Weekly News Roundup (12 August 2012)
The Olympics are nearly at an end, thankfully. It’s not just that it managed to suck away a lot of news time from more important issues, I’m sure Londoners are also pleased that the disruption is nearly over. Besides, it allows football to be back at the (new) Home of Football!
I’m sure many will herald the London Olympics as a huge success, but for me, it has failed in one area – the web. It seems Internet rights have been sold to each individual country, with the requirement that geo-blocking be implemented – it means that you’re most likely at the mercy of your local broadcaster (or whomever purchased the Internet rights) as to what kind of web coverage you’re likely to get. Here in Australia, live streaming was practically non existent, and even highlights and replays were limited (and far from being instant). That the rights were purchased by a free-to-air broadcaster here with vested interests, meant that the web was also going to get the short end of the stick when it came to Olympics coverage.
And then you have the almost blanket media ban on sites like YouTube in regards to any Olympics footage (the copyright police habe been working overtime this past few weeks). Even clips of the funny and poignant moments were removed promptly, meaning there was hardly any web or social media hype surrounding key events. This is an example of copyright going too far I think, and it ends up hurting the rights holders and taking away any web based enthusiasm for the games. If you want the perfect contrast, then the Mars Curiosity landing, with its live stream, mohawk related memes, is how the web can be utilised.
Always, enough Olympics ranting. Let’s get on with the the news related, um, ranting. Lots of news this week, so much that I’ve had to save some of it for early next week (see The Ant and the Grasshopper)!
It’s been a pretty bad week for Demonoid, the once popular BitTorrent tracker. It was first DDoS’d, then hacked, and by the end of the week to complete the poop covered trifecta, Ukrainian authorities had raided the datacenter that hosted their servers, taken the (still downed) website offline permanently, and made copies of all of the site’s data. Unlike most other BitTorrent indexers and trackers, Demonoid is a private one, meaning users can only get in by invitation, and obviously, they must have a registered account in order to use the website. The advantage of doing it this way means more privacy, and better integrity of the files present – files were much less likely to be fakes.
The disadvantage is that Demonoid may hold a record of everything members have ever downloaded, and would certainly includes your registration email address and possibly other personal data, including IP addresses. This makes prosecuting the users of Demonoid a possibility, now that the authorities have the data at hand. Users of the website began to panic at the thought of authorities getting their hands on all of this information, but if history has told us anything, then lawsuits against users remain quite unlikely, and that’s assuming the data wasn’t one way encrypted in the first place.
The actual raid may have been politically motivated as well, taking place ahead of the deputy prime minister of Ukraine’s first visit to the United States – on the agenda, copyright issues. It is still unknown who was actually behind the DDoS and hacking attempts and whether the it had any links to the raid or vice versa. Conspiracy theorists will see the timing as more than a coincidence, but at the end of the day (and week), it may just be pure, unadulterated, bad luck.
But while websites like Demonoid and The Pirate Bay are used as examples of the shady side of BitTorrent, it’s easy to forget that BitTorrent is really just a file transfer protocol, no different to FTP, email, or the very protocol you use to browse websites – HTTP. And with any protocol, there are legal, and illegal ways one can use it. This week, one of the best legal uses of the BitTorrent protocols was demonstrated by the Internet Archive, who have just made available more than 1.4 million digital videos, books and music for all to download.
There’s a whole treasure trove of goodies available, all public domain (so no worries about copyright issues). The most popular file at the moment, going by the number of leechers, is George A. Romero’s 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the list of available downloads for this classic flick includes a Blu-ray rip version in its full 1080p, 16GB, glory. With two geographically separated IA servers permanently seeding, plus peers contributing, download speeds can also exceed that of what can be normally offered by traditional web transfer protocols (a quick test of the Blu-ray rip version had me downloading at 1 MB/s within 30 seconds, compared to 260 KB/s or so with the HTTP download version).
The other advantage of BitTorrent is that it allows files to be preserved on the Internet cloud thanks to the combined efforts of everyone, as long as at least one person is still sharing and seeding. So even in the event that IA’s server go down permanently, chances are, the downloads will continue on in the background for years to come. And that’s exactly what IA is trying to achieve, according to founder Brewster Kahle – to turn BitTorrent into “a distributed preservation system”.
IA’s effort will also help to legitimize BitTorrent, much to the chagrin of Big Content. They hate BitTorrent and peer to peer protocols not just because it’s associated with piracy, but because it represents a distribution model where they don’t have full control over the flow of data. There’s no “tap” they can turn off in the event they no longer with to have a file being downloaded, and that probably scares them more than the damaged caused by actual piracy.
The MPAA is trying to win the PR war on the contentious extradition of UK university student Richard O’Dwyer, the former admin of TV-Shack. O’Dwyer faces a criminal copyright infringement trial in the US where he could get a heavy 10 years prison sentence, despite precedents set in UK courts in similar cases that could see him walk free. The PR war got off to the bad start when TorrentFreak somehow managed to get their hands on a leaked “talking points” memo, as well as another document highlighting the overall media strategy behind the MPAA’s “take-down” of O’Dwyer.
