Category: Society

Internet Freedom Starts Back Home, Minister Bildt

The Washington Post recently published a column by the Swedish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Carl Bildt, titled “Tear down these walls against Internet freedom“.

The column seems to present a very optimistic view of the Internet, a liberal view seldom seen among politicians today. Between the urge to stop file sharing and combat terrorism and child pornography, censorship and mass surveilance among the western nations has taken our Internet connections several steps closer to what the average Chinese user sees when logging on.

Sweden has traditionally been a strong country for new technology, so why wouldn’t the fight for a free Internet take root here? Indeed, Sweden is the birthplace of a political movement focused on saving the free Internet, the Pirate Party, so why not? I feel the need to offer up a report from within the country governed my Minister Bildt’s party.

The column in the Washington Post was preceded by a similar column (google translated) in one of Sweden’s largest newspapers and a blog post on Minister Bildt’s own blog. Sadly, the Swedish columns are less clear on this issue of what freedom means.

Here is a translated quote:

“It is obvious that the international rule set is far too weak and that the means that are available to ensure adherence to the rules in place are insufficient. The users have ended up trailing far behind the abusers.”

I wouldn’t call that obvious. The summary of Minister Bildt’s columns appears to be “more freedom will be had by introducing more government control”. This matches the actions of the government he is part of as well.

It is easy to criticize the Chinese government for their surveilance and censorship, yet the last year alone the Swedish government has put in place a law breaking a long tradition of free communications, ordering a mass surveillance of all Internet traffic that crosses the nation’s borders. Knowing how the Internet works and considering the small size of the country, that works out to just about all Internet traffic — all emails, IMs, chats, you name it.

This caused a wave of protests through the country and an online protest now known as the “blog quake”. Google declared that after the law was passed, it would no longer place any servers on Swedish soil, due to concerns for user privacy and integrity.

The same government has given media companies rights that go further than the national police force when it comes to hunting file sharers, and is preparing a new law mandating that every cell phone call, text message or other communication be logged, together with the position of the device at the time, essentially turning every cell phone into a tracking device in the state’s service.

The columns caused an outcry among Swedish Internet activists and supporters of freedom. The minister responded on his blog, showing just how ignorant the government is:

I do not understand that Christian Engström and others are upset about what I have said. Do they not think it is good that Sweden has a government that wants to defend freedom on the ‘net? To whine about FRA (the governmental body tasked with the mass surveilance of the Internet, my note) and our intelligence agency has nothing to do with it. Sweden does not restrict freedom of speech on the ‘net or anywhere else.

I would applaud Minister Bildt’s call for Internet freedom in the Washington Post, had I seen it in isolation. However, all is not well in the state of Sweden. While I would love to see the Iranian attempts to silence protesters fail and the great Chinese firewall break down, an easier political target would be to respect the rights of the people in your own country.

And sadly, the Swedish government has failed to take even the slightest account of it’s citizens’ right to privacy on the Internet. I would not trust a pest control company with roaches inhabiting its offices, and I will not trust a government that censors the Internet to tear down any walls against Internet freedom — in China or elsewhere.

The Gaming Police

Howard County Sheriff’s Department have been on the hunt for a drug dealer for a while, but lost track. The dealer skipped the country to hide in Canada. He made a mistake though — he chose to play World of Warcraft. Someone told the police about his online gaming habit, and they sent a Subpoena to Blizzard, requesting any information they had about the dealer in question.

Something interesting happens here. Maryland police has no legal juridistiction to subpoena things from Blizzard (situated elsewhere). The subpoena is more to be seen as a kind request for information. Months passed, and eventually Blizzard provides a chunk of information. Among others, the police gets an IP address that can be located and used to coordinate an apprehension together with Canadian police.

There have been plenty of reactions to the story, with comments like “if you don’t fancy prison life, you shouldn’t be selling drugs”. This is some form of the “if you’ve got nothing to hide” argument and thus misses the central problem of it all. You get caught on a quite common, but still quite false, line of reasoning that equates the possibility with the action. The problem here isn’t the action itself, it’s the possibility; not the result in itself, but the span of potential results that are made possible by the action as it is.

