June 12, 2006

Anti-DRM campaign expands, faces challenges

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Free Software Foundation's (FSF) Defective By Design campaign against Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies ran into difficulties when it targeted Apple Stores across the United States on Saturday, June 10. As many as half the events were disrupted by security guards or police, while the campaign as a whole had little success in attracting mainstream media coverage. Despite the difficulties, organizers judged the event a success, both in mobilizing members of the two-week-old campaign and in educating the general public about the implications of DRM.

"There's a lot going on at the moment [about DRM]," Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF, told NewsForge as he prepared for the events. As an example, he cited the recent recommendation by a parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom that devices equipped with DRM should be labelled. "People are being made aware of the issue," Brown added. "We want to start this discussion in the mainstream media."

Brown went on to explain that Apple was targeted because it is one of the main distributors of DRM-equipped devices. He pointed out that Apple, the manufacturer of iPods and the owner of the iTunes store, may have as much as 80% of the downloadable music market. "Basically," he says, "everything Apple does is DRM. And the video iPods they're now producing have even more restrictions than the music ones do. Apple has shown its willingness to use DRM, and to make increased restrictions over time."

Defective by Design

The events, Brown stressed, should not be considered hostile to Apple as a company -- only its DRM policy. "As the largest distributor of DRM, Apple is behaving very badly here, " Brown says, "[But] Apple's not evil. We just want to tell them that they've gone too far here, and that they need to drop Digital Restrictions Management from their product line. And they're not going to change without pressure."

Brown also stressed that Defective By Design is a coalition. "We don't ask that everyone who turns up for these events should be aligned with what we stand for," Brown stresses. "A lot of people turn out to these demonstrations just because they don't like a particular use of DRM. Or they may have their own ideas about DRM. Defective By Design is there to be an action center for anyone who has a reason for disliking DRM. [All] we stand for is a very clear message: DRM needs to be stopped."

Preparation for the events

The Defective By Design campaign is coordinated by Brown, Gregory Heller, and Henri Poole of CivicActions, which manages and develops Internet campaigns. Poole is also an FSF director. Plans for the June 10 event were put in motion shortly after the campaign's first event outside WinHEC 2006.

A week before June 10, supporters were notified about the coming event in an email that urged them to volunteer and encourage others to do the same. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) also passed word about the event to its members. However, activism coordinator Danny O'Brien stresses that the EFF's main role was only "helping out". Although the EFF is also a major opponent of DRM, according to O'Brien, its role is complementary to Defective By Design's, focusing on legal challenges rather than community action.

Brown explains that events are organized "on the ground" in each city, instead of being centrally controlled. Details of the events are determined locally, with the campaign providing resources: images for picket signs, leaflets, and, when possible, the yellow hazmat suits that have become its trademark.

Local organizers are left to plan their course of action, based on the interests of volunteers. "We had people who have expressed a desire to get into one of the yellow hazmat suits," Brown says. "We have picket signs, and posters that people carry." Other people agree to photograph or film events, give out pamphlets, talk to journalists, or make sure that images and reports are uploaded as soon as possible to the Internet.

Events were originally planned for New York, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle, Chicago, and Plano. As preparations continued, events were added in Los Angeles and Huntington Station, New York as volunteers to organize the events came forward. The Los Angeles event, according to organizer Jesse Weinstein, was added only two days before. Organizers discussed final plans in a teleconference the day before with Defective by Design's coordinators.

A day of ups and down

As final preparations were being made for the event, the campaign seemed to be on the upswing. Volunteers were signing up at the rate of a hundred people a day, and new cities were added to the event at the last moment. The campaign was also featured on Google News and on June 9 the online edition of BusinessWeek mentioned Apple and the planned campaign as part of its ongoing coverage of the growing opposition to DRM.

This last piece of publicity, although welcomed by the organizers as one of the first mentions of Defective By Design in the mainstream media, may have adversely affected the June 10 events by giving a day's notice that they were coming, and giving Apple the chance to forewarn local security and police forces.

In some cities, events went much as planned. In Chicago, Brown led a group of about thirty people -- mostly from the local GNU/Linux User's Group -- in an event outside the Apple Store on North Michigan Avenue. The group was met by the police on arrival, however, the police withdrew when Brown explained that "our purpose wasn't to demonstrate. We're here to draw attention to the issue."

San Francisco event

Employees of the Apple Store later formed a cordon at the front of the store. At one point, they threatened to call the police if its members came within fifteen feet of the store, but the protesters called their bluff, pointing out that they were not obstructing the entrance.

Outside the store, protestors handed out leaflets and engaged in street theater. "We did a few of the Beatles' Abbey Roadesque-type shots, with Defective By Design Guys using the crosswalk outside the Apple store, and ran to emergencies and paraded," Brown said. "It was very funny."

