Tangled Webs

   What's in It for Us?
Issue 9.3
Nov 7, 2004

Clear And Present Danger

Last month US Attorney General, John Ashcroft stated that file swapping and peer-to-peer (P2P) networks pose "a clear danger to our economy and the health, safety, and security of the American people." He then announced that America is going to "declare war" on such piracy.


Let's see, according to the US Department of Justice, last year in America, 1.4 million cases or murder, rape or aggravated assault were reported, 1.3 million motor vehicles were stolen, and 2.2 million homes were broken into. Sadly, these are some of the highest crime rates in the developed world, but the nation's top law-enforcement official is telling us that the real problem is a bunch of kids downloading songs on the Internet?

Now, there is no question than Internet-based file sharing is hurting record sales to some degree, and as bandwidth increases it may even hurt video rental sales. Unfortunately, this illegal file swapping is proving very hard to shut down because most of it occurs directly between individuals on P2P networks rather than via centralized servers, which are easily located by law-enforcement personal.

Adding to Hollywood's headaches, in August, US federal courts ruled that regardless of what files are being shared over them, the P2P networks themselves are perfectly legal. There is, in fact, something fundamentally democratic about the decentralized, user-controlled nature of P2P networks. For example, outragedmoderates.org launched its Downloading for Democracy campaign in which over 700 government documents -- including torture memos related to Abu Ghraib prison and an Intelligence Committee report on what the government knew before it invaded Iraq - were made available to the public over P2P networks.

The logic is simple. The same technology that makes it hard to stop the distribution of pornography and pop songs also makes it hard to preventthe dissemination of more worthwhile information.

The Gathering Storm

The rhetoric already sounds eerily similar to that of the US government's remarkably successful War on Drugs. Questionable and ever-increasing dollar amounts are being thrown about as the "cost to society," and legislators are anxiously rationalizing why normal constitutional protections should not apply to those suspected of such heinous crimes as giving away a copy of the latest Britney Spears album.

Copyright holders do, of course, have a formidable arsenal with which to go after violators, but it is never enough. Ashcroft's report, for example, recommends criminalizing even the possession of such material. In other words, if your son is caught with a downloaded MP3, he does not get a stern talking to or a hefty fine. He gets a criminal record and possible jail time. But hey, this is war, right? We should have zero-tolerance for these scumbags who drag down corporate profits.

Already, the media industry has the right to bypass normal privacy protections for those they -- not law-enforcement officials -- suspect of copyright infringement. They are now demanding the right to break into these people's computers and not be held legally accountable for any damage they may cause.

Already, the media industry requires that consumers pay for technology that prevents DVD players from playing cheaper, imported DVDs. They are now pushing for a law requiring that these devices be installed on all new computers at the consumer's expense.

The recently introduced Induce Act would go even further by simply outlawing any technology that threatens the media industry's business model. The pending legislation makes it illegal to manufacture or distribute technology that can be used to violate copyright law -- regardless of any beneficial and non-infringing uses the technology might have. Of course, since this potentially outlaws everything from the Xerox machine to the iPod, special exemptions are being made for existing technologies sold by large corporations. The idea, it seems, is to simply freeze technology where it is today.

Already, the media companies are suing file-swappers in civil courts and winning. And that's good. They are now demanding that the taxpayers pay their legal bills. The recently introduced "Pirate Act" would allow the US government to bring civil suits against file swappers on behalf of the media industry. According to Senator Orrin Hatch, tens of thousands of Americans would have to be sued and only the government has "the resources and moral authority to pursue such a campaign."

No Quarter Given

I think we all need to stop and take a deep breath and put the rhetoric aside.

This is not a war, and it has nothing to do with moral authority. It's simply about money. That doesn't mean it's not important, but we need to see this problem for what it is.

The media giants are trying to increase their profits in any way they can. If they thought they could get a law passed requiring everyone to sign their paychecks over to them, their lobbyists would be on the phones right now. They don't care about fair use. They don't care about consumer privacy or rights. And you know something? That's just fine. It's not their job to care, and we should not expect it of them.

Lawmakers, on the other hard, are supposed to be looking out for our interests, and clearly they are not doing so. The idea behind copyright law is to provide monetary incentive for artists to create new works that will eventually become public domain. In other words, copyright law is valuable because it benefits both the artists and society as a whole.

It's true that the media giants are losing money, but why should we care? Every time a new technology enters the marketplace companies that can't adapt quickly lose money. Sometimes they even go out of business. Perhaps it's unfair, but that's how capitalism works.

Large companies in all industries tend to have trouble adapting to new technology. It's the small agile firms that usually discover the new business models. The large firms then either imitate the small innovators or simply acquire them.

There are already hundreds of innovative musicians, artists and business who are making money using the Internet and P2P networks to share works they have created and profit via merchandising, CD sales, live performances and other means. The pieces are in place for normal market forces to solve this problem. In fact, the artists not aligned with the media companies are some of P2P's most vocal advocates.

P2P networks pose no threat to society as a whole. We still get the new artistic works and new jobs. Granted, the jobs will be created by small innovative companies and not the media giants, but that's not our problem.

With this in mind, why should we spend millions of dollars trying to halt the advance of technology and giving thousands of children criminal records just to protect the short-term profits of a handful of companies?

How do we benefit by funding Hollywood's private war against us?

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© Copyright 2004, Tim Romero, t3@t3.org
This article first appeared in the November 7, 2004 edition of The Japan Times.
Tangled Webs may be distributed freely provided this copyright notice is included.
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