Politics Technology

Download Yourself To Jail

This is the stupidest thing I’ve seen in months – and I am a connoisseur of stupid., a music download site, has been taken down by an organisation calling itself the Serious Organised Crime Agency.

This is what it used to look like. This is what appears there now.

The image above though – click to see it full size – is what it looked like yesterday; a page put up by this SOCA plainly intended to scare anyone who visits. I kid you not. And despite their Captain Scarlet-class logo, the Serious Organised Crime Agency are an honest-to-goodness branch of UK law enforcement which, when it’s not busy, does real work against real crime. Which means that making music available for download is serious crime now, alongside drugs, extortion, and human trafficking. Thanks to the lobbying of the entertainment industry. Indeed the notice reads like it was drafted by industry spin merchants:

“The individuals behind this website have been arrested for fraud”

Arrested, not convicted. The logic is that some of the tracks made available were not officially released yet and so obtained by illegal means, and that constitutes fraud. Seems tenuous, but we’ll let it pass.

“The majority of music files that were available via this site were stolen from the artists.”

Copyright infringement is not theft – not even in law. If they are implying that the majority of tracks on the site were obtained from record companies by illegal means then that, let us say, seems unlikely to be true.

If you have downloaded music using this website you may have committed a criminal offence which carries a maximum penalty of up to 10 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine under UK law.

You can get ten years for downloading a music track? Absolutely untrue. The penalties for copyright infringement are not that draconian – yet. The tortuous logic of this seems to be that by downloading the file you are participating in a conspiracy to defraud. This should be laughed out of court.

“The above information can be used to identify you and your location.”

This is designed to frighten children. Of course a website you visit knows your IP address. Unless of course you actually are a criminal, in which case you’d take the trouble to disguise it.

“You may be liable for prosecution and the fact that you have received this message does not preclude you from prosecution.”

You may have already won $1,000,000. Again they are trying to scare kids with vague half-truths. Which is not what I thought law enforcement was about.

“As a result of illegal downloads young, emerging artists may have had their careers damaged. If you have illegally downloaded music you will have damaged the future of the music industry

Still trying to make kids feel bad. Trying but failing; the kids know that illegal downloads are as likely to promote the careers of “young, emerging” artists. They also know that the music industry has no future if it goes on like this.

This page has been taken down now, because “that stage of the operation is over”. Well yes. Over because it was widely and rightly criticised. It now links instead to SOCA’s own site, which among various other questionable claims states:

“IFPI estimates losses to legitimate businesses and artists caused by the site to be £15m a year.”

The IFPI is the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry – a lobbying group. So what the SOCA is saying here is “We report entertainment industry PR bullshit as fact.” Again, not what I thought law enforcement was about. In the minds of the industry every illegal download is the loss of a full-price sale, and copyright infringement costs them more money than the record-buying public ever had to spend. Yet it’s they who are convincing politicians to sponsor terrible laws like SOPA and ACTA, laws that if passed will curtail real freedoms that we legitimately enjoy. All because these people submit present masturbation fantasies as evidence.


You Are Trapped In A Bubble

duckduckgo logo
So Google, Yahoo and Bing are sensible names?

Imagine you had a machine that gave you all the information you wanted on any subject in the world. Great, eh?

Until you find out that far from being unbiased and neutral, this information actually panders to your prejudices, confirms your political biases and reflects your own distorted world view. That machine wouldn’t be much use, would it? Worse than useless in fact, because it would be misleading you.

That machine is called a “search engine”.

All the major engines tailor their results according to what you’ve chosen in the past. So if you are more likely to click on links to Fox News, pretty soon Fox is going to dominate your news results. People with narrow views get their window on the world reduced to fit, broadminded people are lulled into thinking everyone else is too.

Alternative engine DuckDuckGo explains the problem nicely here, with jokes. Or here’s a Ted talk.

I’m not saying the search providers ever claimed to be fair and balanced. On the contrary, any sensible person knew that they had inevitable, systemic biases. Results naturally reflected the preoccupations of Internet users rather than the public at large – even now there’s still a difference. The ranking algorithm used plays a huge part, as does commercial pressure. Most deeply, they’re enormously biased just by language. There’s a lot more stuff about, say, the French contribution to space exploration written in French, while American sources inevitably predominate within English.

These biases I can allow for – but how can I allow for my own? I search for information to correct my preconceptions, not confirm them. The exact opposite of what I need is some kind of feedback loop. A monkey behind the monitor, aping my errors. Flinging back my own prejudice. I emphatically object to search providers doing this to me. Who was it that said hell is a hall of mirrors?¹

What can you do? Well one fairly obvious thing, if you don’t want Google or Bing or Yahoo spoon-feeding you personalised results, is to not tell them that it’s you. Log out of your search engine. It makes a difference; when I do I immediately find Fox news stories appear higher in the search results. Which is good – really. I don’t want a falsely benign impression of Rupert Murdoch‘s influence in this world.

They don’t want you to log out of course. They want to be able to match your search queries to the real you. This is one reason why they ply you with added services such as Google+ and Chat and YouTube and Documents and whatever else. If you log out of search, you’re out of all the social stuff too. Sneaky, huh? And as I was saying before, I will not be at all surprised if Microsoft and Facebook join forces to do the same.

So how can I use both Google search and Google+? (Which I do want to, despite all the horrible things I say about them.) Well, you can always use two browsers at once. Logged in on one for the social networking, not logged in on the other for the searching. It’s not illegal or anything. I use Firefox and Chrome in tandem most of the time.

But is it enough? Even logged out they still know your IP address, they probably have cookies. Even if they can’t identify you personally they will still tailor the results to your geographic location. Real neutrality requires stronger medicine. It’s worth investigating alternative engines that guarantee your privacy, like the DuckDuckGo I mentioned above. My preferred solution though is a search anonymizer such as Scroogle or (my favourite) StartingPage. These give you actual Google results without revealing any of your identity to Google – the best of all worlds, arguably.

Is that unfair to Google, getting their search results anonymously? I don’t think so. Search engines are there to help us find things, not to help things find us.

  1. OK it was me.
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