Apple, Comcast and the slow death of the push-pull Internet
Some of you may already have your iPads. You may have pre-ordered early enough to have it in your hands. You may have already had a chance to play with it and marvel at its unique interface. Perhaps less unique if you’ve seen a sci-fi film in the last 20 years, but still unique and elegant to most(and to me). I wouldn’t want to (or suggest that I have the power) to take anything away from your happiness. But any apology I provide will not change the reality we now face as these commonly-called “walled gardens” starting to become the norm rather than the exception. Apple, Comcast and many of their ilk are slowly, quietly destroying the foundation of computing and the Internet. Some are even going as far as allowing no access to file systems or even the hardware itself. (hmm. who could that be?)
“Oh, we don’t want to complicate your experience with things like dirty old file systems, and if you open it up it gets your fingers all ewwwey and dirty anyway. That would ookey. Here. Watch this, it’s shiny!”
In other words, “hey, 10 to 30 percent of our users, go f^(k yourselves” followed by that laugh we all know. The laugh you hear from someone who just said something awful to you and gets away with it because they “didn’t really mean it at all”, right? Something like…
“hahaha.. yeah, I’m not sure anyone is going to read a blog post written by YOU that goes on THAT long..hahahahah! Silly.. so silly.. you’re so funny..isn’t he the funniest? that’s kinda refreshing, that kind of hopeless,charming faith in the patience of readers…hahahaha.. how long have you been doing this blogging thing now? yeah.. that’s a LONG time, huh? oh.. gosh.. so serious.. hahaha.. oh you know I’m just teasing you.. jeeze.. hahahaha”
And then you have to go to a shrink to have him help you build and discover the “internal tools” necessary to prevent you from waiting outside such people’s houses at night to inject them with a sedative so that you can tie them up in your basement, skin them alive and pour rubbing alcohol on their exposed musculatures. Or.. something.**
See, from the beginning of those tcp/ip stack early days of dial-up, there has been a sort of sense that someone, somewhere, would like to take the open, free Internet and turn it into TV. A magical land where mysterious, hidden and magically powered creators toil away in the dark and produce the images, stories and places you’ve always wanted to see. A place where only a select few, who knew the right people, went to the right parties and graduated from the right southern California universities were allowed to create these images. Because to let just anyone have potential access to millions of other human beings at a moment’s notice, on the same level as these vaunted few, would be a travesty. While we sat in our comfy chairs and grumbled about the onset of the “spam” problem and the “commercialization” of the Internet, something far more sinister than over-zealous small business was happening slowly. An awareness grew. The moment a user did anything beyond downloading, chatting and surfing (say, like a server of some kind), even back then, ISPs were quick to fire off an e-mail to you explaining that you either had to shut down or pay a higher fee for what was clearly “business-level” access. In other words, even if you were clearly NOT a business, if they noticed that you were serving more traffic than you were consuming, regardless of the strain or lack of strain on their infrastructure, you got shut down. These problems sometimes resolved themselves through competition, but not always. Back then, it all depended on how much competition was in your region. Usually, in most places in the US, not much.
Luckily for the Internet so far, it’s taken many, many years for the people in charge of old media to take us seriously. I think the moment when it all became interesting to them was the moment the news media started talking about how all these “Internet” people (said using the same tone they would use to describe your common aol chatroom trolling kiddie fiddler of old) were getting all these songs and eventually movies for free. Oh sure, there were dot-coms. We even had a boom and bust. But it was fear that really got their attention. Up until, say, the threat to and eventual murder of Napster, we were not taken seriously. Only when we became a credible threat to their bottom line did they finally truly notice exactly what was going on behind the curtain. We were dismantling their empire while they were busy trying to create “marketing buzz”, “tie-ins” and “viral campaigns”. Right.Under.Their.Noses. Oh, I may hate nostalgia, but part of me misses the late 90’s underground optimism. Your (print) BoingBoings and Mondo2000s, that sort.
