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So, acad­e­mi­a’s char­ac­ter­ized by argu­ment, by cut and thrust, by dis­agree­ment. But there’s a very spe­cial kind of dis­agree­ment that’s a kind of dis­agree­ment that’s hard to make progress from, and That’s denial­ism. This is man­u­fac­tured con­tro­ver­sy from peo­ple who ben­e­fit from mak­ing it seem like there’s con­tro­ver­sy about some­thing for which there is no actu­al con­tro­ver­sy among practitioners.

The canon­i­cal exam­ple of this, of course, is smok­ing. The can­cer denial move­ment, through which high-paid con­sul­tants to the tobac­co indus­try spent decades cast­ing doubt over whether or not there was a causal link between lung can­cer and tobac­co was fan­tas­ti­cal­ly prof­itable and became the tem­plate for all of the denial move­ments that followed. 

The next move­ment that real­ly caught fire was of course the AIDS denial move­ment, which had incred­i­bly grave con­se­quences, con­se­quences that prob­a­bly rival can­cer denial for the kinds of fall­out that we expe­ri­ence from it. One of the loci of this is a guy named Matthias Rath, who was a German doc­tor who ran a very prof­itable vit­a­min busi­ness in the EU. And he claimed that AIDS was­n’t caused by HIV, rather by a vit­a­min defi­cien­cy that could be treat­ed with his prod­ucts. So he ran these full-page ads that said why should South Africans be poi­soned with AZT?” all through South Africa, to encour­age peo­ple not to take anti­retro­vi­rals and instead to take vit­a­mins and nostrums.

And as if this was­n’t bad enough, he had the ear of the out of the pres­i­dent, Thabo Mbeki. And through him and through the health min­is­ter, they effec­tive­ly used vit­a­mins instead of anti­retro­vi­rals for sev­er­al years to treat HIV, which lead to as many as three hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple dying. And dur­ing this peri­od, the pro­por­tion of South Africans who are HIV-positive rose from about 1% to about 25%.

And of course one of the ele­ments of denial is that when peo­ple call you out on denial, you have to be able to silence them. This is where the for­bid­den research came in. When Ben Goldacre, an epi­demi­ol­o­gist and sci­en­tist pub­lished on this in the Guardian news­pa­per, Rath sued the guardian and they spent about three hun­dred thou­sand pounds win­ning the right to pub­lish their sto­ry about the fall­out from AIDS denial.

AIDS denial begat cli­mate denial, which is alive and well today, the non-controversy about anthro­pogenic cli­mate change. And then the kind of denial that’s maybe par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant to an MIT audi­ence, and the kind of denial I’m going to talk about most­ly today, is Turing-completeness denial. 

So, we only real­ly know how to make one kind of com­put­er. That’s the com­put­er that can run all the pro­grams that we can express sym­bol­i­cal­ly. But for lots of rea­sons, peo­ple would like it to be pos­si­ble to make com­put­ers that can only run pro­grams that don’t make you sad. That would be great. It would be awe­some if we could make print­ers that could­n’t also be vec­tors for mal­ware. But the rea­son we haven’t done that isn’t because the nerds are refus­ing to coop­er­ate with the forces of right and jus­tice. It’s because this is the com­put­er we know how to make.

One of the canon­i­cal exam­ples of Turing-completeness denial is dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment, this idea that if you want to stop peo­ple from run­ning pro­grams that make copies of files that you would­n’t like them to copy on their com­put­er, you can encrypt the file and send it to them, and also send them the key, but ask their com­put­er not to let them know what the key is. The tech­ni­cal term for this in secu­ri­ty cir­cles is wish­ful think­ing.” We don’t keep even real­ly good safes in bank rob­bers’ liv­ing rooms. Not because safes don’t work but because you can’t give your adver­sary the key and then hope that they can’t fig­ure out where you hid it. Especially when your adver­sary might be a grad stu­dent with noth­ing to do this week­end and a bunch of under­grads hang­ing around like a bad smell, in a lab with an electro-tunneling micro­scope that’s going idle.

