Freesteel Blog » What Cory Doctorow writes in the newspaper

What Cory Doctorow writes in the newspaper

Friday, December 12th, 2008 at 1:25 pm Written by:

Being Part 2 of the annual Freesteel Cory Doctorow season.

Not everyone gets to write a fortnightly column for a leading national newspaper in the UK. Newspapers need to sell copies, and nothing sells them better than puffed-up celebrities like Cory Doctorow, regardless of whether they have anything to say.

Fortunately, Cory Doctorow does have something to say.

Unfortunately he says the same thing over and over again, even when he knows there are better topics that ought to get more coverage. It is this consistent waste of a prime-time mind-share that makes me want to cry. I don’t know whether it’s laziness, inability to comprehend what’s important, or what. But anyway…

Let’s start with the message he’s been telling people his latest book is about, as best expressed in this podcast recorded in September by one of dis-information projects within the fake institute that employs my long time friend and blogging partner, Myron Ebell. (Refer to this subsequent discussion for clarity on what parts of the Ebellian doctrine they believe Cory is misguided about.)

Cory explains the plot of the novel in terms of a three point plan for political salvation:

  • 1. Take control of your technology from the corporations and the state. You can do this by promoting free software ideals and resisting spyware.
  • 2. Learn to call bullshit what it is. If you don’t understand the mathematics of improbable events, the politicians will be able to persuade you to surrender your liberties based on questionable justifications.
  • 3. Get involved in the democratic and electoral process in order to change the laws and lock-down your gains in terms of civil liberties.

Having lacked any technology worth taking control of, and rarely having believed what politicians say (owing to a habit of looking things up), I’ve put a lot of hard work into Step 3, originally with the webpages PublicWhip and TheyWorkForYou (which was proudly endorsed by Cory Doctorow in 2004), as well as a number of more recent projects and actions that are reasonably out of the ordinary, yet wholly justified.

Not many people know about these projects, in terms of who is doing them and how they are built on tiny resources at hand and virtually no institutional support, but they represent a minuscule movement of a handful of citizens who are attempting to take back their democracy using internet means — just the sort of thing you’d imagine Cory Doctorow would get excited about.

And you would have thought that in the 27 articles that he has written for The Guardian newspaper since July last year, he would have had time to spare at least one single sentence giving the mass readers the low-down of what’s going on, what the potential is, and why it needs support, but he hasn’t, has he?

In order to write this post, I read every single Cory Doctorow article in The Guardian on the Edinburgh to Liverpool train following my three day visit to Glenrothes. If democracy is suffering in the UK, I am determined it’s not due to my idleness.

