U2’s McGuinness: Still a moron

Another month, another rant from U2’s longtime manager Paul McGuinness, about how everyone else is to blame for the music industry’s problems, except of course the music industry and the major record labels. Primarily, he blames the Internet service providers — whom he compares to “shoplifters” and says are “rigging the market” — but he also tosses a few grenades at cellphone handset makers, telecom companies and (as far as I can tell) everyone other than your Mom (and he’s keeping a pretty close eye on her too). Seriously — why can’t Bono or the Edge or someone get this guy to sit down and shut up?

McGuinness’s latest rant was a sort of micro version of his speech at the Midem conference in Cannes, in which he said:

“Network operators, in particular, have for too long had a free ride on music — on our clients’ content. It’s time for a new approach — time for ISPs to start taking responsibility for the content they’ve profited from for years.”

This is the music industry’s equivalent of newspaper mogul Sam Zell’s rant about how Google is “stealing our content” and should be forced to pay. And McGuinness thinks that if ISPs don’t cough up some dough, then they should all be forced to do so by the government (something others — including in Canada — have recommended as well). While we’re at it, why not force gun manufacturers to pay a fee to the financial industry because occasionally someone uses one of their products to rob a bank? There is no rational basis for what McGuinness is suggesting, other than the sheer desperation of the music industry.

The same goes for the plan that Jim Griffin has been hired by Warner to try and set up, in which users would pay an “Internet tax” (yes, I realize it doesn’t meet a lot of the technical requirements of a tax, but I’m using the term in the sense of a “forced payment”). The Electronic Frontier Foundation and others have proposed a more voluntary arrangement, in which music fans could pay a monthly fee for the right to download at will, in much the same way that the radio industry was legalized through a compulsory licencing system. That’s something that might be worth talking about — but not with Paul McGuinness.

Virgin volunteers to be Big Brother

According to a piece in The Telegraph this morning, Virgin Media — the Internet service provider run by Richard Branson’s Virgin conglomerate — has volunteered to play copyright cop and yank the Internet account of users who share infringing material. Virgin and the British Phonographic Industry are apparently working out the details, which will likely involve the “three strikes and you’re out” approach.

Under this system — which has been proposed by several copyright enforcement bodies as either a voluntary process or one that could be legislated — Internet users would get a letter from their ISP after the first “offence,” then their account would be suspended (no word on for how long), and after a third infraction they would be disconnected completely. It’s not clear whether Virgin is going to play ball with cutting people off, but the story says that “remains an option” (although Torrentfreak says there could be a silver lining to the Virgin move).

As more than one person (including me) has pointed out, this approach sounds like a great idea right up until you try to imagine how it’s going to work. Would users be cut off for a single shared file — and if not, then how many? Would they be cut off for days, or weeks? What if the account holder isn’t the one sharing the files? How is the BPI going to track activity? How will the money be shared? Determined pirates won’t be the ones caught by this plan — only the unwitting or stupid.

As I mentioned in my previous post on this topic, not only would turning ISPs into Internet police open up a giant can of worms — especially since Virgin would be voluntarily turning over the names and addresses of users suspected of engaging in illicit behaviour — but criminalizing copyright infringement on such a massive scale is all out of proportion with the damage that is allegedly being inflicted on the music industry. And yet, we seem to be facing either an ISP cop or ISP extortion.

The more I think about it, the more it looks like this could be the beginning of Act Two of the music industry’s ongoing self-immolation, with the lawsuits by the RIAA as Act One.

Is a music “tax” paid to ISPs the answer?

This is a big issue, with lots of sides to it, and I’m not going to try and get into them all right now, but it’s worth noting that Warner Music — the label run by Edgar Bronfman Jr. (who blew a few billion dollars worth of his family’s booze money on an ill-fated merger with Vivendi way back when) — has hired music-industry veteran Jim Griffin to create an ambitious, and possibly wrongheaded, digital music licensing entity that would see consumers pay their Internet service providers a monthly fee in return for the right to access music online.

