Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Last Offensive Volley of A Dying Empire

Last week, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced that all of the major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in the US had voluntarily agreed to a deal that would allow copyright holders more control over the ISP's customers. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable, have all agreed to a “graduated response” to customers that are accused of downloading copyrighted works. Under this new system, copyright holders can inform the ISP that a particular IP address was used to download something and the ISP will take action from there.

First Response:

The ISP will begin by sending a customer an email informing them their IP address was detected downloading copyrighted material. The email will likely look very similar to others already sent out at the request of copyright holders. It will say things like, downloading copyrighted works is theft, and that theft is illegal. The email will also contain information where by they can better educate themselves to copyright law. It might also state that if they did not commit the theft themselves, they could have an insecure wifi network, or malware installed on a computer on their network that is acting as an intermediary device.

It will all seem scary but in a pleasant way, not really an accusation as much as a notice that someone out there used your IP address to download something they shouldn't have and if it happened to be you, it's ok because here are some materials that will better educate you. The problem with this is you have now been marked as a thief, your name is entered into a database kept by the ISP in case they are ever subpoenaed. At this point no action is taken, this is just the first warning.

Second Response:

Once this happens again, you will receive another email, this time without all the sugar coating. This email will inform you that you were detected downloading copyrighted content again, and here are some more materials to better educate you.

This education nonsense is really an attempt at behavior modification. You know this from childhood, when you did something that your parents didn't like, they tried to get you to not do it again through least that's how it starts. You've now graduated to a habitual thief, in the eyes of your ISP, a kleptomaniac.

Third Response:

Why you little asshole, downloading again? Now that you have been caught once again, your ISP will send you another email, this time it will contain a link that you must click. Clicking this link will let the ISP know that you have received the emails and have not only been informed of the copyright violation but that you know that it's illegal, you have been caught, and you acknowledge you will stop immediately. At this point they may also send you a certified letter in the mail containing information similar to that contained in the emails you have received.

At this point you have a problem, and its not the downloading. The problem is you have had the giant finger waved in your face, momma screaming at you to stop, and you are minutes away from being sent to your room without supper. Not only that, but she wants you to admit that you've done wrong. This may seem funny but its kind of serious now, you've been elevated to a level where under this new system the ISP can start taking action against you soon. It's not a place anyone wants to be in, especially since so much of our lives is tied to our Internet access now.

Fourth Response:

You will again receive an email, and likely a letter informing you that you have once again violated the law and you need to respond to our demands immediately.

This seems like the final straw before the ISP is forced to begin taking action, at this point you have been well advised of the situation.

Fifth Response:

Having been caught for a fifth time, the ISP must now respond with some kind of action. At this point it seems that the ISP gets to determine what the action will be. At this point your ISP will send you a letter informing you they must take action against your account for copyright violation, this will likely include having your data throttled severely for a short period, having your browser redirected to a portal containing a phone number to call, to get your service reconnected, and possibly a temporary loss of internet service for an unspecified period of time.

At this point they're not fucking around anymore. All of these responses will effect how you interact with the Internet. Having your data throttled is no fun, ask existing AT&T mobile customers if they enjoy it. Being redirected to a portal containing education information and a phone number that you must call in order to have your service restored is no fun either. Who the fuck likes to be lectured, especially by some sheep getting paid $8.50 an hour to read some spoon-fed nonsense off a computer screen in front of them. And having your account disabled for a temporary period is like being stabbed in the chest with an ice pick. Think I'm joking? Have your ever smoked crack or snorted cocaine? If you have, seek help, but if you haven't then you have no idea. Addiction has a serious effect on you when you don't feed it. Ask anyone who has received a temporary ban from World of Warcraft. Sitting around counting the hours, watching the clock, sweat pouring down your face. Trying to find something to do that doesn't involve the game, looking for an alternative, unable to find one. By hour 12 you begin twitching, and speaking in tongues. OK, so its maybe not that serious but do a little experiment. Disconnect yourself from the Internet in every single way for the next three days, let's see how you do. If you are like me, it will be insufferable. Not to mention, what if you use the Internet for business or you need it to support a device like VOIP? Can you live without email, Facebook, and the Twitter?

