The implications of digital rights management for privacy and freedom of expression

Publication Date31 May 2004
AuthorIan Kerr,Jane Bailey
The Implications of Digital Rights Management
for Privacy and Freedom of Expression
“The best agencies for improving the mass-
es of the people,” Andrew Carnegie once
said, are those that “give nothing for noth-
ing” (Rub, 1985). Carnegie had tremendous
and unrelenting faith in public institutions
such as the library. So much so that he redi-
rected substantial wealth from the private
sector in support of such institutions. His
belief in them was premised on his view
They only help those who help them-
selves. They never pauperize. They
reach the aspiring and open to these
chief treasures of the world – those
stored up in books. A taste for reading
drives out lower tastes. (Rub, 1985)
Sadly, it is becoming increasingly difficult
for our public institutions to live up to
Carnegie’s vision. Not because of slashed
budgets to our library systems, to the arts
and humanities. Not because of diminish-
ing literary standards. Not even because of
a diminished taste for reading in correspon-
dence to the advent of television, movies,
computers and digital media. Rather, one of
the most significant challenges faced by our
libraries and other public institutions these
days stems from a particular vision held by
many powerful private institutions about
how to maintain corporate control over the
economics of intellectual property. Our
public institutions are being threatened by
new forms of social control through which pri-
vate institutions such as our cultural indus-
tries now “reach the aspiring.”
These new forms of social control –
known now as digital rights management1
are said to be a necessary response to the
network environment and its many oppor-
tunities for the rapid and inexpensive dis-
semination of digital content.2Concerned
that the digital milieu will enable consumers
Info, Comm & Ethics in Society (2004) 2: 85–95
©2004 Troubador Publishing Ltd.
Digital Rights
Freedom of
Ian Kerr and Jane Bailey
Faculty of Law, University of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
Email: {iankerr,jbailey}
 
This paper aims to examine some of the broader social consequences of enabling digital rights management. The
authors suggest that the current, mainstream orientation of digital rights management systems could have the effect
of shifting certain public powers into the invisible hands of private control. Focusing on two central features of dig-
ital rights management – their surveillance function and their ability to unbundle copyrights into discrete and cus-
tom-made products – the authors conclude that a promulgation of the current use of digital rights management has
the potential to seriously undermine our fundamental public commitments to personal privacy and freedom of

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