But of course, if Turing denial isn’t just about DRM, one of the most vir­u­lent man­i­fes­ta­tions of it in the last two years has been cryp­tog­ra­phy denial, some­thing that we had put behind us in the 1990s dur­ing the Clipper chip debate, but which has resur­faced. This is the idea that we can make cryp­tog­ra­phy that works per­fect­ly well except when it needs to cat­a­stroph­i­cal­ly fail, at which point it will cat­a­stroph­i­cal­ly fail but con­tin­ue to work for all the peo­ple it should­n’t cat­a­stroph­i­cal­ly fail for. 

And of course the oth­er kind of Turing-completeness denial that we have is pri­va­cy denial, the idea that if you have noth­ing to hide you have noth­ing to fear. That secre­cy is the same as pri­va­cy. That because I know what you do when you go into the toi­let it should­n’t be your right to close the door. That kind of denial has real­ly caught fire in the last fif­teen years, twen­ty years of sur­veil­lance cap­i­tal­ism ris­ing to its cur­rent preeminence.

And the thing about denial is it begets nihilism. Denial mat­ters because the things that are being denied (the poten­tial harms of pri­va­cy, anthro­pogenic cli­mate change, AIDS, can­cer) those things are real. And the non-solutions that arise when you deny them, those non-solutions don’t solve these prob­lems that are real and get­ting worse because they’re not being addressed through our pol­i­cy because we can’t address them because we’re in denial about them.

So for many years peo­ple, who were wor­ried about the risk of can­cer smoked light cig­a­rettes as though there was a kind of cig­a­rette that did­n’t give you can­cer. It’s not true. In case you were won­der­ing, there isn’t a kind of cig­a­rette that does­n’t give you can­cer. There were peo­ple who went on hav­ing unpro­tect­ed sex with­out tak­ing anti­retro­vi­rals, because they’d said that AIDS was not a sex­u­al­ly trans­mis­si­ble ill­ness but rather a vit­a­min defi­cien­cy. So if it’s a vit­a­min defi­cien­cy then it does­n’t mat­ter if you con­tin­ue hav­ing unpro­tect­ed sex. Recall South Africa’s rate of infec­tion went from 1% to 25% dur­ing its peri­od of offi­cial denial. Or you know, we insist that there are ways that we can build on flood­plains or con­tin­ue to emit a lot of car­bon, and that this some­how won’t cause lots of cat­a­stroph­ic prob­lems down the way.

In the realm of DRM, we insist that the rea­son that artists aren’t get­ting their share of the income that’s being gen­er­at­ed for their works isn’t that they have bad rela­tion­ships with the firms that mon­e­tize their work, it’s that their audi­ence has failed to watch their TV shows in the right way, or lis­ten to their music in the right way. And we insist that some­where out there is a tool that will force peo­ple to lis­ten to music in the right way, and that that will some­how put mon­ey in the pock­ets of artists as opposed to, for exam­ple, orga­niz­ing to insist that they get bet­ter con­trac­tu­al arrange­ments with their pub­lish­ers, labels, and studios.

Or in the realm of cryp­to denial, we build out infra­struc­ture that has known holes in it, that we have put holes in, so that peo­ple can access it law­ful­ly, so that the back­doors can be used by law enforce­ment. And then this stuff which is then out in the field can’t ever be reme­di­at­ed because it’s sit­ting in these remote loca­tions where we have a hard time patch­ing it. You may have seen that yes­ter­day CERT pub­lished an advi­so­ry on vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in base­band radios in mobile devices. There are lit­er­al­ly bil­lions of these devices. They’re in the field. We will nev­er ever patch all of them. If you can devel­op an attack against those base­band radios, you can bypass the oper­at­ing sys­tem of the mobile device to access its data and implant mal­ware on it. Even hard­ened devices, devices that use strong cryp­tog­ra­phy, devices that are keyed to antic­i­pate attack. They are unpro­tect­ed on the base­band side.

And we encour­age the for­ma­tion of busi­ness­es based on siphon­ing off ever-larger caches of our sen­si­tive infor­ma­tion on more and more insane and improb­a­ble bets that some­day we’ll fig­ure out how to turn all of that into giant amounts of mon­ey. It’s the old lady who swal­lowed the fly prob­lem, right? Once you accept that we need to solve this prob­lem by smok­ing lighter cig­a­rettes, by tak­ing more vit­a­mins, then it begets anoth­er prob­lem. You must not be tak­ing the right vit­a­mins. You must not be smok­ing light enough cig­a­rettes. You you must not be try­ing hard enough to lock down hard­ware so that users can’t recon­fig­ure it. 

