Friday, April 13, 2001

EXECUTIONS ON THE INTERNET

11 April 2001

If the execution of 'Oklahoma bomber' Timothy McVeigh is allowed to be shown on the Internet it will appal and disturb. And that, says Alan Docherty, is why it should be allowed.

London, England -- Timothy McVeigh, who was convicted of the 1995 bombing of an Oklahoma City federal building, is due to die by lethal injection on 16 May. McVeigh, whose bomb killed 168 people, committed an act of terrorism unparalleled in US history.

For those who want a close up viewing of McVeigh's final moments there are only a few seats available at the morbid State execution. 1,100 letters have been sent to relatives of the deceased even though there are only eight seats open for them and ten seats available for the media. For any one else they will have to rely on second hand reports of McVeigh's final moments.

Unless, that is, Entertainment Network Inc. (ENI) succeed in Webcasting the execution. The company is taking legal action in its challenge to allow it to show the spectacle. Income generated from the credit card charge of $1.95 so as to prevent minors logging on, will go to charities established for victims of the McVeigh's bombing [1].

There's no good reason ENI shouldn't broadcast this final chapter of McVeigh's punishment. Except, before ENI filed the suit, prison authorities had refused permission saying it was inconsistent with Department of Justice regulations. Relatives of those killed are also upset. Marsha Kight, whose 23-year-old daughter was among the 168 killed in the blast, was outraged at ENI's proposal. She told Wired News: "I find it repulsive...Executing someone is not sport and I find it disgusting that someone would pay per view like a boxing match." [2]

Already there have been murmurings in the press about how the broadcast of McVeigh's last moments will create an unhealthy atmosphere of contempt. But these are surely inadequate reasons to prevent the event being broadcast on the Net.

It might just be easier for people to accept US State laws that allow for the disposal of violent criminals by murdering, so long as they are not confronted by them. Since the US resumed judicial killing in 1977 more than 700 have been executed. It is an unpalatable fact that a democratic country like the US continues its hypocritical policy of condemning violence but using it on its own citizens. The more people who are allowed to see the barbarism of State executions the better they will be able to decide for themselves whether it has a place in a justice system.

And then again, maybe no-one's mind will be changed. Nevertheless, the prospect of watching another human being executed, however twisted their criminal mind, should not be stopped simply because it might offend.

[1] Entertainment Network, Inc. Media Release (2001) 'Entertainment Network, Inc. Sues Government over Right to Broadcast McVeigh Execution Live on the Internet,' April 5, http://www.entertainmentnetwork.com/mcveigh.html

[2] Scheeres, J. (2001) 'Bomber's Death May Be Online,' Wired News, 30 March, http://www.wired.com/news/print/0,1294,42752,00.html

This article originally appeared at http://www.netfreedom.org/news.asp?item=153

Saturday, April 07, 2001

Napster's Last Stand
Alan Docherty
25 March 2001

Shawn Fanning, creator of Napster hasn't just traded in his T-shirt and baseball cap for a smart suit. Napster has been forced to abandon the fight against the music monopoly industry and has joined the forces that were plotting its demise. Alan Docherty continues his regular column.

Napster's rise and fall is a powerful morality story for anyone who thinks that Internet upstarts can bend the law, take on big business and win. Even when Napster offered US$ one billion dollars the music industry could not be convinced to settle. Of course it's not just Napster's decision to block access to copyrighted music that shows it's giving up the fight but also the strategic alliance with Bertelsmann AG, which includes BMG Entertainment and Digital Rights Management provider Digital World Services.

The phenomenon that is Napster didn't start like this. Time Magazine once called it: 'Napster the Revolution.' Last year, Napster won several Wired Magazine Readers Awards, including Best Innovative Start-up and Best Guerrilla Marketing Shawn Fanning was also named Tech Renegade of the Year. Napster worked like the Internet free speech mantra, which says the Internet routes around censorship. Each time Napster users logged on to the Internet they established a new series of networks to circumvent conventional attempts by the music industry to stamp out the sharing of MP3 files.

Before Napster, millions of MP3 files went missing because the recording industry had made Net users take them down. One organisation, IFPI which represents the international recording industry, established an international anti-piracy unit which developed technology to stop the trading of illeagl MP3 files. In 1999 it took down 15,000 illegal sites hosting 3 million music files.