Brown says he thinks that the humor in the group's action helped to make passersby more willing to listen to its message. In addition, Brown says, "We had a few people who came up and said, 'Don't go after Apple. They're not too bad.' So that was an opportunity to explain to them that it's not what Apple does today, it's about what Apple plans to do tomorrow." Brown estimates that more than 2,300 leaflets were handed out by the end of the two-hour event.

Poole and about 20 volunteers also had a successful day at the Apple Store at Market and Stockton in San Francisco. Although the store sent out someone dressed as an iPod to dance around the protestors, Poole avoided any difficulties by talking with the store manager and security beforehand, and ensuring them that the entrance would not be blocked and no disturbance would be made. "They were very pleasant," Poole says. "There were no incidents at all."

Another reason for the success of the San Francisco event may have been the fact that one of the campaign's supporters was a store employee. "Me and my buddies at the store, we like what you're doing," the employee told Poole.

Passersby also seemed receptive to Poole's group. "A lot of people were saying, 'Yeah, that really frustrates me about Apple's products,'" Poole recounts. One passerby even asked to join the protest. The event also received the sole mainstream media coverage when a reporter from BusinessWeek showed up. Camera crews from the local KRON and KTVU stations were expected, but never arrived.

Luke Gotszling from New York and Mike Crist from Plano reported similar outcomes at the smaller events that they organized.

However, in other cities, security guards seriously hampered the events. In Boston, John Sullivan says his group of 12 "were probably outnumbered by the police and security" when they arrived at the Apple Store in the CambridgeSide Galleria. Despite the "insecure and anxious" behavior of security guards, the group was briefly allowed inside the store. The store staff mostly ignored them, except when some protestors started arranging posters in front of displays, but security soon asked the group to leave. They retired to a park across from the mall and continued handing out literature.

In Seattle, protesters never even reached the Apple Store in the University Village. "We were met by King County police, who informed us that we had no First Amendment rights on their private property," Gregory Heller says. Rather than contest the issue, the group retired to the entrance of the parking lot and distributed information there.

In Los Angeles, the small group of four were quickly interrupted by mall security and told to leave immediately. They moved on to the Apple Store on the Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica instead.

The only event completely disrupted by security guards was the one in the Walt Whitman Mall in Huntingdon Station, Long Island, where they were refused entrance entirely. Two of the group decided to move on to the New York event on Fifth Avenue, but organizers in New York discouraged them, pointing out that they couldn't arrive before the event was over.

When talking to NewsForge, some participants sounded discouraged by the disruptions by security guards and police officers. Campaign organizers, however, did their best to put a good face on the disruptions. "We always knew we might have a problem with some of the stores being in malls," Heller said. Similarly, Brown suggested that the presence of security and police "was good, since it obviously meant that news [of the campaign] had reached Apple."

One reason for the problems may have been the participants' lack of experience in social activism. It may be significant that two of the days' most successful events were those spearheaded by Defective By Design coordinators, who were more aware of their civil rights and understood how to communicate with authorities.

"What we did was turn out our members in eight cities today," said Heller, speaking several hours after the event. "Already we've got media reports, blog hits, and photos on Flickr from all eight locations." Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF agreed. "We've gone in two weeks from zero to 2,300 people," Brown said, "and we expect as news of this event gets out to probably double in size."

But for Heller, an even more important thing about the day's events is that they have helped to teach volunteers how to interact with the public, "and learn what their real questions are and how to explain what the issues are -- and get better at explaining them. We know that a lot of people went out for lunch or breakfast after their events and enjoyed a good time together. That's one of the things here: we're building a community of activists."

"The only disappointing thing," according to Brown was the lack of media coverage. "We spent a lot of time on the phone, sending faxes to each of the news crews, and I spent all morning telephoning them again and again, and always got the same message: 'No news crews available.'"

Otherwise, the coordinators refuse to be discouraged by any possible setbacks. "We're moving on," Brown says. "This is just the second thing."

The next step

Having targeted Microsoft and Apple, two of the main distributors of DRM technologies, Defective By Design is now planning its next steps. "Since we're now going into the summer blockbuster period and this is the seasons of movies, our next target will be the big movie companies," Brown says. "But we're also going to go for the manufacturers, the people who make DRM possible -- and they're the ones as a whole who are closest to our community, and the ones who need to listen to us most."

Brown also says that Defective By Design will be announcing the details of a new media campaign shortly.

Both Brown and Heller note that resistance to DRM is building, both inside the United States and internationally. Heller raises the possibility that the campaign may spread beyond the United States, but only where it will not distract from existing efforts.

Meanwhile, if Saturday's events were not uniformly successful, Brown says, all of them contribute to the much-needed public discussion of DRM. DRM, he says, is a complex issue, and "deserves time and space to discuss it rationally. When this discussion happens, we win."

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