Let old DRM die. Kill it if you have to

Two years ago, my former colleague Sarah Jeong laid out how Star Wars: Rogue One — and, indeed, much of the Star Wars mythology — is about internet freedom. A huge amount of the series involves people struggling to copy a sci-fi floppy disc or send the holographic equivalent of an email, exacerbating a lot of the galaxy’s problems, including its total lack of accountability for politicians.

But The Rise of Skywalker, which concludes the whole Skywalker saga, makes clear that data transfer isn’t the only problem. The galaxy is also plagued by well-meaning but short-sighted digital censorship — and its consequences can be dire.

Spoilers ahead for The Rise of Skywalker.

The Rise of Skywalker is partly a reunion for beloved characters and a sweeping battle between good and evil, but it’s mostly a hunt for mythopoetic GPS coordinates. Resistance fighters Rey, Finn, and Poe need to find a secret planet ruled by the Sith lord Palpatine. They can only find the planet with a rare navigational beacon. And they can only find the beacon by decoding Sith-language runes on a ceremonial dagger, which they do find but immediately lose.

Fortunately, the protocol droid C-3PO is fluent in several million forms of communication, and he’s stored a copy of the message. Unfortunately, according to C-3PO, the Old Republic’s Galactic Senate issued a hard-coded ban on “forbidden languages.” So he can confirm that he understands the text, but he can’t speak the translation out loud.

On first glance, this doesn’t make much sense. The Old Republic dissolved a thousand years before C-3PO was built. It’s not clear why the ban still matters, nor why droids maintain any support for a language that’s been illegal for centuries. While my friends at Motherboard speculate that the “ban” is an excuse for greedy language module makers to sell Sith add-on packs, I’m not sure that holds up, since most companies at least mention the existence of products they’re trying to sell.

The most likely explanation, I’ll admit, is that there is literally no explanation. The Rise of Skywalker is full of sudden narrative reveals that exist to either put a character in temporary peril or make everybody go visit a new planet. The Sith ban does both: to retrieve the translation, the crew has to go meet an adorable black market tech wizard named Babu Frik, who has to effectively jailbreak C-3PO’s programming and wipe his memory.

Yes, it’s probably just an excuse to bring in Babu Frik

But movies’ unintentional implications are often more fun than the filmmakers’ real intentions. And if you look a little closer, C-3PO’s language lock is one of the realest, most narratively relevant pieces of tech in the Star Wars sequels. It’s a plausibly disastrous example of building and regulating today’s technology without thinking about how it will work tomorrow — and of the galaxy’s supposedly more civilized past coming back to hurt its present.

Rise of Skywalker doesn’t say why the Old Republic banned the Sith language. But we do know the Republic fought an extended war against the old Sith Empire and tried to purge its cultural influence. Locking down Sith translation would mirror real governments and companies coordinating to ban ISIS propaganda, or even game developers censoring Hitler’s mustache under German law. Droid translation module programmers might have decided that disabling content was easier than removing it, or maybe the module company was also selling unlocked hardware to Sith customers, playing both sides of the conflict.

The resulting half-ban is exactly what you’d expect from a company bolting new rules onto an existing software platform, then building new products on the same platform for… well, maybe thousands of years is a bit much, but it’s not far off Star Wars’ generally mind-boggling time scales. Unfortunately, these lawmakers and programmers didn’t predict the inevitable outcome: someday a user would need to get around their ham-fisted censorship system, and its architects would all be gone.

In our world, as Motherboard points out, digital rights management (DRM) can stop people from repairing or even controlling their own possessions. Meanwhile, when companies try to block bad content online, they often end up hurting educators and researchers as well — either by censoring their content directly or by taking down material they’re studying. Moderation algorithms often can’t tell the difference between one user promoting hate speech and another criticizing it.

To be fair, the dagger’s DRM is even worse

And when these lockdown systems become obsolete, it creates a whole new set of problems.Modern computer users, for instance, are finding their software saddled with copy protection that the publisher has stopped using, or that new computers no longer run. Applications are trying to follow routines that made sense long ago, not realizing that the world has changed.

In Star Wars, the dagger’s DRM is actually worse than C-3PO’s, because it includes a secret pop-out viewer for pinpointing its coordinates. (Yes, Sith ceremonial weaponry works like an ’80s anti-piracy gimmick.) But at least that’s a system created by the forces of evil and serving its intended purpose. The translation ban is an apparently well-intentioned policy that tragically backfired, all because its creators chose a rigid technical fix instead of a more nuanced solution.

This isn’t just a cautionary tale about digital rights. It’s an ironic — if probably unintentional — subversion of director J.J. Abrams’ overwhelming nostalgia for Star Wars. Rise of Skywalker constantly rebukes its predecessor The Last Jedi, a film about characters who believed the past had become a prison and were trying to wipe the slate clean. Yet it’s Abrams who comes up with the perfect metaphor for this conflict: a rigid and outdated programming rule that accidentally helps fascists nearly conquer the galaxy, and that can only be defeated by (temporarily) wiping the memory of a beloved character.

Let old DRM die. Kill it if you have to.