When you see Flash, Duck and Cover

The best thing anyone can do to continue making the Internet more closed, restrictive, and prohibiting is to use Adobe Flash as it exists today. The Internet was created to allow for the open and unconfined infrastructure to share information; yet, it is being used today for the opposite purpose: to stop this information torrent. Many people do not see Flash as an issue, and don’t view Adobe as a malevolent authoritarian. In fact, though, Flash is the biggest bottleneck on the Internet’s effectiveness in the same way that the variety of world languages spoken worldwide is the biggest bottleneck on the global social network. A change in Adobe’s business strategy with regards to Flash is the only way to turn this unnecessary throttle on the potential of the Internet-connected community into a true innovation and synergistic technology.

Some may not notice the restrictions we experience in our everyday lives. One such restriction is that of software like Flash. In the video market alone, Flash is the number one method used to control access to “intellectual property”. Flash does much more than just restrict video content, though. Unlike HTML and Javascript, which are saved in human-readable formats, Flash files are in a format that only computers can read, so nobody is able to see exactly what these files are doing to their computers. Because of this, anybody can restrict access to the content of the file itself, or even include viruses or other malicious software through the use of Flash Player.

The biggest restricting factor, though, is the fact that consumers must use the software distributed by Adobe in order to view Flash files in their entirety. This is a major problem because, with a 99% market penetration, Adobe can do anything it would like. Adobe Flash is installed on more computers than even Microsoft Windows, which naturally gives them a huge amount of power. The dependency of people on Flash Player is so great that Adobe could chose any day to shut all installations of Flash Player down until the user payed a $40 ransom fee. If Adobe ever fell short of money, this would be a convenient and no-hassle way to gain money, considering most people would end up paying this fee for access to games, videos, and a multitude of other possibilities online we often take for granted. This is only the tip of the iceberg, though. Adobe could block out competitors’ software, spy on the users, or even include a “back door” to allow employees to remotely control anybody’s computer. With Flash’s massive install base, Adobe could technically do anything they want to your computer.

Devoted individuals have begun developing alternatives through reverse engineering, such as “Gnash” and “swfdec”, but those are still unable to be completed due to the lack of cooperation by Adobe. Adobe initiated the “Open Screen Project” to give the appearance that it promoted choice in platforms and ease any fears regarding Adobe’s obsessive control, yet it really just restates the knowledge that was already gained through the effort of previous reverse engineering techniques. The only benefit of the Open Screen Project was the promise Adobe made not to sue any Flash-alternative projects, yet this promise, in reality, just affirms the excessive control Adobe has over the platform. Recently, Adobe sent a Cease and Desist to SourceForge, a company that hosts community-developed software projects, regarding a hosted project called “rtmpdump”. This project opened up features of Flash to average people that were previously only available in Adobe’s Flash Player. Despite Adobe’s claim to transparency and neutrality, SourceForge was required to remove rtmpdump from its site, confirming yet again the massive amount of power Adobe has.

A further issue with the Flash format is its dependency on software patented by multiple companies. These patents make Adobe’s promise worthless, as other companies also have the right to sue when their own patents are violated. Patent law was created to encourage innovation, but when computers entered the scene, corporations found they could benefit from the law by exploiting loopholes that allowed software to be patented. Eventually, trying to patent as many elementary concepts as possible became a business strategy, and any company who didn’t follow this strategy risked a lawsuit. Software patents have ranged from online tests to pop-up windows to hyperlinks to progress bars.  In addition, almost all of the major audio, video, and image formats are or have been covered under numerous patents. As you can well imagine, nearly all computer software is covered by multiple patents from various companies. The biggest companies pool their patents together and agree not to sue each other in exchange for access to the patents from the other biggest corporations. In this way, Adobe cannot be sued for using certain components in Flash, but everyone else can for using those same components.

With the inability for consumers to use any alternative Flash players besides the one created by Adobe, one would expect the official player to be of high quality, right? Studies have found the opposite to be true. Not only does Flash have a huge number of security problems, but it also slows down computers significantly, especially computers that run operating systems other than Microsoft Windows. Flash consumes an average of 50-80% of system resources on Mac OSX. The leading cause of crashes in the Mozilla Firefox web browser, according to the bug reports submitted by users, is the Flash Plugin. Unfortunately, this is something Mozilla cannot improve, no matter how badly their users want it, because Adobe will not allow it. Efficiency can be measured in more than just performance, though. Flash users who want to minimize their carbon footprint will be unhappy to know how negatively Flash affects power usage. Flash, especially banner ads cause ones computer to use much more energy. Simply disabling Flash saves an equivalent amount of power to turning off a light bulb.

