SHIFT: Big Brother online? Don't look now, but it's about to happen

In this time when politics are the hottest topic of all, you may be interested to know that a new lobbying group has been created: Arts+Labs. The new lobby is backed by AT&T, Cisco Systems, Microsoft, NBC Universal, Viacom and the Songwriters Guild of America (disclosure: NBC Universal is the parent company of DVICE).

According to the lobby's core strategies, it wants to work efficiently and safely deliver innovative new content. The companies involved want new business models to deliver music, movies and TV to consumers. In their words, they want to "preserve network operators' freedom to manage their networks in a way that maximizes bandwidth and assures the fast, safe and reliable delivery of legal content and other services to consumers."

Sure it's expressed in dull corporatespeak, but the thrust of that strategy sounds benevolent, doesn't it? However, their methods might raise an eyebrow or two. Keep reading to see what exactly this new lobbying group plans to implement.

Arts+Labs Strategies
The plans of Arts + Labs look great on paper:

  • 1) Educate consumers about the vast array of legal entertainment options available on the Internet
  • 2) Make consumers aware of the threats posed by Net "pollution" (spam, malware, viruses, etc.)
  • 3) Strike a balance between consumer choice and creators' rights

Further, one of its core strategies states, "Arts+Labs firmly believes that most consumers agree that artists should be compensated for their work and would prefer to purchase affordable, safe and legal content rather than reward those who illegally traffic in the hard work and creativity of others."

It all sounds reasonable. Who doesn’t want innovative new content, delivered in new ways? And of course, illegal downloading is bad. Anyone who owns any type of property can understand the need to protect that property, even if it’s intellectual property. But how far do you go to protect it?

Your "Best Interest"
It’s the way Arts want to implement this that is most troubling. The phrasing of its documentation is creepy, constantly saying this is all in the best interests of the consumer. If they can just eliminate illegal file sharing, the Internet will be a better, faster, safer place for all of us — a happy place with butterflies and unicorns prancing everywhere. Because somehow, illegal movies cause more "pollution" than legal ones.

In its own words, Arts+Labs is working to "educate" consumers about how Net pollution — including illegal file trafficking — threatens to transform the Internet from an essential catalyst that safely and legally delivers content to consumers into a distribution mechanism of illegal content and malware that will choke off the Internet for future innovators and creators alike. They say that more than 50% of Web traffic is illegal file distribution.

Already, some Internet service providers (Comcast, most famously) are talking about implementing limits on the amount you can download. Legal or illegal. Illegal file sharing could conceivably implement strategies to bypass certain limits — for example, your pirated version of Harry Potter could be broken up into 10 smaller downloads if the only limit is file size. But it could rapidly become more sophisticated than that.

The Digital Police
One way that ISPs could police file sharing of copyrighted media is to filter everything transmitted through their servers. It's not clear if this is how Arts+Labs plans to go about things, but think about it. How will they be able to tell the difference between your wedding video and a copyrighted video? The most likely solution: look at everything. What files do you send to your girlfriend? Do you really want someone looking through those files to make sure they're "legal?" Where does it stop? If you're connected to the Internet, it's technically possible to comb through the files on your computer that you're not sharing (though in fairness no one's talking about that… yet).

How could this even be implemented? A closer look at the parties involved with this lobby is pretty revealing. Cisco can produce equipment that will filter Internet streams, and Microsoft has filed a patent that will enable it to watermark music so it can be tracked online.

This strategy is fundamentally flawed. The burden to prevent illegal file sharing shouldn't be on the consumer or even ISPs — it's on the content providers. Put in robust protection to prevent it from being illegally shared in the first place. Keep your prices reasonable so illegal options aren't as attractive. But don't monitor personal, private transmissions. That's wrong, and telling me you’re doing it to make the Internet a better place for me is just BS.

Reality Check
Could such data policing really happen? The FCC has already said that while ISPs can't block file-sharing protocols, they CAN block "transmissions of illegal content or transmissions that violate copyright law" (according to a recent FCC decision). This action was specifically targeting BitTorrent, a popular peer-to-peer file sharing protocol, but applies to most file-sharing sites.

As this lobbying group hits Washington, we need to decide if you want the government allowing your ISP to filter what and where you surf. If they have their way, they will be able to limit and disconnect people who are high-volume file sharers.

And don’t think the group doesn’t have any pull in D.C. Its co-chairmen are Mike McCurry, former press secretary to President Bill Clinton, and Mark McKinnon, former advisor to presidential candidate John McCain.

The most disturbing thing about Arts+ Labs isn’t their desire to protect intellectual property. It’s the smokescreen they’re casting to make it look like this is only to make the Internet a better place for all of us. If you want an honest discussion about this, call it like it is, and don’t try to fool anyone. Protecting copyright is actually good, but being backhanded about it sucks. To be sure, if it were my intellectual property being illegally downloaded, you could bet I would be petitioning the government to do everything it could to shut that down. Everything save violating my right to privacy.