Wednesday, 18 January 2012

I'm not dead yet!

I decided, after long and hard thought for many seconds, not to 'go dark' in protest of SOPA today. This is less to do with me being fully in favour of this legislation going through the US Senate to attempt to stamp out piracy on the Internet and more due to the fact that my blog gets approximately zero hits daily, with spikes whenever I happen to post something.

Some sites, however, have decided to block their content for the day, notably Wikipedia. I say 'notably' rather than 'most notably' because, were it not for their action, the protest would probably have gone completely unnoticed by most users of the Internet and, in particular, by precisely the people who are least aware of SOPA. As it is, Wikipedia, as one of the world's most used websites, will have brought the issue to anyone going on-line today, in the English speaking world at least.

One of the things I noticed about what Wikipedia have done is that they have not actually pulled their content off the Internet for the day but rather have just served up the requested page modified in such a way that your web browser covers it with a message. Initially this appears a very odd thing to do as it is fairly simple to get round and access the information you are looking for in the same way as (I am told) it is actually possible to view 'pay-per-view' news sites, such as the Times, without paying. A much more reliable system would be to take their database off-line and replace it with a wiki that is empty apart from the few pages they want you to read, non-editable and displays their protest message as the standard 'page not found' page. However, I wonder if there is more to it than meets the eye.

Personally, I agree in principal with the idea of people and companies having their intellectual property protected. Protection against piracy and censorship, howerver, are one thing but the actual implementation is quite another and the wrong solution does little to solve the problem whilst at the same time doing much to hurt legitimate consumers. I said that it was easy to access the information that Wikipedia has blocked and someone may respond that this is only because I have a particular level of technical knowledge and to most people that list of edible fungi or people called Archibald remains hidden from view until tomorrow. This is precisely the point; attempts to prevent piracy have generally caused real inconvenience to most people while setting, at most, a very modest hurdle for those who actually want to do anything illegal. Likewise, the pay-per-view news sites are probably well aware that their system is far from fail-safe but they will have weighed up the cost of using a more water-tight system against the possibility of misuse and decided that their customers are more likely to pay rather than intentionally jump through all the hoops. There may be some people who would do this but is this really any different from reading the newspaper in the newsagents without paying?

Take for example the attempts to prevent copying of DVDs. Anyone who has watched a perfectly legitimately bought film on DVD will have had to sit through the incredibly annoying and patronising "you wouldn't steal a car" advert that is impossible to skip and, ironically, is itself an example of music piracy. If, however, you download the same film off the Internet the unknown originator, who probably would steal a car given half a chance, has very helpfully removed this annoyance for you. This is, perhaps, a silly example but what the recording companies want to be able to do goes much further than this. More than imposing fines on individuals they want the power to pull the plug on others on the Internet on just the strength of an accusation.

I don't claim to know the answer to the piracy problem but I would suggest that it lies more in changing people's attitude and media companies changing the way they work. Someone at work commented a few months ago that the ease and price of music on iTunes meant that he now had no incentive to try to find the same music for free. I do not doubt that there will always be some level of illegal downloads no matter how easy and cheap legitimate purchases are made but I remember back in the 80s, when cassette and VHS recorders were becoming more common, there was a fear that they would kill off the music and film industries yet here we are 30 years later and they are both alive and well.

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