Monday, 30 January 2012

End of the Internet?

Unless you've been living in a hovel these past couple of weeks you may have noticed that the freedom loving interwebz has come under attack from nefarious fiends, known only as Hollywood and 'the government'. US lawmakers launched a two-pronged assault earlier this January, first shutting down popular file sharing website Megaupload and arresting its owners whilst simultaneously introducing new legislation in the form of SOPA and PIPA, bills with the potential to severely censor internet freedom. The point of all this was ostensibly to stop online piracy, a practice which major film and record labels have bemoaned as ruining their industry.

However, while this may all sound very proper and sensible on paper, there are some curious oddities at work. As Megaupload bore the brunt of the authority's offensive, similar file sharing sites suddenly shut down over the next few days, deciding to cut their losses and run in case the law came after them next. Millions of subscribers have been left furious having renewed their yearly subscriptions only to find that they no longer have access to the service they paid for. What's worse is that these sites had dodgy clauses in their terms and agreements, essentially absolving them of all liability and allowing them to change the terms of the service at any point, meaning that customers had no legal grounding with which to claim a refund.

Now, for the straight and narrow amongst us you might think 'good, serves those bloody pirates right!'. Yet file sharing was never the exclusive domain of pirates. Most customers used the services for perfectly legitimate purposes, such as uploading and sharing large amounts of data and work. Think how important scientific research or business projects could be uploaded and shared with colleagues around the world. Yes, people did upload other assorted media to these sites which people exploited, but the problem of piracy never stemmed from the owners of services such as Megaupload, but its users. It was essentially impossible to check what individuals were choosing to upload to their accounts and share with each other. In fact, these sites explicitly warned against uploading such material and took it down when informed of a violation. The problem was, no one ever reported them. And why would they?

And so the question becomes 'why do people pirate?'. For the undiscerning they might nominally have an image of 'pirates' being poor, good for nothing students or some such nonsense, unwilling to pay a fair price like everybody else. But is it a fair price? Gabe Newell, co-founder of online distribution company, Valve, put it best when he said:
"We think there is a fundamental misconception about piracy. Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem. If a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24 x 7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country in 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate's service is more valuable"
That is to say that the idea of 'pirates' who refuse to support the artists and just want everything for free is a fundamental misconception. People who 'illegally download' are perfectly willing to pay, and this is displayed in their subscriptions to file sharing sites which cost around $60 - $80 a year. The problem is such services are stifled and blocked by lobby groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America, a cabal of the five largest film studios in the US who pigheadedly stick to the same business model they've been using since home media first came into our living rooms. Anything that threatens this model is instantly attacked as they break out the lawyers, go after kids in their bedrooms and whinge at the government to be seen as acting against this terrible scorge. This monolithic entity fights against what should be a natural and highly beneficial evolution of the industry in order to continue selling their products at a premium. And when consumers realise that they are being ripped off and can find another service which offers a higher value product at a lower price, these mega-corps rage that the internet is ruining their business, lobbying government to institute new draconian legislation to protect them. Naturally government concurs, fond of loosely worded bills which are open to interpretation and give them power to criminalise perceived 'dissidence' - something which the internet has an unlimited capacity for. If anything resembling the Arab Spring ever happened in the West, government would have the legal leeway to shut down the services which helped facilitate and organise democratic protest in the blink of an eye. Bye bye Facebook. Bye bye Twitter.

What's more striking is why authorities feel they need these laws anyway. First you have to ask that if the FBI and the US Justice Department were able to go after file sharing websites on the grounds of protecting intellectual property within the current legal framework, then why the need for SOPA and PIPA? The answer is because the powers within them are potentially far more extensive then the mere aim of stopping piracy. What it would enable government and said corporations to do is to shut down websites accused of copyright infringement without trial or traditional court hearings. Such an ominous potential for censorship would see the internet stagnate as people refuse to post content in fear of what could be invoked.

Fortunately you may have noticed that SOPA and PIPA have been put on hiatus - for now. President Obama was adamant that he would oppose any bill that might reduced freedom of expression. But there is a larger, uglier hydra's head on the horizon, and one which Obama has already hypocritically signed up to. ACTA, the Anti Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, is a global agreement which promises to go much further than SOPA and PIPA ever envisaged. For the past three years it has been negotiated in secret between 39 countries by people who are not our democratically elected representatives. This is a bill which aims to make internet service and access providers legally responsible for what their users do online, essentially turning them into privatised copyright police and judge. The subsequent censorship to their networks which would ensue would be disastrous for the internet and freedom of speech. Disguised as a trade agreement it also has some other nasty little powers, such as giving large corporations the power to stop generic drugs before they reach the people who need them, as well as being able to stop certain seeds for crops. The European Parliament is due to vote on this legislation soon, and this will be our last chance to say 'No'. In Poland people have already taken to the streets in defiance of ACTA and in the spirit of this, I urge you to get in touch with your local representative and/or if you're a British citizen, sign this petition in an effort to stop it.

And what of piracy then? An interesting reason has surfaced lately as to why the MPAA and the US authorities went after Megaupload, and apparently it wasn't for the piracy. Mere weeks before the site was taken down, Digital Music News reported that Megaupload was on the verge of releasing something which would rock the music industry to the core. Dubbed MegaBox, the service was to become an alternative music store which was entirely cloud-based and offered artists a much better way to make money than any record label. The timing for Megaupload's demise then certainly seems a little convenient, but moreover if true this shows that it is not a problem of piracy, but of greed and corporate interest.

If the record labels and the movie industry, along with its cohort of cronies in the government were really serious about stopping piracy then there is a simple solution. Provide the service people are clamouring for. Provide a business model which enables consumers to access products both conveniently and at a reasonable price. If these were available you could kill piracy overnight. The more barriers they throw up, the more defiance it inspires. Sound impossible? Consider Netflix, a service where you pay £6 a month and have instant access to television shows and films. That is providing a 'legal' service at about the same price as a subscription to one of those evil pirate file sharing sites. Does Netflix singlehandedly solve the issue? No, primarily because its library is lacking. But the idea is sound. Likewise, services such as Spotify for a small monthly fee enable you to stream music whenever you like. And you know what they allow in China? Since 2009, in conjunction with Sony BMG Music Entertainment, EMI Group, Universal Music and Warner Music Group, has allowed users to download the latest tracks for free, while the record industry sues teenagers in the Western world for sharing music. In China of all places! Perish the thought we'd ever be given such a service here.