Let me explain that further. When the police nicely asks for information this way, Blizzard ends up in a problematic position of power. The company now has to take a moral position and in principle act as an authority of law. Maybe this had been a clear-cut case if we had been dealing with something that was illegal everywhere, and which everyone agreed constitutes an illegal and immoral action, like violent crimes.

Now it’s about the war on drugs. Regardless of how you feel about narcotics, you have to realize that laws about them are different in different parts of the world. So, now it’s suddenly up to Blizzard to decide if these sorts of laws also apply in the virtual Azeroth, regardless of where the people playing are in the world, or relative to where the police who’s asking the question is. Has Azeroth signed an extradition treaty with the United States of America?

In and of itself, it’s not a major problem, but the fact that Blizzard doesn’t answer “no” to any such requests as a policy is somewhat dubious. It opens the door for enforcement of any law in any country around the world — in the online world.

This is what I mean with that the possibility is the problem, not the specific action in the case at hand — what happens when Chinese authorities want some information? There are a whole lot of Chinese World of Warcraft players out there. Is that request equally much ok? The matter could concern different crimes there, and most of us agree that it would be less than pleasant if all the laws from all countries could potentially be applicable online, internationally. Is the next person who hides in Canada a Chinese dissident? What will Blizzard’s decision be in that case?

Of course I realize that Canadian police may not be very helpful when it comes to the Chinese government wanting to hunt dissidents, and that it’s very likely that Blizzard would take a different decision in that case, but there are issues in the decision to hand out information that are decidedly unpleasant, regardless of if you find the effect in this specific case upsetting. It’s a path that doesn’t look brushy, but leads deep into the djungle undergrowth.

Image credits: jluster.

Standing in the Way of Culture

The reasoning behind the introduction of copyright was the establishment of a law which would make sure there were incentives for creating culture. There was a fear that if there wasn’t some form of exclusivity, middlemen with a large capacity for distribution would easily be able to grab all works of art, produce and distribute them more effectively than the creators themselves and thus getting the lion’s share of the profits. This was a time when the printing press was the hot new thing, and writers feared publishers would easily steal all their hard work.

The fear was that if this kept happening, the people creating works of art would tire of creating culture and seeing others profit while getting nothing for themselves (a reasonable assumption), so copyright was introduced, giving authors an unlimited right to association with their works and a limited economical exclusivity with regards to production and distribution. This would make sure middlemen would not be a problem in the production of culture.

Sadly, in this exclusivity now appears an effect that goes in the direct opposite direction related to the original intent. To explain what I mean, let’s discuss something of high cultural value — commercials. Leading up to the fifth season of The Deadliest Catch, Discovery Channel created a trailer. A music and sound design studio called Musikvergnuegen were hired to create a soundtrack for the trailer.

The trailer aired, and something somewhat unusual happened: People heard the music and rushed to the TV in order to see what it was about. On Musikvergnuegen’s blog, under a fairly short and simple post about the trailer, people started gathering in the comment fields with fantastic stories about how they reacted to the music.

Let me tell you my story of this song. I wasnt even in my house but i heard this music come through the surround sound so i darted inside to find out it was a commercial for my favorite show. But wut really mattered was this music. The celtic sailor feel and sorrow filled sound makes this one of the best pieces of music ive ever heard.

The blog post has more than 40 comments, with people asking that the song be released somewhere so they can buy it and listen to it. Several other blogs have called attention to the music and linked to the post on Musikvergnuegen’s blog.

The studio appreciate all the attention, but answer that sadly Discovery owns the rights to the soundtrack, and that  because of that they can’t sell it. Instead, they’ve mailed Discovery, and urge others to do the same. The only problem is that Discovery doesn’t reply.

