The war on (some) drugs, primarily fought by the United States, is currently the biggest motor of the booming prison industry, and has led to more death and suffering than the drugs it pretends to fight. But if the billion-dollar-heavy oligarchy of content producers has its way, the ongoing war on sharing may well put thousands of "pirates" of all ages behind bars. The coming information economy with its lack of scarcity is shaking the very foundation of capitalism (or at least perceived that way), and the old industries aren't willing to adapt -- they'd rather keep us all in chains to preserve their empires. They seek power and control, not progress.
In this article, I will discuss some recent developments, and try to outline strategies for peer-to-peer developers and individuals to counteract the maneuvers of the content industry. But I do not agree entirely with Declan McCullagh who recently argued that "geeks" should stay out of the political process and spend their time coding innovative world-changing software instead. For me, like for Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, it is not an either/or question. As Lessig said, "if this community does not begin to spend at least as much time as it spends watching Hollywood movies fighting Hollywood, ... then this extraordinary space ... will be taken away." We need to work on strategies to visibly protest the actions of the legislature and, let's be honest here, to replace it in the long term.
You may not have noticed it, but Napster is alive and well. Yes, Napster, the service that defined file sharing and was used by tens of millions at its peak. In spite of all efforts by the music industry, represented by the RIAA (its trade association), the beast is still alive. Sure, the original network was effectively killed by a joined recording industry lawsuit, and German media giant Bertelsmann, Napster's new owner, has invested much money in fruitless efforts to extract some revenues from its exquisite corpose. But as Napster's popularity soared, open source programmers reverse engineered the protocol and developed OpenNap, a free, open source Napster server for all platforms that comes without the restrictions of its proprietary predecessor and allows trading of all file types, not just MP3s.
And for whatever reason, be it convenience or nostalgia, hundreds of thousands of people are still using the old Napster client (in conjunction with the server-chooser Napigator) or one of its many compatible replacements (WinMX and Lopster being among the most popular ones) to access one of the countless OpenNap server networks, trading hundreds of terabytes of unfiltered files.
It's not like the industry hasn't noticed -- early last year already they successfully bullied several OpenNap servers off the net. But the ease of setting up such a server and the complexity of international law have turned the fight against Napster into an unrewarding whack-a-mole game. And even if the operation of centralized OpenNap servers is eventually found illegal in all European countries, it is doubtful whether punishment will be severe enough to deter law breakers. After all, Europe is going its own way with regard to drug policy as well, and while most European countries do have the same "drugs are evil" position as the US, the actual enforcement and the maximum sentences are a lot laxer.
The only reason Napster loses popularity is that the file sharing services that replace it have more features and are more reliable. Just like Napster, the embattled KaZaA, which quickly arose as the most popular alternative, is still alive and kicking, in spite of all lawsuits and all spyware shenanigans by its new mother company. The official client has been downloaded more than 100 million times, spyware-free hacks like Kazaalite are spreading faster than Oregon wildfires. File sharers are well informed and quickly flock to the least intrusive, most effective solution.
Fakes and Backbones
One strategy of the content industry has long been the distribution of fake files on file sharing networks to make it harder for people to find what they are looking for -- this rather inaccurate Washington Post article cites recent spoof files on Gnutella, for example. Ironically, even some file sharers seem to employ this strategy for whatever reason, sharing an old copyrighted movie under the name of a new one, perhaps to gain download credits on trade based networks, or to hype a movie they like. But this strategy is losing its effectiveness as sites like Share Reactor post the hashes (unique checksums) of validated movies and other files, thereby making it easy to locate non-fakes. In the long term, decentralized rating systems integrated into file sharing networks will probably replace such centralized (but easy to relocate) hash-sites.
A recent story about a recording industry lawsuit against several large telcos running Internet backbones, including AT&T Broadband, Cable & Wireless USA, Sprint Corp., Advanced Network Services, and UUNET Technologies caused quite a stir. The record companies wanted the Internet backbones to censor access to a China-hosted site called "Listen4ever" which allegedly contained copyright-protected music. The case was quickly dropped as Listen4ever disappeared from the Net, but it shows that the industry's future strategy will include backbone censorship. This is an especially nasty form of censorship because it is very hard to avoid: No matter who your ISP is, you will be affected by the censorship if your ISP routes traffic through one of the backbones. The strategy is primarily suited for easy-to-identify websites and not for decentralized networks, but once the telcos are found to be liable to block access if notified of illicit content, the floodgates are open for all kinds of arbitrary, strong censorship.
