The three laws of computers

Who actually owns your computer? It sounds like an easy question, but think about it for a moment before you jump to the answer.

Most people will off course be inclined to answer "Me!" and logic would say they are right. But in reality, this is increasingly not the case.

Off course, you are the one that footed the bill for the hardware of your system and you paid for the software on it, so that makes you the owner? In the past it was already the case that you did not own the software on your system if you used MS Windows or any other closed system, you just paid for the right to use it within the limits of the license, a license you mostly didn't get to read until after the purchase. As the software is about as important as the hardware to actually use your computer, it already turns out you already didn't own half of your computer.

The release of Vista marks something that already started to happen on Windows XP with forced 'updates' such as WGA (Windows Genuine Advantage). Your computer will be used more and more to check up on you and to protect the interests of others like Microsoft themselves and the big media companies.F

Besides anti-piracy tools, Vista is rigged from top to bottom with something called DRM (Digital Rights management), a system designed to protect content (like movies) from being copied. What this means in practice is that your computer will spend a portion of its time and resources constantly monitoring you to prevent you from doing something that is not allowed by third parties. These third parties can update the list of things you can and can't do on the fly through the auto-update mechanism in Vista.

This control extends very far, if for example it is found that a certain type of video card allows protected content to be copied (through a flaw in its design or software), that device can be disabled worldwide to prevent it from playing protected content (so no HD-DVD movies for you). So you can no longer view your legally purchased movies on your legally purchased video card because your computer thinks you shouldn't.

In the recent past, the line was already shifting of what you can do with your computer versus what others can do with it. Sony putting a virus on a lot of windows systems is a good example which was made worse by the inaction of both Anti virus companies and Microsoft and laws like the DMCA that actually made it illegal in the US to remove the infection.

But now, the tables are turned completely on you, the virus was installed before you purchased the machine, it is embedded deeply in the roots of your system and it is impossible (sometimes even illegal) to remove it. You essentially lost all control over you system except what it allows you to do and even that can be taken away retroactively.

What we actually need is something like the three laws of robotics, outlined by sience fiction writer Isaac Asimov, for computers.

The original laws are:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

We could define them for our much dumber PC's as:

  1. A PC may not harm it's owner or allow him to be harmed (monitored, restricted, ...)
  2. A PC must obey orders given to it by its owner/user
  3. A pc must protect its own existence (updates/patches) as long as this does not conflict with the first two laws (like the WGA update would).

Fortunately, users today have a choice that guarantees them those three rights. They can choose from an increasingly wider range of Linux distributions to run their computers, they can even turn to FreeBSD or lesser known systems like Minix.

Yes, they will lose some options like playing certain games and viewing content (like encrypted WMV's), but that will change once those alternatives reach critical mass and can no longer be ignored (the situation has already much imporved in recent years).

At least, you will end up with a computer that you own from wires to bytes and back and that will not allow others to dictate what you can and cannot do with it and you will be able to answer my initial question with a real "Me!".

Written by Guy Van Sanden
Licensed under a creative commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.



With apologies to Isaac Asimov, I would like to propose the following laws to protect computers:

The Three Laws of Computer Usership
1. A user may not injure a computer or, through inaction, allow a computer to come to harm.
2. A user must follow the directives given by its computer, except where such directives would conflict with the First Law.
3. A user must protect their existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.