Synopses of Cory Doctorow’s articles

  • 31 July 2007 – Copy killers
    The digital rights management industry is lying to us about the point and effectiveness of their wares.
  • 4 September 2007 – Pushing the impossible
    Perfect copyright protection technology is an imaginary concept, like taking your spaceship past lightspeed.
  • 18 September 2007 – Free data sharing is here to stay
    The real shape of the information economy contradicts the mistaken metaphore of Intellectual Property.
  • 2 October 2007 – Online censorship hurts us all
    The DMCA is used more effectively as a tool for censorship than to prevent copyright infringement, and that’s much more threatening.
  • 24 October 2007 – Is the blockbuster on the way out?
    The whole intrusive proposed copyright protection regime that takes away our freedom and prevents smaller scale creativity cannot be justified in the interests of blockbuster movies, which anyway should adapt to the new situation like the video games industry did (with its multiplayer network gaming) or it deserves to die.
  • 30 October 2007 – Why a rights robocop will never work
    Technology to detect and prevent uploads of copyrighted material is a boondoggle.
  • 13 November 2007 – Warhol is turning in his grave
    The 60s pop art icons breached what we think of today as copyright law all the time when building their collages. To add insult, we now have “No Photography” signs all over the galleries which display this art. Cory wasn’t even allowed to photograph the “No Photography” signs themselves, because their typography and layout was subject to copyright! (He should have claimed to have designed the sign, although it was uncredited, and then he could have gotten away with it.)
  • 27 November 2007 – Downloaded BBC programmes should be forever
    DRM is impossible to implement on open source software, and current practice tries to give us fewer rights and opportunities than we got from our technologies in the last century.
  • 11 December 2007 – Downloads give Amazon jungle fever
    Why is Amazon so good at retailing physical products but one of the worst for e-books? Cory doesn’t know or speculate.
  • 15 January 2008 – Personal data is as hot as nuclear waste
    Cory proposes surcharging CCTVs with the clean-up and compensation costs for when the data being collected isn’t properly cared for and leaks out like toxic waste.
  • 29 January 2008 – Copyright law should distinguish between commercial and cultural uses
    Cory proposes reintroducing a form of “folk copyright” that worked before the age of the internet, when no one got into trouble for sharing their fan fiction and other stuff. He promotes the Access to Knowledge (A2K) treaty proposal at WIPO as a breath of sanity in the copyright debate.
  • 21 February 2008 – “Intellectual property” is a silly euphemism
    The term IP is intentionally misleading to embue the owner of it rights they would have over physical property that perhaps they shouldn’t with digital information.
  • 11 March 2008 – Time to fight security superstition
    An argument about how encouraging us to question the effectiveness of security regimes imposed by the government would make us safer in the end.
  • 9 April 2008 – How ISPs throttle legitimate internet users like you and me
    ISPs are keeping costs down by discarding bittorrent packets which their customers have paid to be delivered.
  • 29 April 2008 – How to stop your inbox exploding
    An unenlightening article about how he manages his email life that should have contained a lot more useful tips than it actually does.
  • 20 May 2008 – The odds are stacked against us
    This is his standard summary of the mathematics of rare events, including the paradox of the false positive.
    Incidentally, the Journalisted project is designed to make journalists accountable by indexing all the pieces they write in a way that allows them to be tagged. Cory could have called on people to tag all articles in which the journalist misleads the public about the mathematics of rare events, in order that the data could be used to — fairly — damage their reputation, but he didn’t, did he?
  • 17 June 2008 – Surveillance: You can know too much
    Over-surveillance makes criminals harder to detect because you’re swamped with too much data.
  • 1 July 2008 – Warning to all copyright enforcers: Three strikes and you’re out
    An observation of the one-sidedness of copyright enforcement. Corporations would be more responsible if there were penalties against making hugely damaging breach of copyright allegations that turn out to be false.
  • 15 July 2008 – Copyright enforcers should learn lessons from the war on spam
    Spam countermeasures have had unintended consequences.
  • 29 July 2008 – Illegal filesharing: A suicide note from the music industry
    Another digital sharing of pop music rant.
  • 26 August 2008 – Identity theft: Our dodgy love affair with utility bills will end in tears
    Slice of life story about using gas bills to verify your identity.
  • 9 September 2008 – Is Google Firefox hunting?
    Taking control of your technology.
  • 24 September 2008 – DRM: Sony’s Open Market consortium is a wolf in sheep’s clothing
    DRM on music.
  • 7 October 2008 – Database nation
    This is about how the new biometric ID laws announced “last week” that may encourage him to emigrate from the UK just as his grandparents were forced out of Russia years ago by the prevalence of state surveillance. He’s mentioned Singapore a few times as a likely place to move to. I hate to say it, but I don’t think he’s done his research…
    Incidently, this was brought into force by this 2008 vote by MPs in Parliament, which the Conservative Party walked away from, and about which he could have urged his readers to get democratically involved, but he didn’t, did he?

