January 31 2008

The Music Industry Vs Net Neutrality

Bono and Paul McGuinnessU2, the world famous rock band, wants to turn all ISPs in to copyright police and have them stop all that darned piracy!

Paul McGuinness, the gentleman on the right in the picture, has been the manager of U2 since it’s inception. In other words, the man helped craft one of the biggest acts in the music business, and has probably made more money than any of us will see in our lifetime.

According to The Telegraph, while attending the Midem music industry conference in Cannes, France last week, Mr. McGuinness called for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to begin cutting off their customers who were illegally trading music over the Internet. He proposed a three strike system that would eventually result in customers being “banned” from the Internet.

The problem is that Mr. McGuinness clearly has no true understanding of how Internet file sharing works, as demonstrated by his comments. “For ISPs in general, the days of prevaricating over their responsibilities for helping protect music must end. The ISP lobbyists who say they should not have to ‘police the internet’ are living in the past – relying on outdated excuses from an earlier technological age.”

BitTorrentI am going to try to keep this as non-technical as I can, but this is unfortunately a fairly technical issue.BitTorrent, the file-sharing protocol that is used in most piracy, is a non-centralized form of distribution, also known as a peer-to-peer system. This means that there is no one centralized server handling all of the data, it is instead done through multiple computers sending numerous packets of information. Since the packets are small, you can receive say packets “A” and “C” from one computer, and packet “B” could come from a computer in a totally different country.

Once all the packets arrive at the destination computer, the BitTorrent program on the computer will assemble them in to your completed file for you to use.

This is where the problem comes in. Peer-to-peer technology is a fabulous way for a company to distribute an immense amount of data without straining their own systems too much. The systems will use several small parts of bandwidth from numerous sources to off-set the cost to them. This is why companies like Skype, the free computer-to-computer phone service, is a peer-to-peer based system; by using this technology they are offer you the free calls as they are using unused bandwidth where possible. The problem gets bigger here as their packets of information will look similar, if not exactly the same, to a BitTorrent packet.

For an ISP to determine which packets are Skype-like, and which are BitTorrent-like would require them to do “deep packet inspections“. This is defined by WikiPedia as “a form of computer network packet filtering that examines the data and/or header part of a packet as it passes an inspection point, searching for non-protocol compliance, viruses, spam, intrusions or predefined criteria to decide if the packet can pass or if it needs to be routed to a different destination, or for the purpose of collecting statistical information.”

So, even if an ISP would opt to start doing inspections, and sorting out which packets were illegal, they would then run up against net neutrality violations. Net neutrality is a concept that ISPs must treat all packets of information equally no matter what they contain. As Comcast, a popular broadband service provider is learning, when you throttle BitTorrent traffic, even though it’s mainly used for illegal reasons, it can cause the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) take notice and make you face fines up to $1.77 trillion dollars. While net neutrality is still in its infancy, what Mr. McGuinness is essentially asking the ISPs to do is something that is considered unethical to stop something else that is unethical.

He further went on in his speech, entitled “The Online Bonanza: Who is Making All The Money and Why Aren’t They Sharing It?”, to make analogies that make it even more obvious he does not grasp the way the technology he is decrying.

“If you were publishing a magazine that was advertising stolen cars, processing payments for them and arranging delivery of them you’d expect to get a visit from the police wouldn’t you?”

“What’s the difference? With a laptop, a broadband account, an MP3 player and a smartphone you can now steal all the content, music, video and literary in the world without any money going to the content owners.

“On the other hand, if you get caught stealing a laptop in the computer store or don’t pay your broadband bill there are obvious consequences. You get nicked or you get your access cut off.”

His analogy is flawed to say the least. ISPs do nothing but unlock the door to the Internet, a place that is not quite the den of crime people make it out to be, and what you do with it is your own matter. It is more akin to blaming the factory that makes the paper the magazine is printed on then the magazine itself.

A spokesman for the Internet Service Providers’ Association said “We do not support abuses of copyright and intellectual property theft. However, ISPs cannot monitor or record the type of information passed over their networks. ISPs are no more able to inspect and filter every single packet passing across their network than the Post Office is able to open every envelope.”

In theory, yes, they could inspect every packet, but what people like Mr. McGuinness don’t seem to take into account when they make such grand statements is the expenses involved with such an undertaking. Who would pay for the new equipment? Who would pay for the man hours spent going over packet logs to see what was legit? Who would pay to monitor the violations, and the inevitable appeals by customers?

This proposal is an easy out for the music industry. There is no denying that their sales are down, but instead of looking at how the industry is structured, they want to find an outside source to blame. If things were okay inside the industry, performers such as Radiohead and Madonna would not be looking for non-traditional ways to distribute their albums.

The music industry is obviously broken, and instead of looking internally for what ails them, they find it easier to point fingers at external sources, make others (ISPs) “fix” things, and ask them to do that even it is at the cost of neutrality. Mr. McGuinness has accomplished nothing but to show his total lack of understanding of a technology that he feels is evil, and he has also accomplished making me wonder if I should ever support the band he has managed for 30 years, ever again.

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