These might be the waning days of the new economy created by the digital communications revolution. For the better part of the last three decades every aspect of our culture has been altered, accelerated, surpassed, and often destroyed by the Internet and most importantly, by the Internet’s favourite four letter F word, F-R-E-E. It’s been a wild ride but it was never really sustainable. Along the way, we’ve devalued our recent cultural creations and made it far harder for artists to scrape out a semblance of a decent living.
A recent story in The New Yorker magazine, “Who Owns the Internet?” outlined the experience of Levon Helm, drummer for the seminal rock group The Band. After The Band broke up and Helm retired from rock music, he was living a comfortable life on royalty cheques from the tens of millions of times The Band’s music was purchased, played on radio, or used commercially each year. In 1999, the same year Napster made all music files free, Held developed throat cancer. That was the year his income slipped from approximately $100,000 per year to almost nothing. When Helm died the next year, a benefit concert had to be held so his wife could continue to stay in their home, royalties from his previous work having completely dried up.
Helm, like many musicians of his generation, was simply overwhelmed by the speed music lovers adopted a technology that gave them rapid, free, and most importantly, unlimited access to a world of listening options. There have been several attempts made to legalize music and legitimize each file listened to by any given computer user, but most have failed. Spotify is arguably the most successful. It was introduced nine years ago and saw a period of mass adoption starting about five years ago. Even Spotify only pays artists a fraction of the royalty payments they used to receive, even though their work is available to a far greater number of listeners and is thus used more than ever before. The competition for users and the personal data behind them is fierce.
Music is still, for the most part, free. Think of a song and go to YouTube. There’s a far better than even chance that song will be there, a much better chance than you might have had trying to find more obscure titles at a record store thirty years ago. Artists now have to make their money on tour and selling merchandise and life for older artists is getting harder as payments for use of their art are fewer and smaller, even though more people are using their art than ever before. Somewhere along the way, it became even less financially feasible to be a professional musician.
This isn’t anywhere close to what Internet pioneers meant when they said data must be free. To ask what happened is to ignore the fact we all saw it happen and the vast majority of us eagerly participated. Now it’s television’s turn. Even though some of the greatest storytelling in human history is found on modern cable TV, the medium is becoming harder and harder to monetize while budgets for large productions grow as epic as the stories themselves. People are circumventing paid cable by using pirate streaming sites with URLs as long as the sentences their owners might draw if the world were a slightly different place. Bad actors make free data as much a liability as it is a critical necessity to a free flowing Internet. The argument about Net Neutrality is complicated enough but decimation of the creative economy is a component piece of the puzzle worth considering before grinding it into place.
We live in revolutionary times. It’s interesting and it’s messy. Often we’re realizing we can do things before fully understanding the effects of what we’re doing. While human history has always been like this, never before have we been able to record, remember, and recall our experiences instantly with the exacting clarity of empirical analytics. What is most frustrating is the technical fact we can end most data piracy altogether. The only thing stopping us is a nagging set of legal and philosophical problems.
Internet signals are made up of tiny packets. A packet is a small piece of a web document. When your computer makes a request of a file-server two hundred kilometers away, that request is returned in a number of individual packets, each of which contains a piece of the file you’ve requested. Much like the transporter on Star Trek, those packets are all delivered to your computer where they are reassembled on your monitor. That’s how the Internet can run so quickly and efficiently at the scale it does. Internet Service Providers can take any given packet out of the stream and instantly analyse its contents. This practice is called Deep Packet Inspection. Because an ISP could use Deep Packet Inspection to detect and throttle signals from rival networks, the practice is considered a direct violation of Net Neutrality provisions. But what if the ISPs only used it to target packets originating at IP addresses known to be bad actors or containing pirated materials?
Currently, the Internet is governed as a utility under Title II of the Federal Communications Act. Sometime in the next few weeks, the FCC is very likely to remove all Net Neutrality protections by declassifying the Internet. When that happens, Internet Service Providers will be free to implement a variety of pricing structures and technical practices that they currently can’t use. This is likely to push lawyers for large scale content creators such as the production companies behind Game of Thrones, or a musician with the legal clout of say, Taylor Swift, to push ISPs into using some of their newly granted powers to push pirates out of the pictures by seriously throttling their signals.
A few weeks ago, a conversation took place at the Telsec Business Centre about how to adapt to, and perhaps even make money off of the new Internet classification standards in a post Net Neutrality world. Developing software to help chase down and restrict the actions of the limited number of bad actors who steal from real actors (and singers and drummers too) might be a start.