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net.wars: Looking backward

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 31 January 2009


Governments move slowly; technology moves fast. That's not a universal truth – witness Obama's first whirlwind week in office – but in the early days of the Net it was the kind of thing people said smugly when they wanted to claim that cyberspace was impervious to regulation. It worked well enough for, say, setting free strong cryptography over the objections of the State Department and ITAR.

Wendy M Grossman

This week had two perfect examples. First: Microsoft noted in its 10-Q that the EU may force it to do something about tying Internet Explorer to Windows – remove it, make it one of only several browsers consumers can choose from at setup, or randomly provide different browsers. Still fighting the browser wars? How 1995.

Second: the release of the interim Digital Britain report by the Department for Culture, Media, and Sport. Still proposing Digital Rights Management as a way of protecting rightsholders' interest in content? How 2005.

It probably says something about technology cycles that the DRM of 2005 is currently more quaint and dated than the browser wars of 1995-1998. The advent of cloud computing and Google's release of Chrome last year have reinvigorated the browser "market". After years of apparent stagnation it suddenly matters again that we should have choices and standards to keep the Internet from turning into a series of walled gardens (instead of a series of tubes).

DRM, of course, turns content into a series of walled gardens and causes a load of other problems we've all written about extensively. But the most alarming problem about its inclusion in the government's list of action items is that even the music industry that most wanted it is abandoning it. What year was this written in? Why is a report that isn't even finished, proposing to adopt a technological approach that's already a market failure?

What's next, a set of taxation rules designed for CompuServe?

The one bit of good, forwarding-thinking news – which came as a separate announcement from Intellectual Property Minister David Lammy, is that apparently the UK government is ready to abandon the "three strikes" idea for punishing file-sharers - it's too complicated (Yes, Minister rules!) to legislate. And sort of icky arresting teenagers in their bedrooms, even if the EU doesn't see anything wrong with that and the Irish have decided to go ahead with it.

The interim report bundles together issues concerning digital networks (broadband, wireless, infrastructure), digital television and radio, and digital content.

It's the latter that's most contentious: the report proposes creating a Rights Agency intended to encourage good use (buying content) and discourage bad use (whatever infringes copyright law). The report seems to turn a blind eye to the many discussions of how copyright law should change.

And then there's a bunch of stuff about whether Britain should have a second public service broadcaster to compete "for quality" with the BBC. How all these things cohere is muddy.

For a really scathing review of the interim report, see The Guardian , where Charles Arthur attacks not only the report's inclusion of DRM and a "rights agency" to collaborate on developing it, but also its dirt path approach to broadband speed and its proposed approach to network neutrality - which it calls "net neutrality", should you want to search the report to find out what it says.

The interim report favours allowing the kind of thing Virgin has talked about: making deals with content providers in which they're paid for guaranteed service levels.

That turns the problem of who will pay for high-speed fiber into a game of pass-the-parcel. Most likely, consumers will end up paying, whether that money goes to content providers or ISPs. If the BBC pays for the iPlayer, so do we, through the TV license. If ISPs pay, we pay in higher bandwidth charges. If we're going to pay for it anyway, why shouldn't we have the freedom of the Internet in return?

This is especially true because we do not know what's going to come next or how people will use it.

When YouTube became the Next Big Thing, oh, say, three or four years ago, it was logical to assume that all subsequent Next Big Things were going to be bandwidth hogs. The next NBT turned out to be Twitter, which is pretty much your diametrical opposite. Now, everything is social media – but if there's one thing we know about the party on the Internet it's that it keeps on moving on.

There's plenty that's left out of this interim report.

  • There's a discussion of spectrum licensing that doesn't encompass newer ideas about spectrum allocation.
  • It talks about finding new business models for rightsholders without supporting obsolete ones and the "sea of unlawful activity in which they have to swim" and mentions ISPs - but leaves out consumers except as "customers" or illegal copiers.
  • It nods at the notion that almost anyone can be a creator and find distribution, but still persists in talking of customers and rightsholders as if they were never the same people.
  • No one ever said predicting the future was easy, least of all Niels Bohr, but it does help if you start by noticing the present.


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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).