The Fight Against Individuals
Realizing that entire decentralized networks are hard to kill, the content industry is increasingly taking up the fight against individual file sharers. Piracy tracking companies search for copyright-protected files, recording the IP addresses of file sharers and sending auto-generated letters to the respective ISPs, which in turn inform their users to "cease and desist" lest they lose their valuable broadband Internet account. (Due process? Forget about it.) All major networks lack anonymity, so individual file sharers are protected by nothing but the fact that "almost everybody is doing it".
In that respect file sharing is similar to masturbation at the end of the 19th century. It is a guilty pleasure that most, if not all, regular users of the Internet enjoy from time to time, but society increasingly treats it like an illness, so fewer and fewer people are ready to admit that they do it. Watch the forums: In almost every related discussion you will find more and more people who argue that kids who share files are little thieves and should be severely punished. Unless those who question copyright are ready to stand up for their beliefs, this pro-copyright view will become the mainstream, just like anti-masturbation views dominated society for decades. It's sad to see that even people like Lessig feel the need to pledge allegiance to the copyright system regularly, as if any other position would be morally equivalent to an endorsement of legalized cannibalism.
Of course, this is exactly the way the content industry would like it to be, so its next step will be to make some examples of "average file sharers" to send the message that everyone can and will be punished. Already the RIAA is asking ISP Verizon to immediately expose the real world address of an alleged peer-to-peer "pirate", using yet another section of the DMCA. Verizon still refuses and demands due process before giving away the address, but if the DMCA is found to apply, this will make it very easy for them to pull MP3 traders into court.
The rise of draconian measures will likely be accompanied by an ever growing amount of propaganda. Peter Chernin, president of News Corp. (Rupert Murdoch's media giant which controls, among others, Fox News and 20th Century Fox), recently called the Net a moral-free zone and demanded more "education" to make people understand that copying bytes produced by someone else without their permission is theft. If News Corp. and other media companies decide to demonize the Net and file sharing, they may well be successful. Ironically, Chernin also complained about the ever growing amount of pornography, which he called "an insult to common decency". He didn't mention masturbation, though.
Trusted Computers, Untrusted Users
The content industry realizes, of course, that no matter how many people they lock up, they will have to change the current technological situation that makes copying of protected content trivial. Their goal is a world where every electronic device has proprietary "rights management" technology that detects and prevents any illicit transfers. "Protected" content is encrypted and can only be played with licensed player software. Circumventing the encryption is illegal, and so is making available any information that would allow such circumvention.
This is already the situation with regard to DVDs: You cannot legally play Hollywood DVDs on Linux, because in order to do so you have to crack their encryption, which is illegal under the DMCA. The idea of DRM fundamentally contradicts the open source paradigm, because as a content provider you want to hide your secret recipe that allows you to encrypt content from its users. Open source software, where all parts of a program can be looked at and modified by anyone, doesn't have secret recipes.
Of course this hasn't stopped DVD piracy, as someone willing to distribute illegal copies of a DVD certainly has no problems breaking yet another law, the DMCA, and all DRM mechanisms are technically trivial to circumvent. (Even if they won't be in the future, it is enough if a single person cracks the encryption for the file to be made available to millions.)
DRM therefore requires other components to work, watermarking, secure hardware, and "trusted computing". Watermarks are patterns of bytes secretly embedded into a file. These patterns can be detected by player and transfer software and, if detected, the playback or transfer can be refused without a proper license. The removal of watermarks is illegal, but most watermark schemes have been broken already. To make watermarks harder to remove, they must be more visibly embedded into a file, degrading the quality of the file more and more.
