The Internet Heist (Part I)

The early days of the war to control the future

Cory Doctorow
Published in
13 min readJan 2, 2022


The anti-piracy “You Wouldn’t Steal A Car” title-card, modified to read “You Wouldn’t Steal the Future.”
FACT (modified)

Note: This is Part I in a series; Part II is here, Part III is here

“A polite marketplace.”

That’s what the movie studio executive said he wanted to create.

It was my first day at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. One of our supporters had been at the National Association of Broadcasters show in Las Vegas the week before; coming back through the Convention Center late at night, he stumbled on an “open meeting” being held by the Motion Picture Association of America’s Copy Protection Technical Working Group. It was an “open meeting” in the sense that anyone who knew about it was welcome to attend, but they didn’t actually tell anyone it was happening, and they held it in the dead of night.

On the spur of the moment, that supporter decided to attend. What he heard was genuinely bizarre, and would have been absurd if it wasn’t so alarming.

That dead-of-night NAB meeting’s purpose was to announce the formation of a new interindustry consortium: the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG), which would hold its inaugural “open meeting” the following week, at an LAX airport hotel that would be convenient for tech reps who flew in from Silicon Valley and for studio and TV reps based in LA.

BPDG’s purpose? To steal the future.

This was 2002.

The dotcom crash — accelerated by 9/11 — was still underway. The tech industry was reeling from the financial bloodbath and fragmented among hundreds of small, struggling companies. The few giants in the sector were seemingly fragile, with Apple on the ropes, Microsoft a convicted monopolist, Netscape in tatters, Yahoo an also-ran.

Contrast this with the entertainment industry, riding high despite the scare talk about Napster’s existential threat. Film, TV, broadcast, and cable were more concentrated than at any time in living memory. This consolidation allowed them to extract high profits from their customers and their talent, and, in a shrewd bit of let’s-you-and-he-fightism, to pit the two groups against each other with a narrative that held that the true predators on creative labor were the fans who loved it, not the sprawling…