Sixth and Final Response:

Your ISP has given you many chances, its now time to take more action. At this point they have the right to not only respond as they have previously, by throttling your account so far back, you think you're using a 300 baud modem, but they can disconnect your service for longer periods or terminate your contract entirely.

At this point if their mitigation services haven't modified your behavior yet, its unlikely that anything they do will have an effect. At this point they will likely terminate your contract, or just permanently throttle your service so it will take you a year to download a single movie.

Your ISP doesn't want to do any of these, they are not the police, and we'll talk about that in a minute but first you need to understand what's really happening here. While the big announcement likes to tout the agreement as a voluntary thing, its pretty clear its anything but voluntary. Let's examine this for a moment. The ISPs (AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable) that have agreed to this deal are not only Internet Service Providers, but content providers as well. This means that in addition to providing customers with access to the Internet, they also provide customers access to a variety of other services like music and movies. That's right, in their attempt to become your one stop shop, they have tied together two different services to give you more, and take more of your money. The problem with this is, that while this agreement of services with your ISP better gives you access to Television, Phone, and Internet, it also gives the RIAA and MPAA something better to bargain with. You may not think about it much, but the movies you watch on cable are all licensed up the wazoo, from point to point ending up at the beginning...the MPAA. That means the MPAA ultimately controls the content you watch on your television. And it's not hard to see how this conversation behind closed doors went.

This kind of thing has happened before. In the 1930's fashion was dominated by a group called the Fashion Originators' Guild of America. Then, like it is today, clothing wasn't eligible for copyright and patent protection under the law. So the guild took it upon themselves to enforce their own protection, by limiting access to goods to anyone who wasn't willing to follow their demands. Shop owners were forced into selling only their goods if they wanted to sell them at all. When you hear of something like this, it doesn't immediately fly on to the radar, after all it would make sense, if you were selling something to a retailer you might want to have an exclusivity deal with them. The problem with this kind of underhanded deal is that these organizations enforce punishment upon those who do not follow their rules, and this falls into the domain of a not well known part of the law called, antitrust. Antitrust law is a form of law that was designed to promote market competition by giving everyone equal footing by disallowing anti-competitive conduct by companies. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered the Fashion Originator's Guild of America to immediately cease and desist. In 1941, much to the dismay of the Fashion Originators' Guild of America, the Supreme Court ruled that they had violated antitrust laws, upholding the FTC decision and ultimately resulting in the destruction of the Guild. You may remember something similar to this being mentioned some years ago in the case of Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Now, as they did back then, Microsoft dominated the marketplace with the Windows Operating System (OS). When the World Wide Web was introduced to the public, companies like Netscape, Opera, Mosaic, and Lynx all clamored for a market share by introducing their own browsers to the world. This kind of competition allowed people to freely explore their options and decide on a browser that they liked to use. Suddenly, Microsoft entered the game introducing to the world a new browser called Internet Explorer. Immediately it was apparent that this browser was an inferior product and almost no one adopted using it. Not willing to lose this war, Microsoft began bundling the product into Windows, so users who had never experienced using an Internet browser before would gain first access to theirs. But Microsoft took it a step further, they introduced the idea that one program could be the default program, and they used it to disallow users choice. A user installing any other browser would find their web pages would only open in Internet Explorer. This would start a war that lasted many years and ultimately involved the courts, deciding that Microsoft couldn't do this as it would violate antitrust laws. Like in 1941, the court decided companies couldn't enforce rules through behavior modification. See where I'm going?