Obviously, watermarks are useless if they are not respected by the hardware and software that transfers and plays files, so the necessary code to detect them is best embedded into the devices. A permanent net connection may be required for proper verification of content licenses. Furthermore, devices must refuse to execute software that has not been verified by the content industry to not be potentially useful to infringe copyrights. This is what "trusted computing" is all about. Applications are digitally signed by their owners and/or third parties and are given a secure, encrypted space in memory for their execution. In the current "trusted computing" vision by Microsoft, "Palladium" (FAQ), it is still possible to execute untrusted software, as everything else would be market suicide. But as the infrastructure becomes more widespread, there might first be virus warnings on all untrusted code and, quite possibly, eventually a law requiring all code to be signed by a third party. This would kill the open source idea that depends on fast code modifications and releases (not to mention that the authorization process would probably cost money), and it would make it relatively hard to find software for playing unencrypted content. Similarly, content producers would be effectively required to have their content managed and "protected" by the current oligarchy because content protection would be mandatory and only the oligarchy would provide it.
All in all, it would be the perfect deal for both Microsoft and the content industry: Kill open source, kill open content. At the same time, fair use rights that consumers formerly had can be taken away completely (as is already the case with DVDs' restrictions on copying, fast forwarding, etc.), and content that is bought can be restricted in a multitude of ways: only playable for a number of days or times, on a single device, etc. Of course a "balance" would be found, but on average, consumers would have far less rights than they do now. And it all would be backed up by laws like the CBDTPA, requiring digital rights management in every device, and the already existing DMCA.
So what can we do to encounter this massive attempt to enforce information scarcity? The above scenario is an extreme one and it touches the interests of many parties. The consumer devices industry, for example, is currently powered by consumers' growing interest in legal and illegal content copying. Consumers obviously do not want to buy devices that put more and more restrictions on their right to copy, and they are not nearly as dumb as the industry would like them to be. But smart or not, "FUD" (fear, uncertainty, doubt) has proven to be a very effective strategy: Should you buy the cheap DVD burner, or will the formats it supports not be supported by any other player? Should you buy the mobile MP3 player or is its feature set hampered by an intrusive DRM system, like in the case of Toshiba's Mobilphile? Of course this cuts both ways: With all the stories about copy-prevented CDs that damage hardware or simply refuse to play, why would you still want to buy an audio CD at all, especially considering that you would support the money-grubbers at the RIAA by doing so?
The best defense against FUD is education: Let's compile databases of hardware, software and content that is free of intrusive DRM and can be played in any fashion desired by consumers. A good place to start working on this would be the infoAnarchy wiki, where anyone can contribute knowledge of this sort.
Another strategy is letter writing. Yes, I know what you want to say -- letters never have any effect. And that's true for writing letters to politicians: They're used to ignoring anything that doesn't come with a contribution. But letters to device manufacturers are something else. Let Toshiba know that you would have considered buying their MP3 player, but now that you have read about their DRM system, which they were not legally required to implement (yet), you have changed your mind. Lost revenues are taken seriously by any company that wants to survive. Even if you do not get a reply, if they get enough letters of that type, their marketing dept. will bring it up at the next meeting.
How do we defend ourselves against legal threats? First, in the current situation you probably do not have to be afraid of a lawsuit for sharing MP3s or movies yet (software is more problematic). If your ISP sends you a cease and desist letter, find out if you have the option to switch ISPs. If you do, ignore the letter and keep on sharing. If they want to lose a customer, it's their loss, not yours. (Be sure to have your email address at an independent provider, otherwise switching becomes a pain.) If you don't have a choice of broadband ISPs, which is often the case in rural areas, you can still switch to a less visible file sharing venue.
The content industry closely watches high profile networks like KaZaA, Gnutella, WinMX, and probably OpenNap, but it has never cared much about trading on IRC or instant messaging, and if you are looking for popular files anyway, a small network like Filetopia or giFT may be completely satisfactory. Don't let them scare you: The less people share files, the more vulnerable the ones who still do will become.
Also, consider file sharing in the real world. Get a 160 gig drive and/or a cheap DVD-R burner (the only format that has some acceptance) and trade with your friends. The risk to be detected is almost zero, unless you try to make money by "sharing" other people's files, which is reprehensible anyway.