So, here’s a middleman blocking the flow of culture between the author and the consumers, stopping the people from getting the culture they desire. Recognize this problem? This saga ends on a slightly upwards note, as Musikvergnuegen takes matters into their own hands and add the music to their demo reel, which means it’s now possible to stream it from their web site.

Another example of the same kind of cultural blockage is how music giant Universal let its lawyers loose a few weeks ago to prevent the performance of a theater play at the City Theater in Stockholm. Not, as you may have thought, because they hadn’t paid for it, but because Universal wanted even more money for it, claiming the music was a central theme in the play. However, it turns out the author of the songs in question, Paul Simon, doesn’t agree with the middleman that the play should not be performed.

Abandoned Goods

A similar development has been in effect when it comes to computer games for a long time (and here it’s even more clear). The whole concept “Abandonware” exists to denote older games which are no longer on the market. There are websites that specialize in catering to people feeling nostalgic about games. As with many other kinds of culture, there are a whole lot of people who long for the good old days — the older games have a higher level of quality, they claim. Others still just want the ability to play “the classics” — just like there are classic books and movies there are classic games… the difference is that you can’t get the classic games anymore.

The fact that games can’t be bought doesn’t mean the copyright on them has expired, however. The rights to various games and game intellectual properties are bought and sold between different companies and often you’ll find the rights to games far away from the people who originally created the games after a studio closed its doors.

The fact that they’re no longer selling the games doesn’t prevent companies from having a go at web sites providing Abandonware. Sometimes, whole web sites are the targets of attempted shutdowns by lawyer, at other times, only certain games are targeted and removed. But the games themselves are not sold, so the people who wanted to play them are left empty-handed.

Sometimes, people get so desperate for their old, lost games that they even gather up the people needed to form a team and go through the enormous effort of creating a remake of their classic game of choice, only to be shut down by the rights holder.

There has been a long debate about this in gaming circles, sometimes with thunderous accusations from big games companies. People who download abandonware are called pirates, and blamed for some form of loss of income, even more absurd than the normal kind of calculations.

The Upper Hand of the Middle Man

In addition to all the problems outlined above, the cost for both creation and distribution has brought back something a situation which is very similar to the world before the introduction of copyright: middlemen dictate the conditions they like and grab large parts of the pie, since the authors are so completely dependent on the chain of distribution. In these negotiations, one side has sharp lawyers with years of experience of writing contracts, fine print and cost vs revenue calculations. On the other side are inexperienced, often young talented authors with no experience of writing or even reading contracts.

The imbalance becomes extremely obvious in the average record contract. In normal venture capital business, investors come in with capital, taking a risk with that money in exchange for a slice of profit if the gamble plays out (highly simplified). This state of affairs is a quite reasonable starting point. Looking at the music industry, their standard contract is very different from this — it is more like a loan than an investment… but a loan that turns into an investment once repaid.

Let me explain. The musician or band gets money for recording an album, creating a video and other needed things. The album is released, and all the profits go directly into the record label’s pockets until the entire loan has been repaid. Only then does the artist get a first dollar for his or her hard work. At a glance, this seems incredibly skewed, and it’s just as skewed as it seems. If things had ended there, it would have been outrageous but somewhat real, but that’s not where it ends. In addition to these expenses, there needs to be marketing for the artist. Reasonable proposition if you want to sell the album, but the marketing money also comes out of the “loan” to the artist. Only it’s the label that controls the marketing spend.

So the standard contract is a shared partnership where all the risk is held by one part. In a normal start-up business, this situation would be interpreted as the artist talent and work having no value  at all (and thus should have no part of the income). Add to that the fact that the labels have binding contracts for the artists, but are free to pick and choose how they want to act themselves, and we’ve ended up incredibly far from the original intention of copyright. Let me explain further with two examples:

The New York-based band October Project created some beautiful (but hard to classify) songs during the 90s. They released two albums that were quite successful. Then, without a warning or official explanation, the record label terminated the contract, which killed the band. Two of the band’s founding members went on to start the “November Project”, a band which collected all the money they needed for their recordings themselves, directly from the fans on the Internet. On the homepage for the band, founder Emil Adler urged the fans not to buy the October Project records — “Not a single penny goes to the band”, he wrote. Not a penny, even though one of the albums had hit top-50 in the US.