The most logical solution to this problem would be for Adobe to allow open access to view, modify, and distribute to the code programmers will understand used to develop Flash. This strategy would have a multitude of benefits for not only consumers and Adobe as a company, but for society as a whole. Collectively, consumers would like the best possible experience online, and Adobe would like to make as much money as possible. Both of these private interests would be stimulated.

Consumers would benefit greatly with Adobe’s decision to allow open and unrestricted modification and distribution to its platform. Consumers would no longer have to worry about what would happen if Adobe tried to exercise excessive control over users, because anyone would be able to modify Flash to exclude the offending features. If this were to happen, Adobe would no doubt lose its reputation; however, if it were to happen today, it is possible that nobody would ever find out. It has been shown by projects such as the Linux kernel that those who can, will make changes to software to scratch personal itches. Corporations will naturally make changes to improve community-developed software when it will help that corporation’s own products. A multitude of corporations currently depend on Flash, making them all candidates to assist in improving Flash Player for the benefit of all. Speed is important to everybody, especially wealthy corporations that want their employees to be as productive as possible. As demonstrated by the Linux kernel, security and stability problems in community-developed software get fixed incredibly quickly.

Adobe is the party that would yield the largest benefit from opening up Flash. Adobe’s business strategy with regards to Flash is to develop a massive number of technologies centering around Flash, and then sell a really expensive software to create Flash videos. The vast majority of these technologies have opened source code to stimulate usage and entice those who like modifiable and redistributable software. Unfortunately for Adobe, these have not penetrated the target market because the product they depend on, Flash, does not allow modification or redistribution. Adobe’s other income with regards to Flash come from licensing versions of Flash Player for use on embedded platforms, such as cell phones. While it is logical to expect monetary reimbursement from large corporations for the ability to use Flash Player, problems arise when these corporations choose not to pay for the license. A notable example of this is with the iPhone. The lack of cooperation by corporations results in Adobe losing control, because it limits access to the software from potential users. Through the exploitation of this target market (all Internet-connected users) Flash has the potential to become a true standard; in this case, Adobe would hold the key to producing content for the standard: “Adobe Creative Suite 4”, its flagship product. Allowing public access and modification to a company’s software is the only way to allow other corporations to help increase that company’s market share. For example, Flash could be improved by search engine companies to allow content to be indexed more easily, benefiting all companies involved and allowing for further standardization.

There are other possible solutions to this problem, though they are not as elegant or effective. For instance, it is possible for some devoted activists to start a new software project to replace Flash. It would have similar features, but would not be compatible with existing Flash scripts. Though many appreciate the value of this type of project, it would nevertheless advance very slowly in what we have come to expect out of modern Internet-based technologies. It would also make extra overhead for the consumer, creating the need to install yet another web browser plug-in. Finally, this solution would divert developer time away from Flash Player alternative projects, such as Gnash and swfdec, which are increasingly necessary, and make it impossible to use the existing jungle of Flash scripts.

Another solution, though much less plausible, is for consumers to stop using Flash altogether. The problems that come attached to this solution are obvious, though. First of all, it is nearly impossible to raise awareness for any cause, especially one that takes a long time for people to understand. In addition, Flash has become too embedded within the lifestyles of many Internet-connected users to “just quit”. With dependencies on video sharing sites, education material, games, and more, only the most devoted users would be able to resist the pressure. This option would be much more effective as a protest technique to convince Adobe to allow modification than it would be as a solution on its own.

As you can see, Flash started out as a slightly obnoxious insect, but it grew over time into the monster that it is today. Adobe has too much control over the software. The control it has makes it impossible for Internet content to be truly accessible to everyone, and requires every user to subject his/herself to Adobe. It also carries a large number of problems along with it that Adobe has no desire to solve, as solving them would not increase its market share. By allowing the modification and redistribution of Flash, both Adobe and its consumers would benefit from the synergy that would be achieved. Nobody can build a skyscraper alone. Until Adobe makes Flash more permissible, Flash users have no choice but to sit in the monster’s mouth and hope it doesn’t get hungry.

This is a copy of the social injustice essay I recently wrote for Language Arts class. If you want the version with in-text citations and a bibliography, feel free to ask.

Published in: on May 29, 2009 at 6:38 pm  Comments (35)  

The Fear of Knowledge

I had the opportunity of listening to a presentation by a poorly-informed faculty member at my school regarding copyright laws.  This was an eye-opening experience for me into the way those who believe to have a solid grasp of copyright view it.  My class of 30+ students listened intently, believing everything they were told, as Mrs. Smith started her lecture…

This teacher (whom I’m referring to as Mrs. Smith) is very knowledgeable about what she does.  Her job mandates that she know a lot of “facts”  about copyright.  (“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts.  Facts can obscure the truth.” – Maya Angelou)  It is quite apparent that she learned about copyright from the same place as other teachers who are obsessed with “facts” about it.  Just do a Google search for “copyright for teachers” to see what I mean.

