Monday, February 04, 2008

If You Can't Trust the Experts. . .

Being an expert at something is both a privilege and a responsibility. Experts who abuse their special abilities make things harder for experts who follow the rules. There's nothing new about these ideas. But the experts who follow the rules often get ignored in the flaps over experts who violate the rules.

Let me get specific. David Kravets of Wired reports in his Threat Level column that four Swedish men have been charged with facilitating copyright infringement. Seems that they operate a "BitTorrent tracking site" called The Pirate Bay. According to Wikipedia, BitTorrent is a type of peer-to-peer network protocol that makes it easier to download large amounts of data through the Internet. Instead of requiring the user to receive an entire file from one central server, BitTorrent allows the user to get pieces of the file from multiple locations and assemble them later, making the whole process easier and often faster. Although the protocol can be used for almost any type of file, it is often used to obtain pirated copies of movies and software.

The Pirate Bay's operators claim they have spread their operation out so far with third-party intermediaries that they don't even know where the servers are. According to the report in Wired, they seem to think they're doing nothing wrong, and certainly aren't making money at it. If you had to boil down their motivation to one sentence, it might be something like "every bit deserves to be free."

This situation is a good example of what I'd call "technology gone bad" in the sense that some people have taken a clever and useful technological idea—BitTorrent protocols, in this case—and used it for, at best, quasi-legal purposes. Who are the injured parties in a case like this?

Copyright owners such as giant media and software companies will be quick to point out that they are losing revenue every time somebody gets a "free" copy of content via The Pirate Bay rather than through legitimate channels. And since the companies' revenue has to be made up somehow in order for them to stay in business, this leads to higher prices for everybody who gets the stuff legally. And there's your second group of wronged individuals: the consumers of legitimate content who have to pay more for it.

But one group who is often ignored in analyses of this kind of thing is the experts, such as yours truly, whose legitimate operations may be hampered or stifled altogether by draconian or ill-considered regulations. Although I don't think this will happen, it might come about that the corporate interests who dislike the illegal applications of BitTorrent protocols could enact some sort of binding regulation that would make the whole protocol illegal. That sounds almost unenforceable—the notion that simply having a protocol on your computer, without using it, would make you liable to jail time—but there are precedents in the area of child pornography. It is illegal simply to have child pornography in your computer, and if it's found, you can go to jail.

I have no argument against making child pornography illegal, but when you start getting into technologies where most users are legitimate technical people going about their harmless business, there's a real problem. I'm facing a situation like that right now. For a research project I'm engaged in, it turns out I would like to convert so-called "NTSC analog video" (the standard that's going to disappear from U. S. airwaves in about a year) to digital video. I'm not copying anything—I'm generating the video myself—and my need to convert analog to digital video is a legitimate research requirement. But I have had a heck of a time finding any equipment to do it. I mentioned this to my wife, and she said, "Well, sure. People are wanting to take their old analog VHS tapes and turn them into DVDs illegally." Yes, that can be done with this equipment I want, but I don't want to do that.

After much web searching, I found two companies that make such a device, or used to. Oddly (and somewhat suspiciously), both firms have either removed all mention of the units from their websites altogether, or have put up a big notice saying "This product has been discontinued." Fortunately, I think I have found a supplier who still has some in stock, and I'm waiting to find out if I can get one. But it's beginning to look like some corporation or trade group's lawyer has been sending out letters threatening legal action if such devices aren't withdrawn from the market.

Of course, maybe I'm just being paranoid. But whenever a few experts turn to unethical practices, you should remember that besides the people who are directly involved, all the other experts who use the same technology for legitimate reasons may be inconvenienced or worse when corporations and their lawyers overreact to cripple or ban an entire useful technology because of the malfeasance of a few bad actors. I hope I can get my video converter unit, but if I can't, I may have folks with attitudes like The Pirate Bay guys to thank.

Sources: The article describing The Pirate Bay's latest legal troubles is dated Feb. 1 and can be found at

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