So, the prob­lem is still there. The solu­tion has­n’t worked. And the denial move­ment won’t admit it, because to admit it would be to admit that they were wrong. Instead we pass a law that says dis­clos­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in DRM is a felony pun­ish­able by five years in prison and a five hundred-thousand dol­lar fine. Because although we know that the DRM can be bro­ken, we assume that we can just silence the peo­ple who dis­cov­er those flaws. And this makes things a lot worse, right? If you’re not allowed to tell peo­ple about flaws in sys­tems that they rely on, it does­n’t mean that those flaws won’t get weaponized and used against them. It just means that they’ll nev­er know about it until it’s too late. Everyone should have the absolute right to know whether or not the tech­nol­o­gy they rely on is working.

And we also cre­ate these gigan­tic terms of ser­vice that say that pri­va­cy isn’t a prob­lem because by stand­ing in the vicin­i­ty of a thing that’s siphon­ing off your per­son­al infor­ma­tion, you’ve agreed that it’s allowed to take all your infor­ma­tion and also wear your under­wear and make long dis­tance calls and eat all the food in your fridge and punch your grand­moth­er. And there­fore there is no pri­va­cy prob­lem, because you’ve agreed that there is no problem. 

So we spend more mon­ey, we take more mea­sures, we waste more of every­one’s time, and then we end up with it’s start­ing to feel like it’s too much trou­ble to even both­er with. It’s a fact of life. Sure, cig­a­rettes are gonna kill me some­day, but what the hell, it’s too late now. There’s already so much car­bon in the atmos­phere, why should we stop dri­ving? The enter­tain­ment indus­try is going to insist on dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment no mat­ter what we do; why should­n’t we just accom­mo­date them and put it in all of our tech­nol­o­gy? I’m gonna leak my data no mat­ter what, so I might as well join Facebook and get invit­ed to some par­ties on the way to the infor­ma­tion apocalypse.

And so it cre­ates this idea that there’s no future. That you might as well just give up. But there is an alter­na­tive. Because at a cer­tain point, no mat­ter how much denial and FUD there is, the prob­lem becomes unde­ni­able, right? Even though we can’t agree on the cause, we can agree that there is a prob­lem. So with pri­va­cy, for exam­ple, the US gov­ern­ment says that the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act makes vio­lat­ing terms of ser­vice a felony. And as Ethan just described, this means that we can’t inves­ti­gate in depth how ser­vices gath­er infor­ma­tion and use it, because in order to do so we have to vio­late their terms of ser­vice. And since the terms of ser­vice have the pow­er of law, we risk going to jail just to find out what’s going on. 

Or the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the 1998 statute that has lots and lots of claus­es, but Section 1201 makes it a crime accord­ing to the US gov­ern­ment to inves­ti­gate sys­tems that have dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment in them and to divulge their flaws, to divulge their workings. 

Digital rights man­age­ment thus becomes a kind of attrac­tive nui­sance. Because once you add a skin of dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment around your tech­nol­o­gy, you can sue any­one who breaks it even for law­ful pur­pos­es. Which means that it ends up metas­ta­siz­ing into all kinds of things. We have light bulbs with dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment. And Philips, who make the Hue prod­uct, last year briefly intro­duced a firmware update that caused their light sock­ets to reject non-Philips light bulbs. And since you had to bypass their DRM in order to reme­di­ate this, it became a felony to plug a light bulb of your choos­ing into your light sock­et, briefly, (or a poten­tial felony) until Phillips, cowed by the out­rage, rolled that back. But who, faced with this oppor­tu­ni­ty to add restric­tion to their tech­nol­o­gy that then allows them to dic­tate how peo­ple can use it, to make it as prof­itable as pos­si­ble for them, who would­n’t choose to adopt DRM? What what indus­try would­n’t thank the gov­ern­ment for that gift and take it on board?