Griffin outlines the idea a little in an interview with Portfolio magazine, and notes that it isn’t his idea but has been around a long time — it’s known as a “compulsory license,” and it was what helped the radio industry get out of the trouble it was in when it first became popular as an entertainment medium. Record labels argued that if people could listen to whatever they wanted for free on the radio, no one would buy albums and go to live shows. Sound familiar? Of course, radio play has sold billions of records and made the industry billions of dollars, but there you go.

In any case, Griffin wants to apply the same idea to downloading — and he’s not the only one. The Songwriters Association of Canada has proposed a similar thing, and so have other groups (the EFF has been proposing something similar since 2004). And ISPs are hopping on board this particular train in many cases, in part because they are being threatened with legislation in France and elsewhere that would hold them liable for policing their networks for copyright infringement. But does that make it a good idea? I don’t think so. And however Jim and others describe it, to me it sounds a lot like a tax. Mike Arrington goes further and calls it “protection money.”

Griffin says that “eventually” advertising might cover the charges, and those who wanted to surf without ads would have the choice to pay the fee. But it sounds like in the beginning the fee would be mandatory — even for those who don’t do any downloading at all. Does that sound fair? No. We have mandatory fees for things like education and road-building, but I don’t think music licensing falls into the same category. What about people who pay for songs legally through iTunes — do they get a free pass, or do they have to pay twice? Maybe Warner sees this as a way to put Apple out of business.

And what if such a fee is instituted — what about the movie companies, and other media companies? What about photographers? And what about the billions of dollars in software that is pirated online? After you add all the fees for those content creators, we’ll all be paying $100 for our Internet access (which of course the ISPs have started filtering and shaping because of all the downloading). And then there’s the goat rodeo that would be involved in figuring out who gets the money collected. Or maybe we could just let the ISPs and the music labels work all that out — I’m sure they would do it fairly, right?

News flash: I agree with Seth Finkelstein

Plenty of people, including Wired’s Threat Level blog and my friend Leigh, are up in arms about the fact that Rogers (a major Internet service provider, for you non-Canadians) is inserting messages to its customers on top of web pages such as the Google home page. Wired brings up the spectre of net neutrality, and other sites are also scandalized by the practice.

Mike Masnick of Techdirt is right when he says that Rogers’ behaviour betrays a kind of arrogance — a “we own the pipes, so we’ll do what we damn well please” attitude — but I fail to see how this has anything to do with net neutrality. Contrary to what Kristen Nicole at Mashable and others are saying, Rogers is not “overwriting” Web content, it’s merely pushing the page down and inserting a message at the top. Cynthia Brumfield has an example of something Verizon does that she thinks is worse.

Lots of sites do the same thing with frames and so on. Is it ugly? Sure. But apart from that, I don’t see what everyone is getting excited about. In fact, while I’m not sure I want to make a habit of this sort of thing, I’m going to side with Seth “Bah Humbug” Finkelstein on this one. As he notes in his post, this just isn’t that big a deal. Let’s save all of the net neutrality hyperventilating for something a bit more serious, shall we?

Hey ISP — Joost give me more bits

fibre optic.jpgSteve O’Hear — who also writes for ZDNet on social media — has a great post up at Last100 about how bandwidth-stingy Internet Service Providers threaten to stall many online-video apps such as Joost by throttling the download speeds that their users get. He looks at how some ISPs cut back your bandwidth after you’ve downloaded a certain amount per month, which with video isn’t difficult to exceed, and how some put a cap on downloads period. Many ISPs also use “bandwidth shaping” to restrict the flow of peer-to-peer apps such as Joost and Skype.

This is an issue that is going to become more and more important as Joost and Babelgum and other peer-to-peer video apps become widespread. One thing Steve doesn’t mention is that many ISPs also have ridiculously tiny upload speeds, and this is just as much of a threat to peer-to-peer apps. It’s no good to have a big fat download pipe if the upload is a tiny drinking straw.

Update:

Of course, if you live in an area where Verizon’s FiOS is available, you can get 30 megabits download (no details on uploads or whether they use bandwidth throttling). As Cynthia Brumfield notes at IPDemocracy, there’s no such thing as too much bandwidth.