May 23, 2006

FSF launches anti-DRM campaign outside WinHEC 2006

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) launched its anti-Digital Rights Management (DRM) campaign in Seattle this morning. When attendees of the Windows Hardware Engineering Conference (WinHEC) 2006 arrived at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center to hear a keynote address by Bill Gates, a small group of FSF members and their local allies were waiting to greet them, dressed in yellow hazmat suits and handing out pamphlets explaining that Microsoft products are -- in the words of the key slogan for the campaign -- "defective by design" because of the DRM technologies included in them.

An hour after the event, NewsForge talked with Peter Brown, FSF executive director, and Henri Poole, an FSF board member who helped to organize the protest, about the next steps in the campaign.

According to Brown, today's event is the first of a series of protests in coming months against DRM throughout the United States. "We're going to be following this bit with Microsoft with other DRM distributors in an effort to put pressures on manufacturers and raising DRM as a consumer issue," Brown says. "The message we're sending is: These devices are being distributed purposely crippled. These devices could do far more than what they do, but they've been created at the behest of Hollywood and Big Media to be crippled. And as you network these devices in your home or in your pocket, you're effectively creating a system for Big Media to monitor your actions -- to basically put them in control of your home and your habits."

Planned as a flash event, today's protest was deliberately kept secret over the last few days. The Electronic Frontier Foundation alerted its members in Seattle, and information was posted yesterday to the Bellingham Linux Users' Group mailing list, but the three dozen supporters who showed up at the corner of Pike and 7th in downtown Seattle at 8 a.m. had little idea exactly what form the protest would take until shortly before they ducked into an alley to change into the hazmat suits and marched around to the front of the convention center.

DRM protest in Seattle - click to enlarge

There, Poole says, "We started handing out handbills and talking to folks and running around, did some marching, and created some commotion. We were basically inside these suits with the heads fogging up," he adds, laughing.

The reception to the event from WinHEC attendees was "amazingly positive," according to Brown. At least one attendee even stopped to have his picture taken with one of the protestors. "Most people wanted to talk to us and engage us, saying, 'Yeah, we hate DRM, too.' We only had a few people who pushed back. One of the comments from someone was, 'What, you don't want to be able to watch the latest movies?' That was the one comment we had, and it went straight to the heart of the matter."

Passersby were also generally friendly. "It's Microsoft's home town, a technology town," Brown says. "A lot of people are aware of the issues. So, yeah, it was all very positive."

A security guard watched from the entrance to the convention center but, "he was smiling as we were marching by," Poole says. "He thought it was funny."

Although local news media did not cover the event, aside from one of the protestors who is a photographer for a Seattle news station, Brown and Poole are unconcerned. "It's just a small event to start," Brown says. "What's amazing is that this is the first time something's been done like this in the United States by technologists."

Both Brown and Poole agree that the event accomplished its aims while introducing participants to social activism. "I was really surprised how everybody just had a good time," Pool says.

The event was inspired by similar street theater and flash events in France in opposition to recent pro-DRM legislation.

To coordinate future events, the FSF has created the defectivebydesign.org Web site. Described by Brown as "an action center," the site is intended as a portal both for links to anti-DRM material, and as a means for activists to contact like-minded people in their area. "When we have enough of a critical mass [in one area] to take action," Brown says, "We're going to hold an event there to coincide with something that's happening locally -- whether it's foot-canvassing an Apple store or targeting the release of a Hollywood movie or a product."

The upcoming campaign will be a joint effort between the FSF and CivicActions, a consultant for activists groups specializing in technological issues. "They're actually coordinating and managing the resources for us," Brown explains, as well as supplying Gregory Heller as campaign manager. "We're providing the philosophical power behind it, but we're working with civic action groups. This is a coalition, not a closed-shop."

The FSF also is working with other groups on the campaign, including EUCD.INFO, which is involved with anti-DRM protests in France, and FreeCulture.org, an international student group.

A the campaign unfolds, Brown hopes to see computer literates engage those around them in a new role as social activists. "As the technologists," he says, "we are the ones who have the responsibility to get the message out. We've got the language, and this is our area. This is a message that we can deliver."

Looking back at the preparations for the protest, Brown says, "It's been a crazy -- I'd like to say 24 hours, but it's been four weeks. It's been insane." Referring to an earlier NewsForge article about framing the language of the debate, he continues, "We've been trying to get this framing right, and I think we've done so in defectivebydesign.org. We're describing a consumer issue. We're really about free users, and in this instance, we're describing what that means to the average human being -- not just our usual crowd."