Another band, Splashdown from Massachusetts, looked to have a bright future. They signed a contract with a child label for Capitol records and released an EP, which quickly sold out. The band made a song on the soundtrack for the movie Titan AE, and expectations were high. They recorded a new album, “Blueshift”. Once done, the label decides not to release the album. After a long fight with the label and because of the fear that Capitol would own any future songs, the band chose to call it quits.

Authors giving up on creating new culture because of middleman behavior was exactly what copyright laws was supposed to prevent in the first place! Something is wrong here. Instead of acting as a guarantee for the flow of culture into society, the effect is a draining of culture.

It’s Broken, Fix It!

There are already political forces in parts of the world that are growing stronger campaigning for a reformed copyright. In Europe, the Swedish Pirate Party has won a seat in the European Parliament. The German counterpart looks to be going strong in the coming elections for the national parliament. Support for both parties is extremely high among young voters.

Taken to its edge, you really could wonder about why the rights to works of art should be something that can be bought and sold at all. There seem to be plenty of problems that would go away if an author could never sell the actual right to their works.

There seems to be some very simple things to do though. Digital distribution has brought down costs of distribution by several orders of magnitude. This somewhat breaks the hold the middlemen have over the market, but there is still something of a monopolized market. Things are starting to change, but what is needed is a much more direct approach, fans meeting artists, players meeting developers directly. This has already started happening more and more in the computer games industry, and I believe we’ll see much more of it from musicians in the future.

Another thing with the Internet is that there is never any really good reason to stop selling something. Put all vintage titles you own the rights to online for a small fee. Even a fee of $5 or even $1 per game means a horde of people would buy them, and it would make you a whole lot of more money than any amount of lawyers sent hunting abandonware sites. Oh, and while you’re at it, skip the DRM. The new market is on the consumers’ terms, and with a direct connection to fans comes the responsibility of treating them like customers, rather than potential thieves.

How It All Went Wrong

A man unexpectedly entered the office. Afterwards, no one could tell how he got there or how he left — he wasn’t supposed to be there, no one was supposed to get in without an appointment. The walls were lined with framed CDs and behind a large mahogany desk sat the label CEO in his luxury leather armchair. Surprised, he listened to the mysterious man begin,

Dear Mr. Record Label Executive, let me tell you something. You should listen to me, because I can tell you why it’s all wrong now. I can tell you how it all went wrong, when it went wrong and what effect it has on the world today. I am the messenger of the future.

Who are you?” said Mr. Record Label Executive, clearly not used to being in this position. “And how did you get into my office?

That is of no importance,” the man answered. “You can call me Lime, if you need something in the way of a name. What is important is my message. Your problem is that the youth refuse to buy your records. They download them, file share them, and refuse to pay. Correct?

Confused, Mr. Record Label Executive nodded.

People have been asking for paid download services for a decade, yet you were too afraid to let them have it — afraid they would just file share the downloaded music — so you gave them nothing.

Ah, but we created…“, Mr. R. L. E. started.

Nothing of sufficient quality“, the enigmatic Lime cut him off. “You gave them nothing that could match what they sought. So they kept downloading, they kept file sharing. For free, because that was the only available way.

It went on for a long time like this. Kids grew up, who’d never bought a CD in their life. They too started file sharing. For free, illegally.”

By now, the man in the luxury leather armchair was leaning forwards over his large mahogany desk, nodding.

Lime impatiently paced the room. “You see, there’s a new generation out there, who’s always downloaded music for free, because there were never any legal paid download services out there to download from. Don’t you see what you’ve created? A whole generation who’s never paid a dime for music, who has been taught that music is free, without value. You taught them.

