art & commerce: Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

The freedom of the Internet is not absolute
Although the pending court-ordered demise of Napster, the peer-to-peer music trading application that rocked the record industry, is causing dismay in many circles, few are surprised.
Even those who note there is no law against lending a friend a CD must admit the situation changes once the circle of friends numbers 20 million. According to news reports, even Napster’s lawyers (headed by Microsoft-killer David Boies) barely argued otherwise.
If you believe in intellectual property rights–and what American does not?–it’s clear Napster is on the wrong side of the law.
Yet whatever one thinks about the legality of Napster, or its ultimate prospects in the courts, it does function as the Internet was designed to function. When one peers into the mists of Internet history–a decade or so ago–it’s clear the music companies are the ones trying to fit the Internet into a Procrustean bed of property rights.
Hard as it is to believe, the Internet wasn’t designed to transmit credit card numbers between buyers and sellers or circulate private property. It was created for and first used by scientists engaged in a collective endeavor whose profit came in the increase of knowledge engendered by shared information. The openness and peer-to-peer transparency built into the Internet is a reflection of that priority.
The popular notion that the Net is the way it is because “information wants to be free” obscures the human element: In fact, the people who pioneered digital networking wanted information to be free.
Today, many of the forces shaping the future of digital networking don’t want information to be free, and they are going to court to make sure it won’t be. The law may be on their side; the Internet is not. During the 48 hours when Napster’s fate seem sealed, the chat rooms were buzzing with reassurances that if the public wants to exchange music over the Net, there are alternative ways to do it–and the recording industry is helpless to stop them.
Indeed, there are some Internet security experts who believe the only way to make the network reliably secure for the exchange of private property–credit card numbers or music files–is to scrap the Internet as we know it and rebuild its infrastructure from scratch.
Since that prospect is unlikely, the alternative is to encode copyrighted digital information with increasingly sophisticated sets of locks and keys that prevent or allow different levels of access to the information being sold. One key might unlock onetime use, another access over a fixed time-period, a third unlimited access. The greater the access, the higher the cost to the buyer. Consumers may end up paying a premium for “fair use” rights built into the cost of a book.
Of course, where there are locks, there are picks. And where encryption technologies fail, the law
steps in.
Take one case now being tried in Manhattan court. To make sure anyone who watches a movie on DVD pays for the privilege, DVDs come with a scrambling program that makes them impossible to copy. Or they did until the code was decrypted by a 15-year-old Norwegian geek who wanted to play his PC-compatible DVDs on his Linux computer.
It took him a couple of weeks to decode the encryption and not much longer to get his descrambling code out on the Internet.
The defendant in this case is a Web site that published links to sites that distributed the code. Once it enters college dorms, the movie industry fears, it will make it possible to trade movies over the Internet much like music is traded today.
A decision is due this week, but it promises to be the prelude not only to an appeal but to dozens of cases that will resolve the sticky First Amendment and “fair use” issues online. We may soon look back fondly on the good old days when one could lend a CD to a friend without being threatened with jail time.
The joke is on those Panglossian visionaries who saw the Internet as a populist paradise without boundaries. It is beginning to appear that the Internet, precisely because it’s designed for easy, decentralized access to information, creates the conditions for the proliferation–both legal and technological–of limits on information.
After all, what are words like locks and keys but the language of imprisonment?
The scientists and researchers who pioneered the Internet bequeathed us an information free-for-all; our ultimate inheritance, however, may be information in chains.