? Aside from its list price (does anyone know if Microsoft offers preferential pricing for developing nations?) and the obvious requirement for newer more powerful hardware, what will Vista cost us and what might we be giving up vs. what we will gain? Peter Gutmann of the University of Auckland Department of Computing Science has published a carefully researched paper on the risks and total cost of Windows Vista. Some of Gutmann's observations about Vista include:

  • Disabled functionality for some high end video equipment
  • Decreased playback quality for some video (display devices over 800 by 600 pixels may have output degraded)
  • No more open source drivers
  • No more unified drivers - we will have to step back into the bygone age of one driver file per device variant
  • If Vista suspects tampering with either a hardware component or its driver, it will lose its ability to play premium content until a fix is applied
  • Potentially reduced system stability due to the requirement for something called tilt bits. These tilt bits render the system more sensitive to random events, events which could be malicious or simply the result of environmental factors or buggy code.
  • Slower computers due to DRM processing overhead
Some have commented that Gutmann's paper is biased against Vista and based on flawed information. Gutmann's primary sources are four documents from Microsoft and one from ATI (see his sources section). Microsoft has also responded to Gutmann's paper on the Vista team blog, which Gutmann rebuts in the Microsoft's Response section of his paper. If you have the time and the inclination, it is well worth reviewing these.

A Canadian legal scholar, Michael Geist, has also written about Vista's legal fine print recently in the Toronto Star. This quote from a related blog post summarizes Geist's legal concerns,
Vista's legal fine print includes extensive provisions granting Microsoft the right to regularly check the legitimacy of the software and holds the prospect of deleting certain programs without the user's knowledge. During the installation process, users "activate" Vista by associating it with a particular computer or device and transmitting certain hardware information directly to Microsoft.

Even after installation, the legal agreement grants Microsoft the right to revalidate the software or to require users to reactivate it should they make changes to their computer components. In addition, it sets significant limits on the ability to copy or transfer the software, prohibiting anything more than a single backup copy and setting strict limits on transferring the software to different devices or users.

Vista also incorporates Windows Defender, an anti-virus program that actively scans computers for "spyware, adware, and other potentially unwanted software." The agreement does not define any of these terms, leaving it to Microsoft to determine what constitutes unwanted software. Once operational, the agreement warns that Windows Defender will, by default, automatically remove software rated "high" or "severe,"even though that may result in other software ceasing to work or mistakenly result in the removal of software that is not unwanted.

For greater certainty, the terms and conditions remove any doubt about who is in control by providing that "this agreement only gives you some rights to use the software. Microsoft reserves all other rights." For those users frustrated by the software's limitations, Microsoft cautions that "you may not work around any technical limitations in the software."
[Vista's fine print,]
It is nice to have "some rights" after paying a lot of money for something.

Returning to my original question, what does this mean for Fiji and the South Pacific? Windows Vista does have a great deal to offer, as many independent reviews and numerous Microsoft web sites will confirm, but it is clear that there is some bad to go along with the good. There is no question that there is an overall cost - both hardware and software - involved in moving to Vista - which is never a good thing for cash strapped South Pacific nations. The failure to deliver truly high definition output from HD media is probably a tolerable irritant in this part of the world. After all, HDTV is not due in the South Pacific for some time - I'm still waiting for Fiji to get a second TV channel! While Microsoft contradicts some of Gutmann's conclusions about drivers and stability, one thing is clear, there will be an increased support burden on the ICT professionals supporting Vista and the hardware on which it runs. For example, whenever new hardware is installed on a machine, not only does a suitable driver have to be located and installed - and it must be a Vista-friendly version of the driver - but the device and driver must be blessed by Microsoft and Vista before they are fully functional. Windows Defender's capability to remove suspicious software without user interaction and regardless of the impact is a recipe for trouble unless Microsoft is extremely careful with its malware profiles. As a result of all of these factors, increased contact with Microsoft support seems inevitable. I hope that Microsoft provides a toll-free phone number to their South Pacific customers.

Of course, researchers are now beginning to announce methods of undermining Vista's built in technical controls. As there is no USA DMCA anti-circumvention law in the South Pacific, Vista users in the region may be legally able to take advantage of these methods and take back control of their own computers. As for myself, I will not be installing Vista at home in the near future as I am happy with Windows XP and Linux. Professionally, I will not be able to recommend Vista to my employer in good conscience until the impact of the upgrade is better understood.

P.S. Here is another chilling discovery that I found in a blog post - assuming that this is not just anti-Microsoft story telling. Some digital content that you have purchased in the past to play on your Windows XP system will not play on your Windows Vista system. You have to go and buy another Vista-friendly copy. And what's more, in some cases, your original copy may be destroyed by Vista in the process! This is a disturbing possibility not only for individual computer and media owners, but especially for libraries and archives tasked with collecting and preserving access to an increasing volume of digital media.

