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There were two competing visions at the dawn of the modern digital era: in one camp, you had people who saw computers as a way to empower people to push back against corporate and state control; in the other camp, there were the people who wanted to use computers to transfer power from the public to corporations or governments.
I’ve always been baffled by the technologists who pursued control over liberation: surely their own formative experiences were of the liberatory power of technology. After experiencing that power, how could these Vichy nerds lend their skills to the project of forging digital shackles?
And yet, there they were, from the earliest days. Back in 2017, Redditor /u/vadermeer was browsing a Seattle thrift-shop and unearthed a trove of early internal documents from Apple’s SSAFE project, an early, doomed DRM project from 1979:
The files (now hosted at the Internet Archive) are a chronicle of the battle between technologists pursuing user liberation and technologists who want to use computers to control their users. There are some great cameos from Woz:
SSAFE bombed, but the fight raged on for decades and rages on still. I’ve been in the thick of it for more than 20 years — literally. My first day on the job for EFF, back in 2002, was spent attending the inaugural meeting of the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG), an inter-industry conspiracy to put all computers in chains, forever:
The BPDG’s mission was to create a standard for a Broadcast Flag a single bit that would be included in the headers for video files. If the flag was present, any device that encountered the video would have to restrict its playback, checking to see whether and under what circumstances that playback could occur.