Critically important viewing: The World According to Monsanto

Marie-Monique Robin’s “The World According to Monsanto” is one of the most important recent documentaries because it exposes one of the most well-organized and dangerous corporations and because of Robin’s clearly conveyed research.

This documentary aired in France on 11 March 2008 but I doubt it will show up in the US. Monsanto advertises widely so they have the ear of a lot of media corporations which control the vast majority of what shows up on American television and movie theaters.

Viewers of another favorite documentary, “The Corporation”, will recognize a few of the faces and names in “The World According to Monsanto”.

“The World According to Monsanto” impresses upon you (and expertly defends) that this is a fight for control of the world’s population through controlling its food. As Vandana Shiva says, Monsanto’s effort is more powerful than bombs. Farmers around the world see a future where they can’t afford the patent licensing bill because they can’t avoid the GMO seed. The public (whether unknowingly or with no other viable option) eats the GMO food that raises one’s risk of a host of health problems including cancer.

Monsanto refused Robin an interview but their framing of the issue is heard clearly throughout the film. Robin uses Monsanto’s website to explain what things are, illustrates her points with citations from Monsanto’s internal documents (liberated by court order), and does the investigative reporting legwork to clearly explain to us how world domination through patent law and genomic manipulation is not at all far-fetched. The stakes are enormously high. I highly recommend seeing this documentary.

Wall Street Journal on the value of ethical business

The Wall Street Journal conducted a test in which three groups of consumers were shown coffee and in a separate test they were shown t-shirts. In each test the group was told the products were “ethically produced”, a second group was told the products were made under unethical conditions, and a third group (the control group) was told nothing about the products.

The Wall Street Journal concluded that “consumers were willing to pay a slight premium for the ethically made goods. But they went much further in the other direction: They would buy unethically made products only at a steep discount.”. In the test involving coffee beans: the consumers given unethical information about the production of coffee beans were described as demanding to pay $2.42 below the control group, while the consumers given ethical information $1.40 over the control group’s price. WSJ also suggested a go-slow approach to maximize income for the effort noting that “companies don’t necessarily need to go all-out with social responsibility to win over consumers. If a company invests in even a small degree of ethical production, buyers will reward it just as much as a company that goes much further in its efforts.”.

So decades of trying to separate business from ethics are paying off for modern businesses; perhaps not as much as their owners would like, but still the climate is such that a token show of ethical behavior pays off as much as genuine pursuit of ethical behavior in earnest.

The frame for the debate with these tests and their results is clear: fitting ethics into the market is right and proper so long as there’s no room to critique the heartless market for its lack of ethics. No amount of death, dismemberment, starvation, birth defect, wage slavery, or suffering in any form can possibly compete with the pursuit of money and power. Doing right by other people is not valued for its own sake. This is the system people have created, maintained, and defended as a reasonable way to do business with one another. It’s okay to behave this way at work no matter who is adversely affected. Remember this extract of Mark Achbar’s commentary track from the excellent movie “The Corporation” (website) (Ogg Vorbis, FLAC, Speex) where he talks about how people can compartmentalize their wickedness?

For businesses, ethical responsibility is merely a market tactic—an ad campaign which will go away when ethical behavior becomes an unsaleable commodity (or perhaps not producing enough sales to justify the effort). The market must remain dominant, not asking the most important question one can ask: How should we treat other people? Hence even for the corporate “hero” of the “The Corporation”, Ray Anderson, there are strongly enforced limits on what he can say on the record without betraying his role as a corporate CEO. Anderson worked within those limits, perhaps struggling to do so.

Update (2011-08-13): Ray Anderson died August 8, 2011. Ralph Nader gave him high praise in an article celebrating Anderson’s effort to decrease Interface carpet’s ecological impact and Anderson’s work in sharing what he learned. Wikipedia has a summary of his endeavors.

How does DRM hurt me, a casual user of computer-based media?

Microsoft announced that they will no longer support former MSN Music customers who want to play their DRM disabled music on new computers. For Microsoft, apparently it’s digital restrictions management (DRM) or nothing.

Jennifer Granick of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital civil liberties organization based in San Francisco, wrote about how Microsoft’s announcement is right in line with their end-user license agreement or EULA.

When active, MSN Music’s webpage touted that customers could “choose their device and know its going to work”.

Windows DRM 'Plays for Sure': Choose your music.  Choose your device.  Know it's going to work.

But when customers went to purchase songs, they were shown legalese that stated the download service and the content provided were sold without warrantee. In other words, Microsoft doesn’t promise you that the service or the music will work, or that you will always have access to music you bought. The flashy advertising promised your music, your way, but the fine print said, our way or the highway.

Granick explains how Microsoft, and other publishers, use licensing terms that leave customers vulnerable to discontinued service for whatever reason the publisher deems necessary.

Has this happened before? What’s going on with DRM? What are the dangers to users?
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Richard Stallman: Free Software in Ethics and Practice

In 1984, Richard Stallman founded a social movement known as the free software movement. The free software movement fights for the ability to control our computers as a cooperative community (as opposed to being under the rule of software proprietors where users have only as much control over their computers as the proprietor allows).

On May 1, 2008, Stallman gave a talk in Manchester, England on “Free Software in Ethics and Practice” and the newly formed Manchester Free Software group recorded this talk and released it under a license that allows sharing.

This talk is quite engaging; Stallman gets into why schools must run exclusively free software, touches on international politics, and addresses the secondary issue of why free software matters for business (secondary in importance, that is, as society shouldn’t organize around business interests).