The problem with antitrust law is that it seems every company tries to push the law. Corporations like the MPAA and RIAA want people to follow the laws, but are unwilling to follow laws themselves. If you walk into a store and steal a candy bar, the store owner can't walk you into the street and flog you repeatedly for everyone to see. A store owner doing this would be committing a crime and be punished accordingly. Antitrust laws are in place to prevent corporations from punishing people for violating their rules, a job usually left to governments. The MPAA and RIAA have used their influence with ISPs to create behavior modification in people who don't follow the rules, resulting in forms of punishment. While this kind of thing happens all the time with respect to governments, corporations don't usually take it upon themselves to police the public. The reason for this is that it usually affects the bottom When a government does this, you are not left with any choice, after all you can't boycott the government. They can enforce their rules, and continue to collect money from you through taxes. However, when corporations do this, they lose customers, resulting in a loss of money. This is because competition allows a disenfranchised person to seek their product elsewhere. The problem with the MPAA, RIAA, and the five major ISPs involved in this deal, they all dominate the marketplace leaving the public little or no choice. These kinds of corporations are called Monopolies. And as history has shown us, monopolization inevitably results in antitrust.

So now that we have established these corporations are violating the law, what can we do about it? Well it is my belief this will ultimately end up in the courts where it should be. In case after case, companies who have violated antitrust through monopoly domination, have been severely punished, sometimes resulting in the destruction of their company, though I don't believe this will happen here. The problem with this kind of thing is that is takes a long time. Time is really on the side of the monopoly, even after  a case is filed against them, they won't have to actually litigate it for years, all the while their draconian tactics allow them more control, and the ability to make more money. So what do we do in the meantime?

Effective July 1st, 2012, this new form of subjugation will take effect, and soon users everywhere will begin feeling the pain of the corporate controlled copyright machine. That is unless we do something to stop them. As I've mentioned, suing the corporations is a first step and I believe it will happen, but an end to the tyranny will likely take a while, so it is incumbent on us as a people to resist this kind of behavior modifiction in the meantime. Below I will outline a couple of tactics that could prove effective against this kind of totalitarianism.

Continue doing what you are already doing, downloading whatever you want to your heart's content. If everyone did this, the ISPs would have no choice but to challenge the RIAA and MPAA, after all at that point, they are losing customers and money. Lose enough money, you have lost your business. This kind of action requires mass adoption to work, a movement like “Occupy Wall street” would be required to have this kind of effect. I like this kind of thing, it establishes a revolution, invoking free speech as a weapon against tyranny. If enough people jumped onto the band wagon this kind of tactic would have the best result, likely stopping the RIAA and MPAA once and for all. Don't discount public outcry, it has been very effective in the past and will continue to be effective in the future. If nothing more, it brings to the attention of policy makers, the general consensus of the public that they are being wronged in some way. While the policy makers, our congress, are continually lobbied through cash bribes from the RIAA and MPAA, that kind of thing pales in comparison to a public dissent. After all, you only make money if you have a job, and as long as we have a democratic republic of elected officials, money doesn't decide policy, votes do. So if you don't like the policies your government has established, vote them out and vote in their place those who suit your needs.