The MPAA is using its resources to make an already one sided battle even more one sided, with anyone expected to be interviewed on the issue to highlight the “criminality” of O’Dwyer, and about how he profited from TV-Shack (a claim that O’Dwyer does not dispute – although he says he wasted the money on frivolous things and gifts a long time ago). The memo also talks about the support O’Dwyer has gotten from Internet heavyweight Jimmy Wales, directing those questioned about the Internet pioneer’s support to label him as “presumptuous” for being the public’s voice. Even O’Dwyer’s taste in clothes, and his mother, aren’t immune to attacks – that O’Dwyer’s choice of clothing featuring cartoon characters, and being frequently picture with his mother, might somehow be a deliberate attempt by a criminal to appear more innocent (something perhaps Hollywood personalities are used to doing, but I doubt O’Dwyer has money to hire an image consultant).
With a lot of talking points already prepared, the real problem for the MPAA is that they don’t have anyone to do the actual talking. With overwhelming opposition to the extradition, people aren’t lining up to speak the MPAA’s words, even though the MPAA’s leaked media strategy document calls for “third party surrogates” to carry out the attacks against O’Dwyer.
But the real question here is why is Hollywood involving themselves in such an intimate way with what is supposed to be a criminal investigation being handled by the US Department of Justice? Self interest is obviously involved, but it does make you question who is actually in the driving seat of these extradition proceedings. The more you think about the relationship between an industry lobby group, the government it lobbies, and the law enforcement agencies employed by the government, the more inappropriate it feels, doesn’t it?
If you do feel this way, then rest assured, you’re not alone. Just this week, a group of concerned citizens (who wishes to remain anonymous) launched a website that asks these very same questions. The less than subtle name of the website/campaign is Political Prostitution, and it specifically focuses on cases like O’Dwyer’s, where it appears that industry groups are using their powers to influence politicians to make decisions that are hugely unpopular, and often against the very spirit of democracy and freedom that these elected officials are supposed to represent.
From the expensive looking police raid on Kim DotCom’s mansion, where a helicopter, semi-automatic weaponry, police dogs, were all involved – you’d expect DotCom to be some terrorist mastermind, not a guy who ran a website – to a 22 month prison sentence for the 29-year old female co-founder of NinjaVideo, deemed by prosecutors as a “danger to the community”, it’s not hard to see the over-zealousness of authorities when it comes to, what is essentially, a civil matter. Nothing exists in a vacuum, and so you then have to question why authorities are so eager and willing in their pursuit of copyright crimes, where this political pressure is coming from, and who is paying who’s bills.
And all this is happening when the very laws that govern these actions are fraught with contradictions and lack of clarity, especially when dealing with the new concepts that have been brought about by new technology, concepts that don’t readily have an old fashioned analogy to compare with.
The issue of video streaming and embedding, for example, is one that’s been debated in and out of court, with no real clarity on just what it all means. Is watching a stream, where the stream caches itself on the user’s computer, the same as downloading? Is downloading the same as unauthorised reproduction? And if you embed a video on a website, is it the same as uploading the video? Questions that are not easily answered without clarity in copyright laws, but the Federal Court of Appeals, specifically a three-judge panel led by Judge Richard Posner, has tried their best this week to clarify to the best of their abilities. And guess what? According to them, embedding is not the same as copying.
The ruling comes in the controversial Flava vs Gunter case, where the operator of video bookmarking website myVidster was sued by adult entertainment company Flava Works, for the acts of the website’s users who had posted video links to copyrighted video owned by Flava. The videos were linked via embedding, and not directly uploaded to myVidster’s servers, and so an earlier lower court decision which found Gunter guilty of copyright infringement was appealed. It was then that the MPAA, along with Google and Facebook, all stepped up to the plate with amicus briefs explaining their wide ranging positions on the issues at hand.
As this most recent appeals court ruling says embedding isn’t the same as copying, something that’s fairly obvious to most of us, the traditional definitions of unauthorised reproduction seem not applicable. For one, the original uploader is the one that committed the unauthorised copying and distribution, and the responsibility does not “flow” downwards to myVidster, regardless of the website’s actual intentions. At best, according to Judge Posner, embedding is a form of infringement that’s most akin to a public performance, but the most common interpretation of this also requires the “upload” to have been the responsibility of myVidster. The other interpretation is that the, regardless of the source of the video when it is played, the public performance only occurs when an user presses play on the embedded video, which occurs on myVidster’s website. But Flava has also failed to prove this alternate interpretation, according to the judge.
In other words, it’s all very complicated! Without clear guidance from law makers, judges can only do their best to interpret and find analogous comparisons. And it all depends on judges that are capable and willing to look deeper into the technical side of what happens when a video is downloaded or watched online – that obviously did not happen in the original, and now appealed, myVidster verdict. But if law makers are “prostitutes” to the powerful copyright lobby, then the clarifications they will eventually provide may be the last thing we need, and may take copyright laws even further away from justice and common sense than they are today.
Sorry to end this WNR on such a down note, but some of the stories I’ve left for next week are even more depressing. Like Blizzard’s database being hacked, despite layers upon layers of DRM to prevent just that, and Google’s decision to start filtering piracy related results.
So something to look forward to next week then!