net.wars: Through an animation, darkly

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 01 July 2005

On the Wimbledon Web site  there is a trippy, new whizmo that seems to have been designed to let people see a match played out point by point without violating anyone's broadcast rights. If you load the Flash-driven live scoreboard, you'll see, in the bottom right corner, a sign that says "Shot tracker". Click on that during a Centre Court or Court 1 match, and you'll get a list of all the points played in the match. You can pick any one of them and watch black and purple lines draw on your screen to track the ball's flight from racquet to court to racquet. You could, if you had the patience, play your way through the animation of the entire match, beginning with the first point.

Wendy M Grossman

This idle pastime has very little to do with either of the two major events of the week, but using this technology to watch a point replayed on it feels, at the moment, a lot like watching the ID cards bill pass the second reading by 314 votes to 283 or reading the Supreme Court's decision in the Grokster case: we can play back the results but not see the action directly. And each step along the way tells us nothing about the eventual outcome.

A lot of recording and film industry glee has greeted the 9-0 Grokster decision, which ruled that companies that offer file-sharing technologies may be held liable if they actively encourage copyright infringement. Canadian lawyer Michael Geist covered this in an extra Toronto Star column, pointing out that in fact many P2P services may benefit from this ruling, since it gives them a "roadmap to avoid future liability". On the other hand, Robert X. Cringeley seems to think what it gives Grokster et al is a roadmap for evolving into something the Supreme Court can't criminalise .

Meantime, will it change the immediate  status quo? Of course not. File-sharing, both legal and illegal, will continue. Some services will get sued; others will continue to sneak by under the radar. But it will help the RIAA control any commercial services that might be thinking of springing up: who will invest money in a company set up to distribute digital content online if it hasn't nailed down industry approval?

With the ID cards bill – another subject dear to net.wars's electrons – the reality is likely, again, to be both better and worse than the media animation would suggest. The government still has a majority backing the bill, which is bad; no matter what changes the Select Committee may demand after reading the LSE report, the government may still be able to win the next vote and change nothing, as it's done so many times before. On the other hand, that majority has shrunk dramatically since the last go-round, perhaps in part because the intervening election means that the Conservatives can go back to being a proper opposition rather than worrying that opposing ID cards might make them look soft on crime to voters. With any luck and with  protests growing , a few more desertions might consign this policy to the scrapheap where it belongs.

But even if it doesn't: they still have to implement the thing, folks. We keep saying that it's technically infeasible. Don't we have any confidence in our own prognostications?

The really curious thing is that the solution to both problems – evading legal liability for sharing copyrighted content and implementing an identification system – is the same: decentralise.

All the media coverage of the LSE report has focused on its estimate of £19 billion for the ultimate cost of the system. The most interesting part of the report, however, is its proposals for an alternative ID card, which would create only the most minimal of databases, use a biometric of the cardholder's choice for authentication, and protect the number on the card with cryptography. Cardholders would use businesses they trust to secure backups for them. (Long-time readers may remember that months ago we proposed  something less detailed but similar.)

Every time the entertainment industry has legally chopped off one of the file-sharing hydra 's heads, many more have grown in its place. Napster had a central database; Gnutella searched users' computers on the fly. BitTorrent went "trackerless". FreeNet distributes caches everywhere; even the computers' owners don't know what's in them. And all the time, through the suits and the new laws and the publicity, file-sharing keeps getting bigger. At some point, doubtless someone will come up with a scheme in which no files are transferred at all. Now, that will be hard to sue.

Of course, neither government nor Big Media is ever likely to get cosy with decentralisation. They don't like it, instinctively. It smacks of loss of control.

And control is exactly the thing you can't see in the shot tracker. You can't see the ball itself, or player who hits the shot; you can't see the pressures on that player, the spin and wind that take the ball off-course, or the angle of the racquet in the mishit. All you see are the paths the ball took before it bounced, which may or may not be its end point.

All right, maybe I am watching too much Wimbledon.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).