The other choice you have is encryption. Encryption is a way for you to hide data through obfuscation. If you have been downloading and haven't used any kind of obfuscation, you really need to start now, especially if you have been using something like bittorrent to download music and movies. Bittorrent makes no attempts at hiding your IP address, after all, its needed to establish a connection from one person to another. My first suggestion would be that you download a program called Peerblock. It's not a perfect solution but it does help. Peerblock works by firewalling yourself from users who connect to your machine from known bad IP addresses. This is achieved through a list of addresses that are constantly updated. When you begin downloading something through bittorrent, other users who are also downloading the same file begin connecting to your machine to supply pieces and receive pieces of the file they don't already have. Because of how this works, it's very easy for a representative of the MPAA to sit on a torrent of “Captain America” and wait for users to connect. They just have to log the IP addresses and store them for future reference. Peerblock will effectively stop this by disallowing users from known bad IP address from connecting to your machine, preventing them from ever getting your IP address. While this prevents someone outside of your network to see your activity, it doesn't prevent your ISP from seeing it. At this point if you are using Internet Explorer, you really need to stop. Besides it being a major vector for security attacks, its not the most configurable browser. I would switch to either Mozilla's Firefox or my favorite choice Google's Chrome browser. Once you have done this it's time to install something called HTTPS Everywhere. HTTPS Everywhere is a tool developed by the EFF to force browsers into connecting to a website only through HTTPS if available, and only through HTTP if unavailable. HTTPS is a way for your browser to interact with a website using HTTP over a secure socket layer(SSL) encrypted connection. This means that the connection between your machine and the website you are visiting is encrypted, protected from the watchful eyes of even your ISP. You may be familiar with HTTPS only if you have ever used a banking site, or sites like Paypal or Amazon to purchase something. HTTPS is generally used to encrypt monetary transactions, and usually when you need to conduct a private transaction the website will force one of these HTTPS connections. However, just because you are not conducting a transaction doesn't mean you can't encrypt your connection. Many sites allow HTTPS to be used anywhere on their site, allowing your entire experience to be private. While this type of tool is very useful in protecting yourself from someone seeing which sites you visit, it doesn't protect you from the files you download from bittorrent, so its a good idea, and another step in the right direction, but not a full solution. So now that you've enabled an IP firewall, and installed a secure browser, you should consider whether you need to encrypt your entire connection. Doing this is the ultimate solution and will prevent anyone from knowing who is downloading and what they are downloading. This can be achieved through a few ways. Tor is one way which this can be done, and although its effective in obfuscating both your IP address and traffic, it wasn't meant to handle the demand of bittorrent so users trying to use it for that intent will find their downloads painfully slow, not to mention my experience with it was not a good one. Browsing just a website using Tor was also painfully slow. Tor works through a process called Onion routing, you know like when you peel away a layer of the onion, you are presented with more layers underneath. It works in the same principle, by connecting users in a chain through the Tor network, no one person has the same IP address they started with. Each time you connect to a new IP address, its like revealing a new layer of the onion, only this onion has tens of thousands of layers to peel. The last option and my favorite is Virtual Private Networking (VPN).

VPN is a way for one computer to connect to another computer directly. Secure VPNs work much like HTTPS except, instead of securing a tunnel between your machine and another machine through the browser alone, this involves securing the entire connection. This kind of tactic prevents anyone but the computer you are connecting to from knowing whats going on. When your ISP looks at your connection all they see is bits of gobblygook. They have absolutely no idea what you are actually doing. They may be able to deduce from your bandwidth allocation that you might be downloading very large files, but that's meaningless as its not a crime to consume endless amounts of bandwidth. As far as they are concerned you may be downloading movies from the Piratebay, watching porn on Redtube, or just enjoying your Netflix or Hulu subscriptions. There are many VPN services available, you need only search google to find them. VPN services are not free, and even if you find one that is free its likely to suck. You want something that isn't terribly slow, and is reliably stable. After all what good is it when you pay for a service that is both slow and you are unable to maintain a connection with.

You may wonder why I entitled this post, “The Last Offensive Volley of a Dying Empire.” It is in my opinion only a matter of time before the RIAA and MPAA die off. As a matter of Natural Selection, those who do not or cannot adapt, die. This is true not only of species but of technology. For so long these corporations have dominated our lives, giving us content at a high price, with no competition and no reason to change. With the invention of the Internet, corporations who's models were built upon a rigid construct and unable to change, fell to those who adapted and flourished in this new world. In all this time, the RIAA and MPAA have fought to stay alive, gripping at every chance they could, using every tactic to maintain control and buying politicians as needed all in an attempt to hold on to a dying philosophy. I don't know how long this battle will last, but it's end will come. The old people and old ways, will die in favor of new people and new ways. And the way we thought yesterday will not be the same way we think tomorrow. I can't help but to think of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Two Towers, and the battle of Hornburg, when I think about this. The corporations kind of remind me of the Isengard army of Uruk-hai, marching on Helm's Deep.

Every major empire that has ever existed, has fallen. It's only a matter of time. You may laugh at my comparison of the Orcs of Tolkien's fiction to the soulless corporate executives of the RIAA and MPAA, but Tolkien's stories were allegories of the wars he experienced. This is no different today, make no mistake, we are at war. And much like Tolkien's characters we will make hard choices and sacrifices, but ultimately we will be victorious. I'm not in favor of breaking the law, when the law makes sense. And using the law to protect corporate interests make no sense, because it is detrimental to progress.

Law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.  - Martin Luther King, Jr.

Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be. - Khalil Gibran

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