So now we see dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment in tech­nol­o­gy as diverse as pace­mak­ers, ther­mostats, cars, med­ical diag­nos­tic equip­ment, baby mon­i­tors, insulin pumps, cat lit­ter box­es, smart light bulbs, and these babies, the Internet of Things rec­tal ther­mome­ter. You lit­er­al­ly have dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment up the ass at this point. 

The pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty impli­ca­tions of all of these devices being off-limits to inves­ti­ga­tion, to secu­ri­ty audit­ing, and to dis­clo­sure… That’s fig­u­ra­tive­ly ther­monu­clear, but it’s lit­er­al­ly poten­tial­ly lethal for you not to be able to know how these sys­tems are work­ing and whether or not they have flaws in them.

Now, at a cer­tain moment, because these prob­lems become so vis­i­ble to us, we hit a kind of moment of peak indif­fer­ence. The moment when the peo­ple who care about this stuff, the num­ber of peo­ple who care about it, is nev­er going to go down. That’s not the moment at which the tide changes in the pol­i­cy debate, but it’s the moment at which the activist tac­tic changes. Because although your job may have been for twen­ty years to con­vince peo­ple that this stuff mat­tered, all of a sud­den your job becomes con­vinc­ing peo­ple that there’s some­thing that they can do about it, because peo­ple have agreed that this stuff matters.

So, when enough of us have watched a loved one die of lung can­cer, when cli­mate refugees can no longer be ignored because they’re lit­er­al­ly wash­ing up on your shore, when data breach­es destroy the lives of mil­lions of peo­ple every week. For exam­ple, the Office of Personnel Management leaked over twen­ty mil­lion records of peo­ple who had applied for secu­ri­ty clear­ance in the United States a lit­tle over a year ago. Suddenly the pri­va­cy debate in those cir­cles changed. 

I went to this Rand war game exer­cise about infor­ma­tion breach­es, and all of the cops and spooks in the room, every time some­one pro­posed a solu­tion that involved allow­ing lots of infor­ma­tion into the pub­lic domain and allow­ing it to be han­dled by unvet­ted par­ties, they reject­ed those solu­tions out of hand as though they were com­plete­ly unfit for pur­pose. And I could­n’t fig­ure out why until one of them said Office of Personnel Management” and I said, Oh yeah, right. You had to sit down with a gov­ern­ment offi­cial and tell them every­thing that could be used to black­mail you as a con­di­tion of your secu­ri­ty clear­ance. So they know about your mom’s sui­cide attempt and the fact that your broth­er is in the clos­et and the fact that you’re HIV pos­i­tive and you haven’t dis­closed it your cowork­ers. And all of that infor­ma­tion was breached prob­a­bly to the Chinese gov­ern­ment last year. Of course you now care about privacy.”

And they’re not the only ones. It’s not just peo­ple whose data gets leaked this way. People have their devices breached by voyeurs who spy on them. You may have heard of remote access tro­jan, or RATing. This is when you break into some­one’s lap­top, spy on them using their lap­top cam­era, cap­ture images of their inci­den­tal nudi­ty along with their key strokes when they key in their pass­words for social media. And then you com­bine those two things. I will pub­lish these inci­den­tal nude images on your social media chan­nels,” to black­mail them into per­form­ing live sex acts on camera.

When RATers get arrest­ed, they don’t just have one or two vic­tims. They often have hun­dreds. The FBI raid­ed a hun­dred RATers last year. The most pro­lif­ic had four hun­dred victims—many of them are under­age people—all over the world. There is a very pub­li­cized case in Canada where a young woman com­mit­ted sui­cide after being hound­ed by a RATer. She was a teenag­er and the RATer was releas­ing her infor­ma­tion into her social media chan­nel, where her fel­low stu­dents could see it, which led to her being bul­lied and killing herself.

So at a cer­tain point, peo­ple are find them­selves unable to ignore these prob­lems any­more. They find that their cars are being hijacked by net­worked attacks, the dis­clo­sure of which can lead to felony pros­e­cu­tion. Or that enough infor­ma­tion has been pieced togeth­er through data breach­es to get a dupli­cate deed for their house, and then sell their house out from under them while they’re out of town. This hap­pened both in New York and London in the run-up to Christmas last year.