As we found new ways to manipulate and mash-up their “properties”, perhaps making a subconscious, collective statement, they fought back with the DMCA, the RIAA and the MPAA. Instead of competing and winning back lost customers, they lashed out. Instead of taking responsibility and fixing what was broken, acknowledging missed opportunities and moving forward, they pointed fingers and manipulated numbers to gain sympathy. They “re-educated” young people into believing that making a copy was the same as physical theft. In much the same way as the new right has spent countless years and money perpetuating the myth of the “liberal media”, pushing the already conservative at the core for broad appeal media even further right, garnering sympathy from those of us less informed or educated about the history of such things. Now you can’t watch the news without .0002 percent of an ill-informed, barely-veiled racist and borderline-fascist-while-calling-everyone-else-fascists minority screaming its manufactured, impotent outrage while getting 28% of the media coverage. Using some of these same methods, they have nearly convinced a new generation that they need a mandatory middle-man between them and their culture. And it’s a powerful, angry, jealous middle-man. One who is prone to temper-tantrums and random financial violence toward old ladies and children. Do not tempt the righteous fury of this corporate-man-beast-god. It will devour your parent’s college savings like a pack of hyenas on the rotting carrion of a lost kill. See, they never really tapped that hippie thing, so it’s a little personal. And don’t think for a second that the people behind these two successful, sleeper-cell like causes are not one and the same. The very same people who buy up radio and TV stations/networks while funding new laws to make it easier to do so are also the people who own 80% or more of what you watch, read and listen to. And they DO want to control the methods of distribution, the most important of which is the Internet. As you see partnerships grow in places like, say, YouTube, ask yourself if the changes you see happening make it easier or harder for you to be exposed to new media being produced by PEOPLE rather than corporations. And how easy do you think it would be to accuse, say, Universal Music Group of violating a rule or copyright as opposed to them accusing little old you of the same? Are you in “good standing”? Are they? Chances are, they’ve spent millions of man-hours removing content created by fans of their artist’s(the ones they OWN) work. Usually to fill a void they’ve abandoned or ignored in their catalog. Or in some cases, tributes to long dead artists. Even songs playing in the background at parties or in a (shudder) criminal act of accidental ambiance. So who, in reality, is truly in “good standing”? Not UMG, not by any standard other than the one required by the YouTube legal department. You know the one. The department that makes the real decisions. The department that calls the shots at Google.* (all while small towns across America are doing everything short of public sex acts to make Google their new ISP)
All while raking in record profits and sobbing in public about their “losses”.
And let’s examine the role of ISPs a little closer. Recently, Comcast won a court battle with the FCC in DC Circuit Court. The battle was over whether or not the FCC had the power to prevent Comcast from throttling users based on what protocol they were using. Comcast claims it was simply a matter of traffic shaping to deal with high demand and certain users “hogging” bandwidth to the extreme and had nothing to do with the protocol at all. In spite of the fact that bittorrent was the protocol in question. What people quickly forget is that bittorrent is not the only protocol ISPs have been blocking and interfering with. It’s well-known, common knowledge that in Canada, for instance, ISPs throttle Skype calls. You can count on it like clockwork. After a certain number of minutes, you’ll have to re-connect or will be unable to establish a stable connection again for some time. That’s not about bandwidth hogging, it’s about trying to make your competition look bad. It’s pure and simple anti-competitive behavior. And if it were happening in any context outside the Internet, people would either lose huge amounts of money over it or in some extreme cases, go to jail.
See, it may not seem like a big deal. Especially if you’ve never created anything and tried to distribute it over the Internet. There are a lot of free “services” that will host your content. Most of them will want to wrap your content with ads for other content*** or make users jump through hoops to get at it in various ways. Then you have the paid services. And if you suddenly find out an audience larger than your family and friends actually wants what you’ve made, watch the hell out. Here come the bandwidth bills and mandatory account upgrades. Essentially, most likely without fully realizing it, what this circuit court judge has done is make it easy and legal for Comcast to shut down the little guy (or the medium guy in the case of Skype). Sure, most of the time bittorrent is used for downloading content backed by large media owners and distributors, against their wishes. But it’s not the only use for bittorrent. Period. There’s no getting past this point and truth. It’s essentially like making mom and pop CD stores illegal because MOST of them illegally re-sell promo CDs that were never meant to be sold. It’s not just unfair, it’s illegal. You cannot do that in most countries. And in the ones you CAN do it in, you can just as easily pay the local police enough cash to burn your competitor’s store down or shoot and kill him in his driveway as he arrives home from work. Some would want you to believe this has something to do with suppression of the free market and over-regulation. But this just simply is not the case. Anti-competitive behavior and it’s prevention through regulation is the absolute foundation of a truly free and fair market. And the keyword here is not fair, it’s free. As the proponents of what they call a free market will claim from time to time, free speech has limits. You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater, right? Well, anti-competitive behavior is the “yell fire” of the free market. If it is not prevented, a truly free market cannot survive. Everyone must play by the same set of rules, period. Right now, you have the people who you should be most wary of doing their damndest to be the ones re-writing the rules. (following the lead of Banks perhaps?) They would love it if it were illegal to have a marketplace that essentially doesn’t charge to rent a metaphorical table space to sell or promote your goods or services. What the rest of the reasoning world would call a FREE MARKET. And that IS what bittorrent is. It’s like a virtual free table space. Or close to it. Beyond the act of initially “seeding” a torrent, as long as there is demand for what you have on display, the downloaders take care of the rest of the bandwidth needs. No excessive bandwidth overage charges, no inquiring calls from your ISP, no hosting account, no “business account” (another term for what is commonly known as a protection scheme).
