Lord Mandelson’s Dangerous Downloaders Act

My two-pennyworth in today’s Times .

The consultation document says the Carter plan would take too long to implement “given the pressure put on the creative industries by piracy”. Instead, ISPs would be obliged to block access to download sites, throttle broadband connections or even temporarily cut off access for repeat offenders. It is clearly envisaged that the new measures will be bundled into the Bill, which will implement the main proposals of the Digital Britain report.

If that does indeed happen, then the nearest legal precedent is the Dangerous Dogs Act of 1991, an unworkable statute passed in response to tabloid hysteria about pitbull terriers. There’s no evidence that anyone in Lord Mandelson’s department has thought through the implications of giving in to the content industries. For one thing, there are the technical, financial and legal burdens the proposals would put on ISPs, which would be required not only to act as security officers for the entertainment industry, but also to enter the minefield of terminating people’s internet access on grounds that could be questionable in law.

The only people who think this is simple are either industry lobbyists or those who don’t understand it…

The iPad cometh

OK, time to set aside that $800 you’d been keeping for a neat gadget for Xmas. Here’s what Good Morning Silicon Valley thinks.

Rumors of a large format, touchscreen tablet from Apple — long the stuff of fanboy fever dreams — are starting to congeal into something with a little more substance. A couple of weeks ago, supply-chain scuttlebutt had the tablet arriving in October with an $800 price tag and, according to VentureBeat, powered by a processor developed in-house by the team Apple acquired in buying PA Semi last year. Friday, the AppleInsider blog reported that the 10-inch tablet, after two years of development and multiple iterations, had received the Steve Jobs seal of approval. “Jobs, who’s been overseeing the project from his home, office and hospital beds, has finally achieved that much-sought aura of satisfaction,” said the blog. “He’s since cemented the device in the company’s 2010 roadmap, where it’s being positioned for a first quarter launch, according to people well-respected by AppleInsider for their striking accuracy in Apple’s internal affairs.”

Why is this more plausible that all the other rumours about the iPad? Well, simply that it’s based on stories about a deal with the record companies to enable them to go back to their old anti-customer practice of selling albums rather than tracks. The idea is that they need a bigger screen in order to add ‘value’ with fancy booklets to go with the album.

It won’t work, of course, but who cares? What we need is a decent, well-designed tablet, and if this is the only way to get it, well, so be it.

Young listeners deaf to iPod’s limitations

Fascinating piece in The Times about the impact that MP3 compression has had on music fans.

Research has shown, however, that today’s iPod generation prefers the tinnier and flatter sound of digital music, just as previous generations preferred the grainier sounds of vinyl. Computers have made music so easy to obtain that the young no longer appreciate high fidelity, it seems.

The theory has been developed by Jonathan Berger, Professor of Music at Stanford University, California. For the past eight years his students have taken part in an experiment in which they listen to songs in a variety of different forms, including MP3s, a standard format for digital music. “I found not only that MP3s were not thought of as low quality, but over time there was a rise in preference for MP3s,” Professor Berger said.

He suggests that iPods may have changed our perception of music, and that as young people become increasingly familiar with the sound of digital tracks the more they grow to like it.

He compared the phenomenon to the continued preference of some people for music from vinyl records heard through a gramophone. “Some people prefer that needle noise — the noise of little dust particles that create noise in the grooves,” he said. “I think there’s a sense of warmth and comfort in that.”

Music producers complain that the “compression” of some digital music means that the sound quality is poorer than with CDs and other types of recording. Professor Berger says that the digitising process leaves music with a “sizzle” or a metallic sound…

Worth reading in full.

Terminological capture

This morning’s Observer column.

Rule number one in ideological warfare is to capture the terms in which the debate is conducted. If you can do that, you’re well on your way to winning the argument. Thus the religious right describes itself as “pro-life” and characterises abortion as “murder”, which means that anyone who does not share its views is, apparently, anti-life and in favour of murder. It’s preposterous, but it happens all the time.

This practice of terminological capture is the stock in trade of lobbyists, especially those employed by the music and movie industries. Thus any unauthorised use of copyrighted materials is always “theft”, anyone engaging in file-sharing is a “pirate”, and so on. And technical measures introduced by those industries to protect digital content are called “digital rights management” (DRM), a reassuring term implying that the user is managing something that is rightfully theirs. In fact, they are really digital restriction measures whose sole purpose is to constrain the consumer.