The presentation started with Mrs. Smith explaining to us a very basic overview of what copyright it, things even monkeys probably know. (Though, I admit, the class was not packed with monkeys.)  “Any violation of copyright law is called plagiarism,” she explained.  She went on to tell us a story about a woman from Duluth who was caught downloading only 24 songs illegally, and was charged over $200,000.  “You will get caught,” she exclaimed.  The truth behind this court case was obscured by her “facts”.  The lady in question, Jammie Thomas, a single mother of two, was sent a text message by the record companies telling her that they knew she was sharing at least 1,702 songs, and that she needed to stop immediately.  She didn’t.  She received a letter in the mail asking her to settle for a rather small amount of money.  She replaced her hard drive, and took the issue to court.  The lawsuit itself was over only 24 of those songs, for which she was charged $222,000.

“Do you know who you are stealing from?” she asked.  “The artists.  Every time you illegally download a song, those artists lose the money that is rightfully theirs.”  In reality, though, the artists only make about $1 from every full-length CD sold.  Online, it can be an even lower percentage.  It has been shown that illegal file sharing actually helps the artists, though no major media company will allow these types of stories on their news networks.  Think about it this way: the artists see so little of the money that their music sells for.  Sharing this music gets it out to more people, boosting the popularity of the artist.  If you were an artist, would you rather have your music reach everybody in the world and become extremely popular, or reach fewer people and make a small sum of money from the sales?  Most of an artist’s revenue comes from live concerts, and ticket prices are directly correlated with popularity.  “Some artists put their music in the public domain, just to get it out there, but almost all free downloads you find are illegal,” stated Mrs. Smith.  Artists don’t benefit from public domain music, which is probably the reason that very few public domain tracks exist.  Most prefer a Creative Commons (or another “some rights reserved”) license, which carries the attribution clause.  She made the assumption that anyone with a copyright will protect all of his/her rights.  This is not the case with the music I compose, nor is it the case with the thousands of people on Jamendo and similar sites.

Regarding academic copyright, Mrs. Smith explained the concept of “fair use”.  “If you are working for academic reasons, you get additional benefits from this system.  You can use any copyrighted material you find in schoolwork, as long as you cite the creator appropriately, and use only pieces small enough to be accepted as ‘fair use’.  Now, fair use includes…”  I raised my hand.  “What about the DMCA?”  “What about it?”  “If it comes from an encrypted source, we are not permitted to touch it, even for ‘fair use’.”  “You’re right.  Every now and then you come across a website that doesn’t allow you to right-click and copy.  Those sites are the exception to this rule, but for everything else, this rule is effective.”

The worst part about Mrs. Smith’s presentation, though, was that the only argument she gave was fear.  Her message can be summed up in a quote of hers: “Don’t do it – you will be caught.”  When her husband brought home illegal DVDs, she apparently told him, “You may not play those on our DVD player.  They are against the law, and we will be caught.”  She told us about how the computers at school were constantly being monitored, and how any administrator could view the screen of any computer at any time.  “Does anyone monitor your computer at home?” she asked random students throughout the class.  Mrs. Smith “explained” to us who was monitoring our computer at home; she claimed that the police, the government, and our ISPs are monitoring our desktops at all times.  The examples she cited mostly involved students getting seen with drugs/alcohol on their Myspace pages.  Our government is becoming more and more involved as a Big Brother every day, but it still cannot watch desktop activity.  It does have the ability to monitor packets from suspicious parties, but those parties are untouchable if they properly anonymity themselves.  Microsoft has the ability to do so much more than the government, so why didn’t she mention them?

Copyright infringement should not be based on fear.  Fear is a very powerful tool that is all to often exploited by governments and those in power to get the information they want stuffed into people’s minds.  Where do you think Mrs. Smith learned this information?  Was it a credible source?  Chances are it was, which brings up the question of who you can really trust.  If people stopped blindly trusting the government, what would happen to fear as a propaganda technique?  When discussing copyright, it is best to decide where your ethics are.  “Should I share an ogg (or mp3) of this out of print CD with my friend?”  “Should I consider a small violation of the DMCA a crime if I will only be using the content for what used to be called ‘fair use’?”  “Should I cite this public domain resource?”  “Should I tell my friends about this artist and give them this audio file to get them interested?”  “Should I download this BBC documentary I found on BitTorrent so I can learn about Elephant migration patterns for my report on African mammals?”  There are so many possibilities.  The government has drawn an unreasonably inhibitory line in the dirt, and used fear to enforce it.  As a result, the only way to figure out what is right or wrong is to make the ethical decision yourself.

Published in: on May 3, 2009 at 11:03 am  Comments (9)  
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