Only a very small fraction of a much longer interview I did with leading digital activist and author Cory Doctorow ended up in last week’s Observer Review. We talked about so many wonderful things, that I thought I’d post the other bits up here.

The content below is independent of the content published by the paper. Here, Cory offers his thoughts on what the Web should be used for, what attitudes need to change to take into account the contemporary 21st century digital economy, the generational shift in perceptions of privacy, and what the kids can teach us about how to get around copyright restrictions.

If you’d like to read about Cory’s rationale for releasing all of his written work under a Creative Commons license, and how he uses his fiction to get his free data message across, head over to the Observer interview.

The UK government appears to be clamping down on copyrighted materials, yet you release all your content for free. Who shares your beliefs about copyright, or is this a marginal attitude?
People who are actually doing digital things – that is to say, making works available and living on the internet and making their livings form the internet – those people find this to be a very natural conclusion. My colleagues and friends who make art that’s supposed to be copied have that intuitive knowledge that there’s no way you’re going to stop people from copying, and they’ve made peace with it.

The only people who really think that it’s plausible that somehow they’ll reduce copying in the future, seems to be the analogue economy: the people who built their businesses on the idea that copying is hard and only happens occasionally and usually involves a giant machine and some lawyers.

What stands in the way to this attitude being accepted by the mainstream entertainment industry?
I’ve given up on changing the attitudes of the entertainment industry. There are people in the mainstream entertainment industry who have the right attitude; they’re just not the senior executives. Senior executives look at this stuff and go, “You know, I definitely think we’re going to have to do something radically different. We don’t know what that is, so if we do nothing until I retire, then at least I won’t be the guy who made the terrible mistake.” But a lot of the junior people know they’re going to end up on a bread line unless they change something now. I talk to the juniors all the time and they say to me, “Oh you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get something through corporate.” The world is full of juniors who don’t want this, and seniors who insist on it.

If there’s an attitude I would really change, it’s regulators who continue to regulate the Internet as though it’s primary use is to get content – whether for free or paying for it – and not to be at the centre of all forms of human endeavour, social action and communication. That’s the piece that I think is missing here: we still treat it with the lack of gravitas that would attend a medium that was merely about distributing movies.

In fact what this is is a medium for electing prime ministers, for organising revolutions to topple corrupt governments. It’s a medium for founding and running schools, for finding out about nutrition. It’s a medium for attaining social mobility. If we continue to regulate it as through the most important thing that it does and the only thing it does of any worth is this business of entertainment industry stuff, it will be very grave indeed for the United Kingdom.

What do you think the UK’s Digital Economy Act says about politicians’ attitudes to the digital industry in this country?
It illustrates the extent to which the entertainment industry is willing to circumvent democratic norms in order to, essentially, buy laws. They wrote amendments to the Digital Economy Act and got Liberal Democrat front bench Lords to introduce them as though they were LibDem policy, when in fact the rank and file of the LibDems completely rejected this policy. They managed to get this pushed through in the wash-up without any full quorum or public scrutiny of the kind that would attend any new regulation of this complexity and of this degree.

It’s not a coincidence that some of their long-term backbenchers like Tom Watson voted against the Whip for the first time. Even MPs were revolted at the idea that they were essentially handing this enormous corporate gift over to some of the biggest and richest corporations in the land at public expense without even any kind of adequate public scrutiny.

More of Cory’s thoughts on the DEA are here, in a column for The Guardian.

You don’t shy away from social activism and digital rights in your fiction. For example, For The Win, your latest Young Adult novel, tackles ideas of virtual property ownership and copyright.
For The Win is a book about gold farming. Gold farming is when people do repetitive tasks in a multiplayer video game in order to accumulate virtual wealth. Farmers then sell the assets to other gamers who are either too lazy or too busy to do those same repetitive tasks. The games consider this cheating, but this doesn’t stop about 400,000 people from doing it for a living. Most of the farmers are in poor countries, most of their buyers are in rich countries, and it’s about what happens when the farmers form a union. All the workers are in the same place, although they might be in different countries – they’re in the same virtual world – and their bosses aren’t nearly as good at using those virtual worlds so they can do a whole lot in them without fear of supervision or reprisal from their bosses.

And in Little Brother, your last YA novel, you talk about privacy and data protection.
In Little Brother, I created a cautionary tale that explained the risks that you may not find when you create a Facebook account, or you allow your data to be collected by this institution or that. It was intended to be a kind of vaccine for bad decision-making. I feel that having the consequences for your actions made grammatic vaccinates you against bad consequences.

How does this relate to modern kids’ worlds?
I would prefer that kids give less information to Facebook, but I think that if we want to give kids give less information to Facebook, then we should start by having them give less information to everybody. That means giving them the tools that help them to understand that privacy really matters, and that giving up your privacy is something that’s hard to stop doing once you start. But when they’re at school, if you log into any service like TOR or proxy, or boot into your own OS, that’s usually grounds for suspension or expulsion.

Adults haven’t adopted these technologies; do kids really use them?
I think they do. I go around to a lot of schools and I hear from them that they use proxies – not necessarily for privacy per se, but to get around censorware. It’s a very common thing and they tend to be better at it than their teachers. That’s because censorware tends to be dysfunctional: censorship software is predicated on the idea that somewhere there is a cellar full of prudes in such number that they can systematically look at every single website.

This is not a technically plausible idea. What tends to happen is that a lot of bad stuff gets through and a lot of good stuff doesn’t. It’s very hard, famously, to do research on breast cancer because there’s a lot of word blocking or substring blocking. Meanwhile, there’s a lot of bad stuff that gets through, like viruses and pornography because it’s not an effective use of technology.

I hear from a lot of teachers that they pick up a lesson plan in the morning and by the afternoon it’s been blocked, and they can’t access it for 24 hours. They can’t teach their lessons effectively. When I’m giving a presentation, I often ask the kids, what the teacher should do. And they all have great ideas for helping that teacher get around the censorware. I think that kids are actually very savvy on this score.

But what can they do if, as you say, they’ll be expelled or suspended from school for exercising their digital privacy?
If there’s one thing I’d like kids and their teachers to do right now, it’s not to become outlaws in their schools. That just marginalises them and gets them thrown out. It puts them in harm’s way. So rather than circumventing the firewall because they can and because it’s convenient, I’d rather see kids and teachers doing systematic research into the failings of their firewalls. What and how much bad stuff gets through, how much gets blocked? How easy is it for kids to block it? What happens to the teachers when they get around the censorware?

And then they should do research into the companies who provide these filters: who runs them? What is their business plan? What do they do with the information? And then find out how much it costs and present it to your school board and council. Make this a media literacy and activism teaching moment, not just expeditiously blast past it.

Cory’s For The Win is out now. Read it here.