Eighteen year old Shawn Fanning's workaround response to the recording industry's tactics took the Internet community by storm and sent shock waves through the old-money record companies. Yet, for all the talk of a Napster causing a revolution in cyberspace, it never happened. In the end, Napster merely exploited a digital loophole in copyright law for as long as it could, then found ways of making a profit from digital music in much the same way as its former enemies had.

Napster's days as the darling of the digerati are numbered and the rebel peer-to-peer network that became the Net's killer app is a shadow of its former self. Net users loved Napster's simple interface and its two-fingered attitude to the bloated recording industry. It remains wildly popular; Napster claims it has more than fifty million users.

By bypassing the onerous copyright laws Napster ferreted a technical solution to the age-old problem of paying the record companies with a smart and simple piece of software. Napster, took a moral sidestep and claimed it was not infringing copyright law since it was not responsible for content.

In response, the recording industry got lawyered up and following a number of high profile court cases Napster made increasingly friendly overtures to the industry it had been freeloading of its users downloads.

Despite Napster's lack of success in challenging the status quo Napster demonstrated that the Internet provides the infrastructure to socialise zeroes and ones whether as writing, music or computer programmes. As quick as two modems can complete their handshake, data can be copied from one person to another.

This clashes with the way of organising in the 20th century where work is kept private and guarded by laws that protect ownership. There has always been a tension between artists and their need to be paid. During the 18th century the first copyright laws were created and have never been replaced.

The stranglehold of a small number of record companies has enabled a strict control over music distribution so much so that the European commission is investigating fears that the world's big five record companies operate cartel to raise compact disc prices artificially.

Behind the notion of copyright is the principle that the creator must be paid. Except that on the Net the rules have been broken. Copyright and direct payment for work is the antithesis of the Internet. The prime movers behind the Net did so for no clear financial motive. Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web while his salary was paid for by the European Center for Nuclear Research. Marc Andreessen developed the browser Mosaic for nought, and so too was Linus Torvalds' Linux and the entire Open Source movement. Following Napster's demise, waiting in the wings are dozens of other peer to peer programmes which have been coded by programmers seeking perhaps a little fame but not so often a fortune.

On the Internet most things can be found for free. So it's not unreasonable that Napster users, accustomed to this so-called dot-communism should consider that music should be free too. The tension is not so much about artists being paid, but rather how in a market economy people can be creative and earn a living.

At its heart the Internet calls into question the fundamentals of national and international copyright law. Some web sites continue to warn Net users that 'unauthorised' copies of their web pages could result in criminal prosecution. Never mind that by downloading the warning from the web sites server to your PC that very copyright law has been violated. Surfing the Net is one giant exercise in copyright violation. When it comes to downloading MP3 music files you can see why Net users have a casual attitude to copyright law. What grates is that sixty million Napster users have tasted free music, seen no harm come to the US$38 billion industry yet are treated like criminals.

After all, music fans had been listening to and recording music for years, off their radio and TV and swapping tapes with friends. And despite the music industry's claim that 'Home Taping is Killing Music' this didn't square with the facts; The British Phonographic Industry says that sales of UK music rose from £104.4 million in 1973 to £1,119.1 million in 1998.

It's not as if artists make great financial benefits from copyright. One survey of payments to artists in the first half of the 1990s found that they received an average of only £75 a year from the UK's Performing Rights Society.

While newspapers and magazines have, on the whole, resisted asking users to pay for Internet content, the recording industry has taken a far less relaxed attitude. The power of Napster was that it brought the absurdity of copyright laws out into the open.

The wondrous thing about Napster was that it gave users the first glimpse that the world could change. It's symptomatic of how tough law can wipe out even the most innovative of Net services.

The moral of Napster's brief history is that it's no good relying on technology to get you out of a legal quagmire. It can easily backfire: some months ago Napster claimed in court it was pointless trying to block copyrighted MP3 files, now it has accepted it will have to do this. The music industry's twin track approach of using law and technology has served to protect the established ways of operating.

While technology is neutral it can be used for fair or foul means. Just as supporters of Napster claimed the genie was out of digital music bottle so the industry has invested millions of dollars in locking it up through the use of Digital Rights Management tools. Digital World Services – part of Napster's partner Bertelsmann AG – has already developed a new security component for Napster which ensures that in file transfers between Napster users a 'protection segment' will be added to each music file. This ensures that restrictions on the usage of the files are enforced.

What Napster showed us was a glimpse of what a truly global and connected world could look like, let's hope it won't be long until we get another glimmer.