Tilting at windmills

Like it or not, everyone has a stake in the DRM and net neutrality battles. Some also have reality on their side.

Last night, I read a very interesting editorial by Nate Anderson over at Ars Technica. The focus was a recent speech by Deborah Taylor Tate, one of the five FCC commissioners. In this speech, Tate praises DRM and argues in favor of draconian ISP network filtering to fight the scourge of digital piracy.

Reading the transcript of the speech, it's obvious that Tate's views on DRM, piracy, and network neutrality are at odds with reality, and firmly in the court of the RIAA and MPAA. That's fine -- opinions are just opinions, after all, even if hers can directly influence policy and legal concerns regarding these matters. But we'd be remiss if we didn't point out what's really happening in the world and on the Internet, since it's clear that so many politicians and their appointees have a highly skewed sense of which way the wind is blowing.

Let's start with DRM. Tate doesn't really have a dog in the DRM fight, and it's relatively curious that she mentioned it at all, but her remarks on ISP-level filtering for copyrighted content does brush shoulders with DRM.

So let's just get this straight: DRM has already failed.

The only winners in the world of DRM are the companies that have been paid large sums of money to develop highly complex, invasive, and ultimately useless DRM and copy protection schemes. Consumers lose this battle constantly when legally purchased games won't play on their PC because they have the temerity to have two CD-ROM drives, have Daemon Tools installed, or the moon isn't in the second house (warning: extremely salty language, probably not safe for work). They lose when their legally purchased music won't play on any device because the service offering the locked media is shut down, or when they try to open a legally obtained application in a location where there isn't any network access, only to be told that they can't use it because the authorization servers cannot be contacted. Examples like these occur constantly, all across the globe. The only group that isn't negatively impacted by DRM is the pirates themselves. It's more or less trivial to circumvent any DRM or copy protection scheme, and the fact that fully functional cracks exist for just about every piece of software ever released bears that out. Thus, normal users that have paid for their software, game, music, or movie run into walls when simply trying to use their purchases while the pirates skate right on by with a knife in their teeth and a parrot on their shoulder. It's not just a case of arresting a crowd to find the criminal, it's a case of arresting a crowd and missing the criminal -- every single time.

If that's not bad enough, the RIAA just sued a terminally ill teenager.

As far as net neutrality goes, Tate's comments on ISP filters are equally hard to swallow. If every ISP suddenly had the capabilities in place to drop packets containing illegal copyrighted material, it wouldn't impact the scene at all. Unless distributed access frameworks like Tor, encryption, Internet access in countries other than the United States, and everyday functions like encrypting a data stream become prosecutable felonies, then filtering of this type at the ISP level is completely useless except as a method of paving the way toward a tiered Internet. It might seem that some on the other side of this particular fence would be overjoyed if encryption were illegal -- a stance that is equal parts ridiculous and horrifying.

Make no mistake -- piracy is illegal, and should be. Content providers, authors, musicians, actors, and the like should be paid for their work, and downloading pirated copies of games, music, and movies is wrong. It's also very, very, simple.

Generally speaking, downloading a DRM-free movie on BitTorrent is faster than any legal service. It's also easier to do, and the movie will be playable on just about any device you care to use. This is why piracy is so prevalent, not the concept of getting something for nothing. In fact, using shady sources for games, applications, music, and videos is fraught with danger -- you never know what code might be hidden in a pirated copy of a game, for instance. Most people would much prefer to pay a fee and be free of these worries. Of course, some DRM schemes have also been known to install rootkits on your PC.

The solution would seem to be obvious: If you can't beat them, join them. I'd love to see an MPAA-approved BitTorrent tracker that charged a $20 monthly subscription for access to high-quality DRM-free movie torrents. Same goes for music and other entertainment content. Amazon's been selling DRM-free MP3s for quite some time now, as have some other vendors -- take that model and expand it. The current plan of trying to stay dry by attempting to block each individual raindrop at the source just isn't viable and never has been.

Leave the ISPs out of it -- it's not their job to protect a failing business model, and a movement toward a tiered and filtered Internet will do nothing to stem the tide of piracy, but will result in great restrictions on innovation, freedoms, and the general use of the Internet. There's nothing to be gained down that path other than possibly to expand the wallets of a few companies -- the same companies that apparently believe that Google is a bandwidth hog. The assertions in the original report are so ridiculous as to be first taken as a joke or parody, but unfortunately, they're serious.

These divisions are probably normal in the sense that they mark this as a time where available technology has far outstripped the law and the facilities of entrenched businesses and archaic business models. However, for the tech-savvy person to ignore these salvos and trust that the status quo will remain is equally dangerous.

Adapt or die, indeed. That goes for both sides.