Peter Mandelson wants to turn off your internet

Peter Mandelson is drinking the record label kool-aid

Peter Mandelson's plans to finally stop the scourge of file-sharing are wrong-headed, dangerous and dangerously far reaching, but they also expose a fundamental disconnect with how the internet is changing business. Guy Aitchison and Thomas Ash have both posted here about this, and linked to Cory Doctorow’s excellent piece on Mandelsons new plans; I suggest you go and read that if you need a good overview of what this is about, but to quickly review; Mandelson has decided to take it upon himself to protect the record industry (and possibly some others, in a roundabout fashion), by declaring himself the protector of all things Copyright. He’s tabled amendments to the Digital Economy bill due for discussion which would allow 3 things to happen;

  • Mandy (or his successor) can decide what the punishments for online copyright violation should be; jail terms, fines or mandatory disconnection.
  • He can confer rights onto non governmental, private third parties, such as the record companies themselves, to access data from ISPs about how people use the internet, as well as their private details.
  • He can force the ISPs, or other intermediaries, to keep and make available information about their usage in order to catch copyright infringers.

That’s grossly simplified, of course, but as it stands there is a healthy chance that this bill, with amendments, will be accepted, and that Mandelson will be in a position to start deputising his Copyright Brigade. That said, the petition has crept to 15,000 signatures since I started this piece, and the House still has a chance to reject these amendments, especially as this is also a bill that contains almost nothing but punitive actions, and does very little to support the outcomes of the Digital Britain report.

It’s easy to think with legislation regarding the internet that we are still in a phase of bedding down, working out kinks, and that the laws will either be out of date or overturned or ignored by most users. In this case, the very freedoms that make the internet such a powerful tool are under threat. I hate to admit it, but even the Daily Fail is on my side on this one. And of course, we know this isn't going to work. There are smart people out there who will find technical ways around this (see footnote), and, well, this is the internet; Mandy is ignoring the Streisand effect; try to cover up information and the internet will make sure that everybody sees it. Trafigura, a fairly obscure campaign the Guardian was running, ballooned into a massive issue because of the Carter-Ruck's attempts to cover up information. Everybody has the tools to spread information now, and it quickly becomes very expensive to sue anyone who tries to spread your information. There will be ‘celebrity’ file-sharing incidents, and the government and record companies will find themselves in a very difficult position when it has become cool to publicly declare that you have this or that track which someone is currently being prosecuted for sharing. The internet is good at one thing in particular; routing around blockages in the network. This is meant in a societal sense rather than a technical one; imposing blockades on the internet encourages, initially the smart hackers, and then the rest of us, to find ways to get past those blockades.

The record industries are currently battening down the hatches, refusing to deviate from course, rearranging deck chairs and any other Titanic related metaphor you can think of. A business model that has managed to monetise creative output on an incredible scale, while both disregarding the artists and the consumers, simply due to a complete control of the production and distribution chain, which has now abruptly ended. The days of shipping records on physical media, with the attendant bulk savings, are behind us. The record companies just don’t seem to have noticed. Mandy, as business secretary, along with poor Gordon, seem to have taken it upon themselves to prop up a number of cronies whose businesses are being left behind while they subsist on gimme legislation and handouts. The record industry needs to undergo drastic change. We are hobbling them in future by giving them grace now. America had the grace to close Detroit down as worse than useless; we need to do the same.

Several brilliant, innovative startups, notably last.fm, Pandora, playlouder and spotify are moving in many ways to try and fill the gaps that the record industries have left, and it’s notable that Apple, a computing company, has managed to secure the position of top music retailer in the US. Meanwhile, since the advent of the easy, usable and cheap service that Spotify offers, we have actually seen a decline in file sharing usage. The big 4, however, are stifling the growth of these quick, innovative music services, which are being squeezed (Spotify virtually gave away 18% of it's equity to the big 4 on launch) , bought out and then ignored (last.fm was purchased by CBS, who seem reluctant to take advantage of the asset) or suffer the death by a thousand cuts that is licencing negotiation (Pandora is no longer able to stream it's music to the UK). It seems unlikely that this is due to actual malice, especially in the case of last.fm, but the recording industry is simply too large to be this innovative.

The big 4 music companies have lost the will to power, it would seem, and are languishing, hoping that their massive vaults of accrued recordings will allow them to continue in the fashion to which they are accustomed.  Mandy’s amendments are absurd from the point of view of promoting business; we should be forcing these companies to use the licences they hold. Music and media are only interesting, valuable and useful when people can listen to or use them; the recording industries have forgotten that, and until they remember, we shouldn't be supporting them financially or legislatively. Innovation and growth would be rampant if we forced a shorter copyright term onto these organisations, or nationalised the collecting house industry. Legislation they are part of bringing into being now will hobble them in future, and is stifling competition right now.

Here’s what you can do to help now; please do sign the petition on number10.gov.uk to stop this happening; tell your friends, coworkers and family to do the same. This is important, and in the grand scheme of things we need to hold this government to account for everything it tries to sneak through in their final 6 months. Open up your wifi, share copyright free (please, please, please do not share copyright material) content as much as possible on file sharing networks, and write to your MP. Support innovative businesses like last.fm, Pandora and Spotify, buy music from Apple, Amazon or whomever you please, and show these dinosaurs that the future lies in letting us buy music, not punishing us for liking music.

 

Footnote:

Technically, this is all pretty easy to avoid; just encrypt your traffic so that nobody can tell what it is you are sending, and make sure you send it through some intermediaries who deal with many people’s encrypted traffic, making it really, really (in fact, fundamentally) hard to work out is sending and receiving what. This is what your office VPN network, if you have one, effectively does, though I don’t recommend you file share through that. However, a quick google will find a number of free and paid for VPN providers for doing exactly this. Of course, many them are run by unpleasant people, and so you should really opt for a tool the EFF created to help people in oppressive regimes; The Onion Router, or Tor, which sends your traffic, encrypted, through many other peoples computers within the Tor network, for it to emerge and get sent to the intended recipient. It then follows an entirely different route back through the Tor network. Other than very crude traffic analysis, which is almost useless in this case, using these tools makes your file sharing activity practically invisible.

From a legal, reasonable doubt perspective, it’s even easier to avoid getting in trouble; just leave your wifi unlocked, or use the laughably insecure WEP encryption standard, which can be cracked in a matter of seconds, or perhaps minutes, in most case.

About the author

Felix Cohen is the Director of Technology at openDemocracy; he studied Psychology at Bath University, graduating in 2006.