Anonymity and Plausible Deniability
There has been a lot of hype surrounding anonymizing networks like Freenet and Peek-a-Booty, but these are still a long way from being a potential replacement for file sharing networks. The main problem is that anonymity costs bandwidth and increases latency -- requests are typically routed through other peers --, and the current implementations suffer from a lack of reliability as well. I predict that with increasing bandwidth anonymous music sharing will become feasible relatively soon, but movies are a different beast.
I think plausible deniability is much more attainable as a goal than anonymity. It may be hard to completely hide the origin of a file, but it is much easier to make it possible for a file sharer to plausibly claim that he did not intentionally share and download the file. This is the case with systems like MNet, which automatically distribute segments of files across the network. Another idea that needs to be explored further is Usenet-style broadcasting of content, where carriers of content are not liable for it unless they are explicitly notified of infringing material. The main problem of Usenet is spam, but with collaborative filtering and webs of trust becoming widely understood and used, we know how to solve this problem, so a true peer-to-peer network that works similar to Usenet would be a real option.
Here we find that although there is a lot of progress in the p2p area, there isn't nearly enough. Projects like Freenet and MNet have little outside funding and no profit motivation. The people working on them do it for fun and not for personal gain. The resulting applications are often hard to use for non-technical people. Windows developers tend to be relatively traditional in their approaches and rarely fully explore options like open source and donation-based business models. Instead they burden their users with obnoxious spyware and advertising.
Let's not forget that Napster could have been developed years before it actually was, and yet it was the first truly massive file sharing application. There is still a lot of room for innovation.
Use Linux or another open source operating system, if you don't already. This may sound preachy and cliched, but open software makes the invasion of DRM and "trusted computing" a lot harder. Open source is the very antithesis to the idea of "protecting" files from their holders. As the number of multimedia formats not officially supported by open source operating systems due to DRM grows, however, the difficulty of adoption increases. Open source software needs to be a major factor before movies, TV and music will all depend on proprietary computers for playback. The situation with DVDs is bad enough. Linux must be wide-spread enough to be impossible to ignore, and that soon.
Linux is sufficiently advanced to use as a desktop operating system, and every new user helps, because by becoming a user, you increase the likelihood of new software and drivers being ported to Linux. If you have read this far, you do have the necessary intellectual skills to install any major Linux distribution -- give it a try if you find the time (I recommend starting with Mandrake, a very easy to use beginner's distribution, and later moving to Debian GNU/Linux because of its superior package installation management). The operating system is the key to content control, and if people don't move to open systems, Microsoft will hold this key.
I have always been one to argue that Linux should not be used because of technical superiority -- Linux is superior to Windows in some respects, but still has problems to overcome. It should be used because of the control that is associated with the operating system. The OS controls which applications can run and which media can play, and the OS manufacturer defines what you can do with your computer. Do you really want Microsoft to decide this for you? Using open source is a long term decision -- if you just want to play the latest games and do not care about the future, you'd better stick to Windows.
Open Content and the Gift Economy
If we want to destroy the content oligarchy, we have to offer a reasonable alternative. I do tend towards the belief that killing Hollywood and killing the music industry in its current state is a noble cause in itself and would give more room to counterculture, but I also find it hypocritical to try to destroy an industry by consuming its products.
There are, of course, alternatives -- there is an ever growing scene of independent movie makers and musicians, and the open source movement has succeeded in all but eliminating the need for proprietary software. But there is no adequate substitute for marketing yet. Sure, it may be argued that the content industry produces crap, and it is certainly true that mainstream movies and music are typically devoid of any powerful political or scientific message. But these movies and music are typically at least effective at stimulating the limbic system of our brains, or why else would a Hollywood-(hypo)critical site like Slashdot post movie reviews and DVD announcements immediately after their latest outrageous story about the DMCA?
So what is needed is a replacement for the filtering and marketing processes of the content industry. Collaborative filtering, which is already used in primitive forms on sites like Kuro5hin, Advogato and, in fact, this one, seems to be a cost-effective solution to separate signal from noise.