When peo­ple real­ize that it’s a felony to recon­fig­ure their devices to do what they want or to give them max­i­mum val­ue— Farmers are all up in arms about John Deere, which uses dig­i­tal rights man­age­ment to lock up its diag­nos­tic infor­ma­tion on the trac­tor, includ­ing the infor­ma­tion that’s gen­er­at­ed when you dri­ve your trac­tor around the back forty and col­lect the soil den­si­ty data at a fine degree of res­o­lu­tion, which you could then use to broad­cast your seed auto­mat­i­cal­ly. Except John Deere won’t give you that infor­ma­tion. They sell it to you along with a bun­dle of seed from part­ners like Monsanto. And to remove that infor­ma­tion from the trac­tor on your own with­out their say so risks DMCA pros­e­cu­tion. And so farmer mag­a­zines are now wor­ried about the DMCA and about DRM.

So, at that moment when every­body is sud­den­ly car­ing about this stuff, that’s the moment at which nihilism can be avert­ed. It’s the moment in which nihilism must be avert­ed if you’re going to make a change. Peak indif­fer­ence is the moment when you stop con­vinc­ing peo­ple to care about an issue, and start con­vinc­ing them to do some­thing about it. To quit smok­ing, to call for emis­sions reduc­tion, to install cryp­to on their devices, to jail­break every­thing. It’s the moment when you tell them the names of the peo­ple who per­son­al­ly ben­e­fit­ed from their immis­er­a­tion, and you tell them where they live. The peo­ple who delib­er­ate­ly cre­at­ed this false con­tro­ver­sy that made it impos­si­ble to effec­tive­ly address these prob­lems. That’s the moment when if you catch it you can move peo­ple from indif­fer­ence to mak­ing a difference. 

But you need prin­ci­ples if you’re going to make it hap­pen, as the esteemed com­put­er sci­en­tist Alexander Hamilton once said, If you stand for noth­ing, what will you fall for?” Just because some rules are bad, it does­n’t fol­low that rules them­selves are bad. You need to have prin­ci­ples that guide your work and a way to defend them against every­one, includ­ing future ver­sions of your­self, who might some­day weak­en or waiv­er and your com­mit­ment to those prin­ci­ples, and a way to keep those prin­ci­ples up to date.

So, we have a real­ly good exam­ple of this in our com­mu­ni­ty. It’s the GNU Linux licens­ing regime, the GPL, which I’m sure you’re all famil­iar with. The free soft­ware move­ment has these prin­ci­ples, this prin­ci­ple that com­put­ers should serve peo­ple rather than enslav­ing them. And it has as a way of imple­ment­ing them these 3 ideas (Actually four ideas. There’s a zero in there.) That you should be able to run code. That you should be able to under­stand your code. That you should be able to improve your code. And that you should be able to share what you’ve learned in improv­ing your code with oth­er people. 

And it has a tac­tic for mak­ing that stick, the GPL, their soft­ware license. Once you license code under the GPL, there’s no back­sies. You can’t revoke that license. Which means that if you start your busi­ness full of high-minded ideals about how you’re going to change the world by open­ing up com­put­ers and soft­ware, that no mat­ter how des­per­ate things become; no mat­ter how many peo­ple’s mort­gages are on the line because you can’t make pay­roll; no mat­ter how your acqui­si­tion suit­or wants you to change things; no mat­ter how angry your investors get at you, you can nev­er de-GPL your code. And in fact, if you make it known that your code can nev­er be GPL’d, there’s a good chance no one’s ever going to ask you to de-GPL it. It actu­al­ly changes the char­ac­ter­is­tics of what peo­ple pres­sur­ize you to do. 

There’s a name for this. It’s called the Ulysses pact.” This is named after Ulysses, who lashed him­self to the mast when he was going into siren-infested waters, to make sure that when the siren sang he would­n’t jump into the sea. When you license your code under the GPL on day one, you’re doing some­thing equiv­a­lent to throw­ing away your Oreos on the day one of your diet. You do that not because you’re weak-willed and won’t be able to resist the siren song of Oreos, but because you are strong-willed enough to know that there will come a day when your will will waver. And so you bind your­self now to not tak­ing a bad course of action in the future.

