Digital looting is bad for the Internet

While the Federal Communications Commission and other policymakers wrestle for balance between an open Internet and the protection of intellectual property, some key net neutrality proponents have turned out to be digital thieves’ best friends.   Even as the Obama administration has vowed to stand up for creators’ intellectual property rights, some advocates of net neutrality seem more interested in preserving the freedom to steal videos, music, games and other digital content.

Consider:

•    Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says “Our ability to bank online, use electronic commerce, and safeguard billions of dollars in intellectual property are all at stake if we cannot rely on the security of our information networks.” But Public Knowledge President Gigi Sohn says concern about intellectual property protection is “one from the trivial category.”  “Trivial” seems grotesquely dismissive for theft that robs the U.S. economy of some $60 billion a year and kills large numbers of jobs in the process.

•    FCC Chairman Julius Genanchowski says “the enforcement of copyright and other laws and the obligations of network openness can and must co-exist.”  But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) complains that “a copyright-enforcement loophole” undermines the FCC’s open Internet proposals because it allows Internet providers to try to identify those who break the law. 

•    Vice President Joe Biden, commenting on Internet looting, says: “It's pure theft, stolen from the artists and quite frankly from the American people as consequence of loss of jobs and as a consequence of loss of income.”  But when the FCC suggests that stopping illegal traffic should be considered “reasonable network management,” Public Knowledge and its allies disingenuously say such a rule is not needed because other enforcement tools exist.

Critics of the FCC’s efforts to limit digital theft worry that enforcement efforts might unintentionally disrupt legal movement of copyrighted content.  It’s a fair point.  But it loses credibility because those who articulate it also reject just about every other proposal for addressing digital theft.

To proponents for digital rights management, technologies that make it harder to copy protected works, and efforts to identify illegal copying, Public Knowledge says “no” because the methods aren’t perfect.   But if perfection was the standard, all law enforcement agencies would have to close up shop.   Perfection is a high hurdle and a bad guide for policy.

Now, a new technology called Selectable Output Control (SOC) would protect legally streamed content such as a pay-for-view movies from being copied illegally.   SOC appears to be a win-win that lets the viewer enjoy content and also protects the creator’s rights, but to this, too, Public Knowledge says “no.” 

When Internet Service Providers agree to notify Internet users that their Internet connection may have downloaded illegal copies, Public Knowledge worries that monitoring systems may turn up too many false positives. 

When artists and content distributors test new models to compete with the thieves by charging for content, Josh Silver of Free Press complains that creators are just “protecting their turf” – as if there is something wrong for artists to get paid for the songs and films they produce.   When cable TV operators offer subscribers the opportunity to watch video on their computer as well as on their television, Mr. Silver warns: “Say Goodbye to Free Online Television” because he wants non-subscribers to have the same rights as people who pay.

Those who devalue intellectual property seem to want a world in which all online content is “free” – even if you have to steal it.   As consumers, we all like a bargain.  But one wonders where the content will come from or who will pay the creator when everything is free.   Even 1970s revolutionary Abbie Hoffman charged $1.95 for his best seller “Steal This Book,” and if you took it from a bookstore without paying we called it shoplifting.

Free, advertising-supported, Web sites and services are a terrific option for online consumers so long as they respect the rights of the people who create the content.  Creators have the right to earn a living and decide the best way to share their work – whether for free or for pay.  Some observers call digital looting a trivial matter.  But to the artists who are ripped off, to the Internet users who want a steady flow of quality content, and to our economy digital theft is a pretty big deal.  Whether they admit it or not, some net neutrality advocates are taking up for the thieves.


Rick Carnes is a professional songwriter who has written hits for Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Alabama and other performers.   As President of the Songwriters Guild of America, he also advocates for songwriters on a range of economic, legal and artistic issues.