Powerful collaborative filtering systems have two components, ratings and reputation. You can grade content you sample according to different criteria -- technical quality, entertainment value, information value etc. -- and you can give the same kind of ratings to people you meet in online communities: I trust this person a lot, a bit, not at all. This combined information from all users of the system can then be used to bring you content that has been rated highly by people with similar interests or people you trust for other reasons. Current collaborative filtering systems typically only have ratings (Kuro5hin: stories can be voted up/down, comments can be rated up/down) or reputation (Advogato: users can be trusted a little / a lot), but not both.
Furthermore, collaborative filtering information from one community is typically lost as soon as you move to another one. Slashdot supports a basic friend/foe system, but once I have built a large list of friends or foes, I have to do the same thing for the next community I come across. The same is true for peer-to-peer networks. Not much thought has been invested in building a cross-community standard yet.
Do not expect big name companies to do this for us: It fundamentally contradicts the way they operate. Collaborative filtering would help exposing scams and faulty products and make it easy to punish corporations that misbehave. It is the opposite of traditional marketing, it cannot only replace it, because of its democratic nature, it is vastly superior. There are problems unique to collaborative filtering (defending a filtering system against various types of rating attacks, for example), but none of them seem to be unsolvable. Also, a centralized collaborative filtering system is dangerous because it puts a lot of power in the hands of those who maintain it -- a solution that is likely to be accepted must either be maintained by a highly trusted non-profit authority or decentralized. Decentralization brings its own problems ..
Once collaborative filtering is in place, paying the creators of high quality content is a no brainer. Voluntary donation systems do work, as proven by Kuro5hin's successful $35,000 fundraising and Blender's successful €100,000 campaign (see our wiki: gift economy data). There are very very big usability questions that need to be answered to make any such "gift economy" system work, and for all these systems, it is essential that consumers build a socio-emotional relationship to the content producers in order to motivate them to donate. But again, these are solvable problems, and online communities as well as open source projects are way ahead of music and movie producers here (because both community developers and open source developers typically have a deeper understanding of the technical problems involved).
For big name content producers, asking for a certain amount of money before actually producing the content will always be an option. And for the little name producers, spreading the content freely is necessary to become popular, and donations are a good way to still be paid. The current copyright system is counter-productive for anyone but the middle men of the content industry.
Spending a lot of time browsing a site like Opensecrets is a good way to lose all illusions one may have about democracy. Presidential election scandal notwithstanding, the politicians that actually are elected typically represent the interests of those who paid them. Laws demanded by the content industry, like the CBDTPA and the Berman bill, were bought and paid for by -- the content industry. It would be naive to assume that this kind of plutocratic politics only applies to the copyright problem. The oil and arms industry, the pharmaceutical and insurance companies, the car and fruit corporations, they all have their own powerful lobby groups and decide real life politics. It is no coincidence that all members of the Bush administration have heavy ties to big name corporations. If you want proof that politics in America -- and elsewhere -- are not dominated by public interest, what more proof than the war on drugs could you want?
It is time to replace the political systems world-wide with real, direct democracy, and this may well become the biggest battle of the 21st century. This problem, again, is partially a software problem: Real participatory democracy becomes theoretically possible through the Internet, but powerful, usable, secure clients need to be created to enable it. Many of the mechanisms will be similar to the ones discussed above.
A participatory democracy could, at first, be restricted to a newly created political party. Any member of the party can vote on all aspects of the party's platform within a decentralized network -- proposals are decided through collaborative filtering. Interesting projects are funded through donations within the systems. Once the party actually is elected, the general populace can use the system to define real world politics.
To avoid "mob rule", any proposal would be directly linked to comments by advocates and opponents (where high quality comments would be more visible thanks to collaborative filtering), so that any voter could be expected to read the pros and cons of any idea before voting. In general, I believe that people who actually do care to get involved in such a process can be expected to spend a reasonable amount of time getting informed, and I don't think that the false assumption that "people are sheeple" justifies a plutocracy.
In the beginning of this millennium, our generation has the chance to transform society in unprecedented ways. While capitalism is trying to cope with the effects of the information revolution, we can use the confusion to our advantage and start our very own evolution. Consider this essay an invitation to participate. This site was created more than two years ago to become a place for the discussion and development for such ideas. Join us, because the alternative is unthinkable