The.Way.It.Should.Be. Many would like to take this thing we call bandwidth and convince us all that it needs to be watched like a hawk, treated and charged as if it were at a premium and regulated so the “pipes don’t clog”.
These people know that the word is spreading. Artists left and right are jumping the middle-man ship and going it alone or with partners that serve them primarily or only them. This new DIY spirit is spreading amongst big, established acts now as much and as often as it is with new, younger, indie acts. The early signs of it happening in film are there as well, with big name directors as well as small, experimenting with new ways of funding and distributing/monetizing their films. If you don’t think this scares the steaming crap out of stale, middle-man curators of old, you’re… well.. wrong. Knowing this and coupling it with the fact that there is NO larger, better-known and used protocol that virtually removes the cost of mass distribution than bittorrent, you can see the big picture start to come into focus. Of course they want to block or slow it. Sure, they’ll tell you it’s piracy they want to stop. SURE.. sure. Suresuresure. They also know that it costs FAR less to bribe politicians and use money to influence lawmakers than it does to actually try to compete with the larger, hard-to-tap-into emerging culture. And unfortunately for them, it’s a “free culture”.
Now that I’ve written all this, it really feels like I could have summed it up with just a few simple ideas. Don’t believe the hype and educate others. Spread the word. Contact congresscritters. When you hear people talk about the “free market” right out of college after reading Atlas Shrugged 30 minutes before your conversation, put what they say in context. Nudge them toward the concept of taking those ideas out of the “similar to the liberal pollyanna utopian vision” realm and into the real world, where it counts. Isms are always great (and seductive) living in a conceptual bubble. They tend to deconstruct themselves predictably in potentially disastrous ways when applied without reasonable adjustments. Like rock star boyfriends. It’s all fun and games until you’re pregnant and the rent is due.
And MOST of all, get out there and PUSH. If you create things, USE the Internet in smart ways to distribute. Because if we don’t in greater numbers real fast, we’ll look insignificant and the control goes right back where it was before, to the people with the most money to pay for unneccessary services and middlemen. Remember, you already pay for the Internet. And last time I checked, it was 2-way by design.
*Fair? Probably not on a certain level. But do you think it’s possible for one of the world’s largest corporations to take a stand once in a while against what can only be described as a dying business community in order to fight for what they know is right, once and for all? Does anyone honestly believe that with the right set of brains and the money to get the job done, Google could LOSE in a fight for say, fair use? If they became the aggressor for once instead of reacting against threats only, maybe they’d have a fighting chance. We’ve certainly done our part to turn Google from a garage project into what it is today. And if you think it was the seed money, investments or “good bidness sense” that did it, do us all a favor and just find a new cave to live in. Because without its users, Google was and IS nothing. Period. No matter how fancy, how perfect or how improved it’s been over the years, nothing any one or two people did in that company made as much of a difference as DEMAND did. We needed Google back then, and they were there giving us what we demanded. No demand, no users, no Google. Part of what made them into what they are today was right place, right time. And you need look no further than the practical admission of this in their motto.. “don’t be evil”. That’s not the motto of someone who thinks they ONLY worked for what they have(keyword:only). It’s the motto of a young Arthur who just pulled Excalibur out of a f^(#|4g stone!!!
**Never actually happened. Honest.And I wouldn’t even know how to start when it comes to skinning people. I wouldn’t know, for instance not to corkscrew the legs or start up the middle of the leg. Or to skin UP to the head and Grab the lumps where the ears are, underneath and separate them carefully by cutting them off as close to the skull as possible. Nope. No idea.
***Torrent sites display ads just as much if not more than the so-called free distributors. But would they ALL if they didn’t always have to feel like they were taking such a HUGE risk? Think drug war for a second. The moment the risk factor is removed, free, open torrent sites that are ad-free or ad-light would pop up in the hundreds. In the first week. Of course people always want to make money, but there are also ALWAYS people who want to do something else.
Image Credit – http://www.flickr.com/photos/cyanocorax/2207816424/