Now, the ear­ly pio­neers of the Internet want­ed to build some­thing decen­tral­ized, open, and free. But as we’ve learned, we end­ed up build­ing his­to­ry’s biggest sur­veil­lance device, so advanced that gov­ern­ments fac­ing social unrest some­times leave the Internet on instead of turn­ing it off, because the best way to con­trol a pop­u­la­tion in revolt is to know exact­ly what they’re doing through their devices

And no one is the vil­lain of their own sto­ry. The net pio­neers who made the com­pro­mis­es that made the Internet what it is today, they instead of decid­ing to sell out, made a tiny com­pro­mise. And because we’re only real­ly capa­ble of detect­ing rel­a­tive dif­fer­ences, they made anoth­er lit­tle com­pro­mise, and anoth­er lit­tle com­pro­mise, each one of which felt very small, but we end­ed up where we are today.

And there’s this great project under way today to re-decentralize the Internet. But if we’re going to do that we also need to fig­ure out how to pre­vent it from de-re-decentralizing. We need rules to guard us from our future selves and the moments of weak­ness that we’ll have. The rules that we make today when we’re pirates to guard us from the admi­rals that some of us will inevitably become.

So I pro­pose a cou­ple of rules. The first one is that com­put­ers should always obey their own­ers. When a com­put­er gets a mes­sage from a remote par­ty and that con­tra­dicts what the per­son who owns the com­put­er wants it to do, the per­son should always win. And the sec­ond one is that true facts about com­put­ers should always be legal to dis­close, espe­cial­ly about their secu­ri­ty vulnerabilities. 

So how do we make those stick? Well, we can build them into our license terms and con­di­tions of mem­ber­ship into our con­sor­tia. We can make them con­di­tions of reg­u­la­to­ry approval. We can say that if the FDA’s going to bless your med­ical implant, they have to bind the com­pa­ny that makes it not to invoke laws that pre­vent dis­clo­sure or own­er over­ride over their devices. We can incor­po­rate them into the def­i­n­i­tion of open standards.

Your own rule-breaking needs to have prin­ci­ples like these, these sim­ple min­i­mum viable abroad agree­ments. The rules for rule-breaking. The prin­ci­ples so hard­line that they call you an extrem­ist. In fact, if they’re not call­ing you an extrem­ist, you’re prob­a­bly not doing it right. And you will need Ulysses pacts. You’ll need tools to stop you from becom­ing com­pro­mised when you get old and tired.

The were­wolf’s sin is not turn­ing into a were­wolf, it’s fail­ing to lock him­self in the base­ment when the full moon comes. Your trick will not be to stay pure. Your trick will be to antic­i­pate the moments of weak­ness in the future and to make sure that you can guard your­self against them.

I think Kit has an announce­ment to make. So, as I was com­ing up, I was won­der­ing whether or not I’d be able to say this, but I think Kit can say this. 

Kit Walsh: I’m Kit Walsh. I’m a staff attor­ney at EFF. And I would like to announce that one of the laws that Cory men­tioned, Section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which pre­vents secu­ri­ty research, it pre­vents you from access­ing media in order to remix it, recast it— That we have prin­ci­ples that gov­ern what sorts of rules we have, and they’re in the Constitution. And this morn­ing, we filed a case against the gov­ern­ment, chal­leng­ing the con­sti­tu­tion­al­i­ty of Section 1201 of the DMCA as con­trary to the First Amendment. We brought that case on behalf of secu­ri­ty researcher Matt Green and tech­nol­o­gist Bunnie Huang and his com­pa­ny AlphaMax, but real­ly on behalf of the entire pub­lic and every­one who wants to make law­ful uses of copy­right­ed works for research and expres­sion. Thanks.

Doctorow: Thank you. So, that’s our next sev­er­al years tak­en care of. We’re going to be work­ing on chang­ing the law. And not just chang­ing it here, but because all of the coun­tries around the world have been arm-twisted into adopt­ing their own ver­sions of Section 1201 of the DMCA, things will be ripe for our allies and col­leagues around the world to think about revok­ing it there, too. EFF has a project called the Apollo 1201 Project, whose goal is to end all DRM in the world with­in a decade, and this is our open­ing sal­vo. Thank you all very much.

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