My Corner of the ‘Net

First Corner

Posted on | March 18, 2009 | No Comments

I think it’s appropriate that I’m starting my first column on my iPod Touch, with my Series 3 Tivo streaming a show from my Netflix On Demand queue. Not so long ago was a time when I was impressed with my Mac Performa’s 56k modem getting a network speed just fast enough to surf the Web with decent image load times.

That probably dates me, but it was on that balky old Performa 6300CD model I started writing my column, My Corner of the ‘Net, for the Boston College weekly paper, “The Heights”. It was the embryonic days of the Internet, when incoming students at BC were becoming immediately immersed in global communication the moment they walked on campus. Now practically from the time they can read a person can use the ‘Net. And that’s something entirely new.

It’s something that means the world is different, that it’s changed, for better even if some say for the worse. I suppose that’s why I’ve started writing again: everyone seems to have an opinion about the new digital culture. Some people praise it, others condemn it. But there’s a deeper story to be told.

The path ahead twists and turns, an irresistible force like the Internet fighting against the immovable object that is the Law. Freedom vs. restrictions. Who’s right?

Many things could happen, the world is changing, and our way of life along with it. But like when star-like dreaming and down-to-earth pragmatism make one of their frequent meetings, Reality usually ends up somewhere in the middle.

For instance:

According to an Argus Reid Strategies study only 3% of those surveyed believed online file-sharers should be punished by law. It goes on to say 45% of people have in fact used peer-to-peer file sharing and believe it should be available to everyone on the Internet.

It sounds great on the face of it, but let’s keep in mind: this was an online study. People who were online were the respondents, so of course the results will be composed mostly of people who are already regular Internet users.

The crux of this problem has always been the idea of lost money. Money the studios, both movie and music, could be making by selling the media that’s being freely circulated via Rapidshare, Kazaa, BitTorrent, etc.

They started to try and control “digital leakage” years ago with takedown notices to individual websites, stopping them from offering MP3s for download. It worked for a while, but then Napster came along and their central server of ripped files exploded onto the scene. Lawsuits descended, and they were silenced.

But the technology wasn’t through with the MPAA (Motion Picture Associate of America) and the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America). When the Kazaa/Morpheus/Limewire mutual share network went up, removing the need for a centralized (and easy to sue) server. Everyone shared files, with downloading clients all grabbing a few bits from each machine until it had a whole movie or audio file. So the studios changed tactics: attack the manufacturers of the software running the downloads.

Initially, it was legally difficult to prove software manufacturers were responsible for the illegal use of their products. Eventually Limewire was proven to be designed to assist its users for copyright infringement.

But that was one piece of software. And the battle against Limewire had taken years. To add insult to injury, even after the software was outlawed, programmers took the source code and made it free to download on the Internet, removing any actual entity to sue.

The next move? Backtracking IP addresses (the identifying address of the computer on the Internet) and suing whomever happened to be on the other end of that connection, be it a 12-year-old girl, or simply the wrong person. Their lawsuits ended up being indiscriminate, and their “cease and desist” orders ended up going to a fraction of the actual downloaders online.

And their methods were flawed to begin with: IP addresses might identify a computer, but they changed. It wasn’t like the mailing address on a house, it changed. A new IP is intermittently allocated to a computer, sometimes once a month, sometimes never. Sometimes, every time you start it up. The RIAA, in their infinite wisdom, decided they wanted every person who could have used that IP.

At some colleges, the worst offenders of piracy to the RIAA, the administrations had been giving out the info for students who were downloading. Some had resisted, only to be slapped with lawsuits of their own. But when Tufts University was asked to hand over the names of 40 “possible” downloaders associated with 2 IP addresses, they said “no”.

Now, rebounding from their rebuffing, the lawsuits have ebbed, with the studios declaring they will work with ISPs directly to control the pirated content. Considering, in the case of BitTorrent especially, this creates a need to run “packet sniffing” on the data going to their customers, ISPs are going to become a bit nosey. They’ll be doing the equivalent of tracking what kinds of data, be it e-mail, web, even UDP for games, being used by your computer at will. The counterpoint to this new tracking mechanism is encrypted SSL, which prevents Deep Packet sniffing, protecting the transmitted data from detection.

Now the studios wants the ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), where all websites are indexed and how we reach them when we enter “www.yahoo.com”, to drop what they consider “piracy” websites and make them unreachable. But then there are ways around that: use another domain name or register through another company, rendering that maneuver useless.

The arms race continues.

But there was a decision the MPAA and RIAA could have made, back when the Great CD Ripping era was just starting.

Their mindset was solidly set in protecting their property, of trying to perfect the “copy protected” CD, in a constant arms-race as their protection schemes were cracked by the online community. They refused to accept pretty much everyone who distributes their product digitally was going to find their data being ripped and redistributed.

What they did: Sue everyone who accessed their content without permission. Alienate their customers.

What they should have done: Accept digital technology, understand the Internet has permanently changed the way content will be distributed. Distribute your content online. Adapt.

Of course in hind-sight we can say that. These corporations had enormous marketing and retail infrastructures that were dependent upon they way they did business. To change would have taken years and cost millions. It would be a plight, but they would eventually build that new infrastructure and make their money online instead of in brick-and-mortar shops.

Here’s the kicker: years went by, millions were in fact spent, but on lawyers and legal fees. Finally, a new, effective online digital media store was opened on April 28th, 2003. And it was opened not by Universal or Sony, but by a lean hardware company with small market-share, one that had proven its ability to innovate and cornered the market on portable digital music players.

It was the Apple iTunes store.

So committed to their domination were the studios that they let a completely uninvolved party, a company who’s former slogan was “Rip. Mix. Burn.” to sell their computers, swoop in and fill the niche they were too stubborn to take advantage of.

And now, even more online music and video stores have popped-up, some as a part of larger retailers (Amazon.com), others with independent music (Myspace). While the indiscriminate lawsuits have ebbed but takedown notices and legal accusations are still abundant, it’s too late for the studios to prosper with their own content distribution websites. All they can do is work to keep fighting as best they can, while everyone else works at making money.

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