Stay Free

They’re coming for us – Image by okano via Flickr

Maybe all I need here is a good hug. Ideally, one that will last years.

But I must get it together. We’re under attack. Market forces should be making entertainment industry conglomerates less relevant these days. But why accept the market, when you have the influence and – despite all the protests of enormous theoretical losses – the wealth to get laws passed?

Laws that could make you richer than ever.

It is my view that, under the guise of desperately needing protection, the entertainment industry is trying to pull off an outrageous power-grab. What big businesses know better than anyone is that the secret of success is not making the best product, but controlling the marketplace. They know the Internet is their only future marketplace. They want it.

SOPA and PIPA, their US bills, have been pushed back for now, but there’s a new threat looming from an intergovernmental treaty called ACTA. Ostensibly to control the trade in counterfeit goods (including, it should be noted, generic medicines), it actually concerns all types of intellectual property – suggesting that governments (or their industry sponsors) wish us to think of copying a song or video as “counterfeiting” now – a serious crime of intentional deceit.

Among ACTA’s many negative effects, it appears that it would make your Internet service provider (ISP) liable for any illegal online activities, forcing them to monitor you. That is not different from requiring the postmistress to read your mail and report anything suspicious she finds, and I don’t think it’s acceptable in democracy.

If Big Entertainment gets its wish, the Internet will eventually cease to be a way for people to freely communicate with one another, becoming instead just a secure channel it can use to deliver its goods to us. And to keep us monitored, of course.


"Wikipedia censored"
Image via Wikipedia

Update: It gets worse. Our government has an “Irish SOPA” in the works. More or less draconian? It’s hard to say – they seem content to leave the scope and force of this legal power entirely up to (whisper it: technologically illiterate) judges.

Many websites, US-based ones especially, shut themselves down today. You probably know it’s about legislation before the US congress to block websites linking copyright material. Someone on RTÉ Radio 1 described it as “The entertainment industry versus the technology industry”, but that’s quite wrong. The fight is between the entertainment industry, and all of us. Hollywood and the record companies on one hand, freedom on the other.

Yet they’re winning. It’s an incredibly wealthy industry, and it will go to ever more desperate lengths to stay that way. Its advantage is vast economies of scale: You can make a record or film once and sell it to millions and millions of people – often several times.

Its disadvantage? Mainly, a business model that is as dead as the mastodon.

This industry arose out of the application of mass production technologies to the arts – the reproduction and rapid distribution of vast numbers of music and video recordings. It made sense to charge handsomely for this when it was a remarkable technical feat that you could not possibly accomplish yourself. Now however the reproduction and distribution of such things is, quite simply, trivial. And it is hard to persuade people to pay for something they can easily do for themselves.

So instead, the entertainment industry has resorted to threats. Continually it lobbies for more and more draconian legislation. And they are getting it, and they will continue to get it, because they are rich, and politicians are hungry. Plus they share an interest. When freedom of information can bring down governments in the Middle East, government may begin to think that the entertainment industry has a point.

So after only a few decades of freedom from literary censorship here in Ireland, there are now websites I cannot reach – not at least if I use Eircom as my ISP. In the UK, British Telecom set up a filter system expressly to block child pornography. As a child could have predicted, and despite every assurance to the contrary, this filter is now being used to uphold the interests of Big Entertainment. And in the US they’re debating whether to give that industry the right to take down websites at will, a power that can only be called commercial censorship. To quote Wikipedia:

SOPA and PIPA are badly drafted legislation that won’t be effective at their stated goal (to stop copyright infringement), and will cause serious damage to the free and open Internet. They put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won’t have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn’t being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won’t show up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression.

Essentially the old medium is demanding the right to wreck the new.

But the world is not changing just for Big Entertainment. I make my living from creative work, I have had to adjust to reality. The publishing industry is transforming – not without pain, but at least without demanding protection. And it’s not like show business is going to disappear. People will always make money out of entertainment – just not the ludicrous fortune they make now.

The industry has had its day in the sun, the technology has moved on. Can it please just accept that gracefully, without further undermining the principle of freedom of thought and expression, without incarcerating any more teenagers?

Fixing A Whole

Not my actual download speed

Sorry I’ve been missing a while. Finally, broadband access has reached the country retreat (a.k.a. my mother’s house), and the last couple of days I’ve been setting us up a network.

It’s all gone pretty well. There were problems of course – these things always assume you’re starting with fresh and shiny computers instead of ones that have lived real lives – but in fairly quick succession they’ve all been solved. The Internet speed itself is not that great at about 1.75 Mbits per second; I’d frequently get faster download using 3G. But 3G was frustratingly intermittent, dropping out several times a day – sometimes several times an hour. This connection may not be blistering but it’s consistent, and that’s better. What’s better still, we now have a lovely all-wireless network that can shunt files around and back them up like nobody’s business. I may even take a break from criticising Eircom, the national-yet-privatised phone infrastructure company, for the first time since the year 2000. It’s all very satisfying.

Apart, that is, from one minor glitch. No actually it’s not even minor. It’s beyond trivial. There’s just one place on the network I can’t connect to from my laptop. It’s not something I actually need to connect to¹. But the thing is, I should be able to connect to it.

Do you understand what that means to a geek? The network is not complete. This incompleteness is intolerable.

This is not all obsessive-compulsive disorder. The reasonable worry is that an apparently inconsequential fault on the surface of a complex system indicates a fundamental one below. Unexplained problems ought, where possible, to be tracked down.

Which is where the OCD really comes into its own… Almost always this is a slow, iterative process of experimentation. “What will happen if I try this? Nothing. OK, so what happens if I try this… Nothing. OK, so what happens if I try the third of these two hundred and seventy-eight possibilities?” Curiousity draws you in, but an almost robotic repetitiveness gets you out.

Most of the way out, at least. A day later I’ve figured out what the problem is and I know how to fix it. Actually implementing the solution though, that’s not interesting at all.

So hi, how’ve you been?


  1. If you must know, it’s the root of one – though only one – of my USB external drives.