Now wait a minute! How can they think they can just steal the music artists have put so much effort into?” Mr R L E protested.

They’re not stealing anything. You never gave them options, so they all learned that music was free. You taught a whole generation that music and other entertainment had no value. That is when it all went wrong!” He paused to look at the stricken man before continuing, “as you hunt them now for what they feel is natural and right, all they feel towards you is disgust, fear and anger for your greed. Imagine, all those millions of potential customers out there who are now lost to you because you didn’t take the chance of selling them what they wanted, out of the fear of what might happen if you did.

Now they’re a million very angry people instead, who want only to see your empire crumble.

Mr R. L. E stared at him aghast as the realization dawned. They looked at each others in silence for a while.

I see that you understand,” the mysterious man finally said and headed for the door. “Millions of angry people,” he repeated. As he closed it behind him, he added, “and now you’ve given them martyrs.

Information makes itself free

Most people seem to take someone saying “Information wants to be free” as some sort of nerd joke, or as a justification for piracy, theft of trade secrets or some other dubious or illegal activity. The point it entirely missed there: Information not only wants to be free, it makes itself free… or rather, it’s made free by the process of technological innovation. Information wants to be free just like water wants to run downhill… of course you can lift it in a bucket, but it’ll flow downhill again as soon as the bucket is knocked over.

Consider what happened when Napster was put under legal pressure and the system failed? Napster was immediately replaced by newer, distributed systems. Technology leaped to meet this new challenge, and we got Direct Connect and eventually BitTorrent. The only way to get at these technologies was to adopt a broader strategy to prevent people from doing things they want to do… which means new laws, letting just about anyone monitor private communications to find when you’re doing something “wrong” (under their own definition of “wrong”).

Does it sound outrageous? Like something out of 1984? Well, it’s already happening. In Sweden, from the 1st of January 2009 (also known as tomorrow) a new law is in effect that lets the government monitor and save any traffic that passes the border of the country (which, to be honest, is basically every single Internet access).  Technology will find a way around this. The law, supposedly in place to hunt terrorists, will fail in every way to catch those intended as targets, since these people will simply encrypt their communications with a protocol resistant to man in the middle attacks.

So will the law not have any effect at all then? Of course it’ll have an effect — it can be used against people who don’t bother to encrypt their transmissions because they don’t think they’ve done anything wrong. Like people who don’t agree with the authorities about new laws, maybe. Or maybe people who want to organize to have other less abusive politicians elected the next time around? Anyway, I digress.

It gets even better than that. Another law is now being mashed through the “democratic” system (all major parties support it, so the poor citisens have nothing to vote for if they dislike it). This new law will let anyone with slight suspicions about copyright infringement request your personal information from your ISP if they have your IP, and without further proof they’ll be able to issue what in essence is a privately issued fine.

I believe again that technology will find ways around this. Let me give you an outline of such a scheme… everyone interested runs a local proxy. The proxy is connected to a p2p network of available clients. Each time an web access is done through the proxy, it’ll select a random client and use it to bounce the connection out onto the internet. The connection between clients can be public key-encrypted, which means all traffic essentially becomes random, and it’ll be impossible to track a session to a single client. I know there’s a bunch of problems with that, but a dedicated group of hackers could surely make it work.

So again the people who end up in trouble are not the high-volume culprits, the people who make money off of piracy… but rather the single moms who just wanted to see the end of that episode they missed when the baby started crying.

As coders, our work tends to be rather shallow on the grand scheme of things. I make games for people’s amusement, others make accounting systems or social websites. But maybe, maybe, just as BitTorrent and Napster are so accesible technologies that everyone can use them, maybe we can make new technologies to protect users’ privacy that are available to everyone in the same way. In a way, this is our big chance as software engineers and hackers to stand up for democracy, to fuel the internet revolution, and to actually make a difference in society with what we do. To make sure information stays free.

The only way to get around that would be to outlaw the use of the technology itself. Just like China.

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