Last week a rumour started circulating that the government was planning to force internet service providers to punish people who downloaded movies and music illegally.
It seemed depressingingly believable, despite the obvious questions it threw up:
1) How would it work? Data is transferred in discrete packets - ISPs would have to open them all up to work out whats inside them. And it wouldn't be a whole film or album, just a tiny part of them. It's like asking the post office to open all of its mail to search for tiny fragments of CDs. Except there are a lot, lot more packets of data tranferred every day than than there are packages posted every year.
2) Isn't this illegal? If a technology exists to determine the exact contents of our internet downloads, can the ISPs use it? Aren't our communications protected by law? And if not, why not? You still need a warrant for a phonetap... don't you?
3) Why just copyright material? Presumably ISPs will also be forced to monitor people downloading child porn or bomb recipes? But what about anti-government propaganda? Slanderous pop gossip newsletters? Politcally incorrect cartoons? Hydroponics brochures? What about people illegally buying viagra online? Where does it stop?
Well, the bad news is that today the government confirmed that it is consulting on legislation to punish ISPs if they fail to take action against copyright infringers.
According to The Guardian:
"The culture secretary, Andy Burnham, made the proposal to crack down on illegal downloading today as part of a wide-ranging strategy paper designed to support the UK's creative industries."
So presumably they'll ban video recordings, playlists, YouTube... hell, why not just turn off the web?
It's not that I lack sympathy for musicians who are struggling to make a living now that so much music is available for free. But the music industry brought the problem upon itself by failing to embrace the internet, by refusing to negotiate with Napster and other illegal services, and by sticking to the skewed business model that keeps UK music prices higher than the rest of the world.
The government is threatening legislation by 2009, but would prefer the ISPs came to "voluntary, preferably commercial, solutions." Which means that someone will be paying for this massive new spy programme. Let's have a think who that could be: ISPs will pay, which means they'll need to raise revenues from... us. So we'll be paying for the privilege of being spyed upon.
I have a better idea: instead of punishing people for loving music and movies, learn new ways of selling to them. Start with FREE movie and music streams online, and make money from advertising. Then offer DRM-free music through a variety of services, such as subscription services like eMusic and a la carte stores like iTunes. But charge less. Make money from selling MORE music. And pass more of that money direct to the artists.
Encourage music and movie lovers to explore beyond their favourite five bands and this year's blockbuster movies, and you'll find they'll consume more. They'll even pay over the odds for the things they truly love - that £40 Radiohead boxset of the album you could download for free, or the £50 Blu-Ray of Planet Earth, which was on TV for free.
And let the ISPs do what they do best at: selling us broadband that never reaches the advertised speeds. But that's a-whole-nother blog post...
PS And don't forget, not all peer-to-peer filesharing is bad. Just ask Sky, Joost and the other legal peer-to-peer services out there...