P.P.S. Bruce Schneier has published a scathing review of Vista with some interesting thoughts about Microsoft's motives for Vista DRM.

Photo by Brajeshwar


Anti-piracy group tags along on clean-up campaign

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Here is an interesting issue to start off the new Digital Fiji blogging year. I hope you find it stimulating. -cht

Copyright, especially copyright of digital materials, is a complicated legal issue where the discourse is highly polarized. One side of the argument emphasizes the rights of the owners of intellectual materials, ranging from movies and music to photographs and software, to control and charge for each and every single copy of their product. On the other, one hears chants of "information wants to be free" from users who demand free and unrestricted access to their music, movies, ebooks, and so on. The former group labels the latter as pirates while the latter labels the former as bloated big business with no true interest in the artists that created the material that they own and not respect for reasonable rights for users. If you hazard to express an opinion on a topic such as the widespread availability of pirated DVDs in Fiji's shops, you are likely to find yourself labelled as belonging to one of these two camps whether you feel yourself to be a member or not.

I was not particularly surprised to read the brief article in the 15 January 2007 Fiji Times entitled, Audio body fights piracy which states,

The Fiji Audio Visual Industry Association [FAVIA] has followed the military in its clean-up campaign by tracking down illegal suppliers of Digital Video Disc's (DVD) in its fight to curb piracy in the country.
It seemed inevitable to me that the fight against DVD piracy would try to dove tail on the Fijian military's clean up campaign. However, I took a look at the FAVIA public notice that was released two days previously (here in PDF) and it does not make any such claim, although it does make several other surprising statements. While selling low priced copies of DVDs without the permission of or compensation for the rights owners is illegal under any copyright regime, this notice remains a good example of the hyperbolic discourse on the topic of digital copyright around the world. It is clearly more interested in evoking an emotional response - namely fear, uncertainty, and doubt (or FUD in marketing terminology) - than in clearly articulating a rational position. Here is an excerpt from the heart of the notice:
1. The Fiji Government has lost about $40 million in Customs Duty and VAT in 2005 because of piracy, yet no action has been taken by FIRCA against the pirate stores despite complaints by FAVIA.
2. According to FIRCA in 2005 over 3.3 million movie recording storage devices of various formats were imported into Fiji.
3. Fiji’s piracy rate is about 98% making Fiji’s piracy rate one of the highest in the world.
4. Major studios such as Sony Pictures who shot parts of the movie “Anaconda” in Fiji are very disturbed with Fiji’s lip service against piracy and do not wish to invest in Fiji thus potential investments worth several millions of dollars are being lost because of piracy.
5. Pornographic and violent films are being sold unlabelled to people of all ages including your young children.
6. You as customers lose out on original value products and are being robbed of your consumer rights.
7. Fiji is rapidly losing local singers, artists, producers etc to overseas countries because of piracy.
8. Research shows that major pirates internationally have links to terrorist activities.
9. Fiji subsequently loses out on favourable trade agreements due to piracy.
Selling black market DVDs is illegal under Fiji's current copyright law - full stop. You can form your own opinion about whether it is ethical. FAVIA's own statistics indicate that the vast majority of Fijians currently avail themselves of this merchandise almost to the exclusion of the legitimate market.

Where the debate on copyright is much less cut and dry, both in legal and ethical terms, and thus more interesting, is around the more subtle questions of the copyright such as the following,
  • Are you breaking the law if you back up music CDs that you have purchased from a legitimate source onto your home computer? What if you rip the CD so you can listen to it on your MP3 player?
  • Is it illegal to download music from free sites on the Internet?
  • Is it illegal to upload music to the Internet? What about sharing one copy of your favorite song to a friend? What about 20 friends?
  • Is it illegal to use software to break the copy protection on legitimately purchased DVDs in order to make a personal back-up copy or to load it onto your video iPod?
  • Do libraries or schools have special privileges when it comes to copyrighted digitital materials?
The answers to these questions are not clear in the current legislation and they have certainly not been tested in Fijian courts. Addressing questions like these have dominated the legislative agenda for copyright in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the United States, and many other countries in recent years. Fiji will be increasingly pressured by foreign interests to take a clear stand on many of these issues and this will require an overhaul of the Copyright Act. One key challenge for Fijian lawmakers and the courts is how the notion of "expressions of folklore" (in Section 2 of the 1999 Copyright Act) might become entangled within the intricacies of high tech copyright issues. How Fiji chooses to address these copyright issues will lay the foundation for the future of digital culture in Fiji. Choose wisely.