  • 22 October 2008 – Free and open source software lets you laugh in the face of recession
    Take control over your technology.
  • 31 October 2008 – Bebo kids will value privacy when they see adults do too
    Improbable events, and getting a grip on the government spying it’s used to justify.
  • 6 December 2008 – Will EU repeat US copyright error?
    A very reasonable case against the unjustifiable European copyright extension which is for the benefit of a very small number of very rich corporations, but results in an immeasurable amount of collateral damage.
    Incidentally, there are ongoing campaigns against this copyright extension which he could have chosen and pointed people to, but he didn’t, did he?

I can’t disagree with the message in any of the articles. They are all well-written, reasonably put, and faultless in themselves. Newspaper articles are usually pretty good, because they employ copy-editors.

But getting out of the copyright rut in order to cover something more crucial to survival is probably pretty difficult for the public intellectual who has made so much hay out of it in recent years.

After all, if a highly trained academic like Lawrence Lessig can make a big public announcement in the summer of last year about how he is ceasing his copyright law related activities to concentrate on important issues that are a matter of life and death, such as political corruption, and then proceed to give a talk to the Carnegie Council three weeks ago called Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy about the usual irrelevant horseshit, then it’s no surprise that Cory can’t do it, and instead continues to sound like a broken record.

Who knows? It could be a lack of confidence. Maybe if I were to write a series of articles for a major newspaper, I’d also stick to subjects I could lay claim to know really well, so I didn’t get caught out looking stupid. After all, you’re there to look clever and get yourself rated as a celebrity expert. And all your friends and colleagues are happy, because at least someone is saying these things in the mainstream media where there is so little outlet.

And they don’t think that because there’s so little outlet, maybe it would be better not to waste it on something so trivial as copyright issues every day all the time.

It wouldn’t do to take risks and cover something else. You might have to quote something said or done by someone else. And these articles are all about you, aren’t they?


  • 1. What Cory Doctorow writes&hellip replies at 12th December 2008, 1:49 pm :

    […] post by Freesteel […]

  • 2. Harry replies at 12th December 2008, 2:03 pm :

    Have you suggested that he do those things? What does he say?

  • 3. Ollie replies at 18th December 2008, 1:50 am :

    I got about a third of the way through and had the same thought as Harry – have you been in touch with Cory about your points and how did it go? There’s a lot of complaining about Cory’s work here here but I don’t see any writing about your own efforts, what were they?

  • 4. Francis Davey replies at 30th December 2008, 11:26 pm :

    Its hard to think of anyone who puts a larger proportion of their own resources (financial and time) into trying to do things about democracy (eg via public whip and undemocracy) a great many projects would not have got off the ground without Julian’s assistance. I wouldn’t like to criticise him for lack of action.

    AFAIK (and I could be wrong) Cory has never stumped his own cash up for other people to run compute intensive websites for instance.

  • 5. Julian replies at 3rd January 2009, 2:26 pm :

    Yeah, Cory knows all about the issues I’ve raised here and in other postings in detail. Francis has confirmed it by speaking to him in a bar in Cambridge earlier in the year. But he doesn’t care what I think. He cares about what his fans and his publisher think about him. Talking to Cory can’t affect that, so there’s no point.

    It’s true that the evidence is quite long-winded. If people are going to make the accusation that: “Cory Doctorow is wasting his huge opportunities and failing to support some important citizen democracy projects,” then someone has to read every single article in detail just to make sure, and see if there’s some kind of pattern to it.

    Who knows? One of his friends might tell him that we really don’t need another copyright extension story this week for a change, how about having a word with all those people you know, and making a piece about that, eh?

    Anyway, I hope you’re looking forward to my coming review of his novel “Little Bother”. It’ll probably be easier to read than his book, but if you like him and his writing more, then go for that instead.

  • 6. Freesteel&hellip replies at 30th June 2009, 11:33 am :

    […] I could go on at length about all the important issues that Cory, with the acquesence of his publishers, left out of this book when they chose to waste a lot of young people’s valuable thought-space with this piece of sloppy ill-thought work, but time is short and there’s money to be made, and I’ve covered this theme in my earlier review of Doctorow’s newspaper columns. […]

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