Download the talk

“Making available” is not copyright infringement

At Fordham Law School’s annual so-called “Intellectual Property” Law Conference on March 28, 2008, Ray Beckerman of Recording Industry vs. The People debated Kenneth Doroshow, a Senior Vice President of the Recording Industry Association of America, a corporate label lobbying group.

An interesting point of contention was whether it ought to be considered copyright infringement to make copies of copyrighted works available when one doesn’t have license to distribute that work. The RIAA says “making available” is copyright infringement, as this reduces the work the RIAA has to do to successfully sue ordinary people who allegedly infringe RIAA’s client’s copyrights. Beckerman contends “making available” isn’t infringement; copyright holders should have to prove that an illicit copy of their copyrighted work was made, not merely offered. The moderator of the debate, Professor Hugh C. Hansen, the keynote speaker, Michael Schlesinger, and a lot of the lawyer-filled audience apparently believed that “making available” constituted copyright infringement.

They were wrong.

Beckerman explains:

[T]his panel discussion took place on the business day before Elektra v. Barker and London-Sire v. Doe 1 came down, both rejecting a making available right. And of course a month later Atlantic v. Howell was handed down, rejecting the ‘making available’ theory from pillar to post.

Read the transcript of the event. Unfortunately this transcript doesn’t include Schlesinger’s remarks but Beckerman summarizes those remarks just before the transcript.

Who benefits from Adobe releasing Flash-related documentation?

Introduction

Adobe Flash (formerly Macromedia Flash) is a proprietary program probably best known these days for two things: showing people videos (YouTube) and making animated interactive graphics on the web (many ads are require Flash). Flash documentation was also, until recently, only available if one agreed to rather onerous non-disclosure terms which restricted how many people could write their own Flash player.

The most widely used Flash implementation is proprietary and not available for all kinds of computers and operating systems. A free software Flash player program was needed so that people could use their computer in freedom without having to forgo visiting a number of popular websites.

One free software Flash player, Swfdec (pronounced “swiff deck”), has been in active development for some time, and generally becoming more capable. Another free software Flash player, Gnash (the GNU Flash player), offers considerable capability to play Flash websites. Gnash has also been in active development.

What’s happening now

Today Adobe announced that they have released documents which describe the structure of Flash files one finds online. These documents are restrictively licensed—sharing the document files is not allowed, not even verbatim non-commercial sharing—but the information is available without agreeing to the non-disclosure terms. There’s no clear indication that Adobe holds patents on the ideas one needs to implement their own Flash software and no clear license granted for such patents.

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gNewSense GNU/Linux 2.0 is out!

A GNU/Linux computer operating system that contains only free software—software you are free to run, inspect, share, and modify—is out and ready for you to try on your ordinary PC (Intel or AMD-based computer).

The hackers who make gNewSense (pronounced “guh-NEW-sense”) GNU/Linux started with Ubuntu GNU/Linux and removed all the software that doesn’t come with these freedoms, including software most people doesn’t know is in their operating system like firmware (software used to control various computer devices) and drivers.

Download gNewSense GNU/Linux

How do I put this huge ISO file on a CD I can try?

Ubuntu GNU/Linux has a handy set of helpful instructions.

Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister: Pam Hrick was robbed

The Canadian Broadcast Corporation recently released “Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister“, a competition show where five candidates competed to become the crowd favorite. The show is licensed to share. There’s been some buzz about it online (1, 2) and for good reason: their take on DRM is right-headed

While plenty of TV networks have experimented with offering shows online for free, it is CBC’s use of DRM-free BitTorrent downloads that is the most interesting. Guinevere Orvis, one of the interactive producers on the show, told me that the motivation for this choice was their desire for the “show to be as accessible as possible, to as many Canadians as possible, in the format that they want it in.” As for DRM, she said: “I think DRM is dead, even if a lot of broadcasters don’t realize it.” She added that “if it’s bad for the consumers, it’s bad for the company.”

and this alone puts them considerably ahead of American broadcasters who are still not clear on how they can retain control over every copy of every show, restrict copies electronically, and track viewers so as to more effectively sell them stuff. For American media distributors, DRM is still taken seriously. It’s this kind of thinking that creates a huge competitive edge for those who treat their viewers better. The CBC is way ahead of the US’ PBS in terms of licensing, DRM-freeness, and modern decentralized distribution of their shows.

But the most interesting part of this show has to do with the level of debate, a debate you won’t hear on American TV.
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Still want to support the Democrats?

Remember how the Democratic Party, freshly voted into control of US Congress, said that impeachment was “off the table”? After explaining how light impeachment really is, Ralph Nader lays it on the line for the Democrats:

Repeatedly during the past seven years, Mr. Bush has lectured the American people about “responsibility” and that actions with consequences must incur responsibility.

It is never too late to enforce the Constitution. It is never too late to uphold the rule of law. It is never too late to awaken the Congress to its sworn duties under the Constitution. But it will soon be too late to avoid the searing verdict of history when on January 21, 2009, George W. Bush becomes a fugitive from a justice that was never invoked by those in Congress so solely authorized to hold the President accountable.

Is this the massive Bush precedent you and your colleagues wish to convey to presidential successors who may be similarly tempted to establish themselves above and beyond the rule of law?

Is this the way you and your colleagues wish to be remembered by the American people?

So what’s your breaking point?