Governments and legislators everywhere are suckers for terminological capture…

Paul Krugman: we’ll all be Grateful Dead one day

From his NYT column

In 1994,… Esther Dyson, made a striking prediction: that the ease with which digital content can be copied and disseminated would eventually force businesses to sell the results of creative activity cheaply, or even give it away. Whatever the product — software, books, music, movies — the cost of creation would have to be recouped indirectly: businesses would have to “distribute intellectual property free in order to sell services and relationships.”

For example, she described how some software companies gave their product away but earned fees for installation and servicing. But her most compelling illustration of how you can make money by giving stuff away was that of the Grateful Dead, who encouraged people to tape live performances because “enough of the people who copy and listen to Grateful Dead tapes end up paying for hats, T-shirts and performance tickets. In the new era, the ancillary market is the market.”

Indeed, it turns out that the Dead were business pioneers. Rolling Stone recently published an article titled “Rock’s New Economy: Making Money When CDs Don’t Sell.” Downloads are steadily undermining record sales — but today’s rock bands, the magazine reports, are finding other sources of income. Even if record sales are modest, bands can convert airplay and YouTube views into financial success indirectly, making money through “publishing, touring, merchandising and licensing.”

What other creative activities will become mainly ways to promote side businesses? How about writing books?

He goes on to argue that — via Kindle-type devices — much the same will happen to book authoring. Hmmm…

Carphone Charlie gets his wires crossed

This morning’s Observer column

To date, three UK ISPs have signed up for the Phorm system: BT, Virgin Media – and TalkTalk. This suggests that Dunstone’s rage against the BPI may have impaired his capacity for joined-up thinking. On the one hand, he declines to monitor his customers’ behaviour at the behest of the music industry; on the other, he seems content to monitor their behaviour in order to take a cut from advertising whose targeting has been improved by such monitoring. It won’t wash, Charlie. Make a clean break and see how it improves your argument.

Update: Rory-Cellan Jones emails to say that Dunstone told him that Talk Talk will make the Phorm snooping something that users have to opt in to. If that’s true then it means the Phorm system is dead — it’s unlikely that BT and Virgin will not also make it opt-in for fear of losing customers to Talk Talk.

Gordon Brown and the copyright lobby

This morning’s Observer column

The award for Fatuous Statement of the Month goes to Geoffrey Taylor, chief executive of the quaintly named British Phonographic Industry, aka the BPI. (Note for readers under 65: a ‘phonograph’ is an instrument that reproduces sound recorded on a grooved disk.) The winning statement reads: ‘For years, ISPs have built a business on other people’s music.’

Has AT&T lost its marbles?

Tim Wu has an intriguing piece in Slate Magazine in which he ponders the implications of AT&T’s announcement that it is seriously considering plans to examine all the traffic it carries for potential violations of U.S. intellectual property laws. (A similar idea is about to be foisted on UK ISPs by Gordon Broon & Co.)

“No one knows exactly what AT&T is proposing to build”, he writes. “But if the company means what it says, we’re looking at the beginnings of a private police state. That may sound like hyperbole, but what else do you call a system designed to monitor millions of people’s Internet consumption? That’s not just Orwellian; that’s Orwell.”

That’s just the civil libertarian aspect of the idea. The interesting thing is that the commercial downsides could be catastrophic — for AT&T.

The most serious problems for AT&T may be legal. Since the beginnings of the phone system, carriers have always wanted to avoid liability for what happens on their lines, be it a bank robbery or someone’s divorce. Hence the grand bargain of common carriage: The Bell company carried all conversations equally, and in exchange bore no liability for what people used the phone for. Fair deal.

AT&T’s new strategy reverses that position and exposes it to so much potential liability that adopting it would arguably violate AT&T’s fiduciary duty to its shareholders. Today, in its daily Internet operations, AT&T is shielded by a federal law that provides a powerful immunity to copyright infringement. The Bells know the law well: They wrote and pushed it through Congress in 1998, collectively spending six years and millions of dollars in lobbying fees to make sure there would be no liability for “Transitory Digital Network Communications”—content AT&T carries over the Internet. And that’s why the recording industry sued Napster and Grokster, not AT&T or Verizon, when the great music wars began in the early 2000s.

Here’s the kicker: To maintain that immunity, AT&T must transmit data “without selection of the material by the service provider” and “without modification of its content.” Once AT&T gets in the business of picking and choosing what content travels over its network, while the law is not entirely clear, it runs a serious risk of losing its all-important immunity. An Internet provider voluntarily giving up copyright immunity is like an astronaut on the moon taking off his space suit. As the world’s largest gatekeeper, AT&T would immediately become the world’s largest target for copyright infringement lawsuits….

Tim Wu is a great commentator on this stuff, and this is an especially good piece.