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THE MORNING BUZZ: The Robber Barons Are At It Again

30 Jul, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

Well, here it comes: the next bill designed to protect digital copyright holders from peer-to-peer (P2P) piracy.

A California legislator, Howard Berman (D), proposed a bill last week that would let media companies hack into our computers and drop cyberbombs on those they believe are stealing their digital materials.

Like every other recent “anti-piracy” proposal, this bill neglects a couple of key points. For one thing it singles out distributed networks – decentralized networks of computers that aggregate computing power to keep the whole enterprise humming – but does nothing to prevent file trading on instant messaging systems.

Is this an accident? Not likely. It's just another way of handing control of file sharing to the media conglomerates that claim it ruins them. I'm sure sagging AOL/Time Warner is hot to quell the P2P tide. With stocks worth less than a quarter of their pre-merger prices, it would be quite a coup for AOL to herd as many file traders as possible onto its network at $20 or more per month, thereby boosting the subscriptions it's losing at an alarming rate.

Even this could backfire, though, if there is anything to rumors that Microsoft will try to buy Yahoo! in November. Wouldn't it be funny if Hollywood tried to wrest P2P systems out of the techies' grip, only to get trumped after the congressional break?

This not only illustrates the futility of the war on file trading; it's not even good subterfuge for Hollywood's brazen power grabs.

It also doesn't address a problem I've noted before (and now Bill Gates is on board) – that fact that studio moguls continue to blame faceless digital pirates without policing their own ranks.

Gates and a number of his ilk – notably Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Intel CEO Craig Barrett, Dell CEO Michael Dell and HP CEO Carly Fiorina – sent the studio heads a letter a couple of weeks ago criticizing Hollywood's finger-pointing.

“Any approach to the issue of peer-to-peer file sharing must address the core nature of this emerging technology,” they wrote. “Peer-to-peer technologies constitute a basic functionality of the computing environment today and one that is critical to further advances in productivity in our economy. Any solutions to the problem of piracy must not compromise the innovations this functionality has to offer and, more importantly, must first address the means by which unprotected content finds its way onto these systems in the first instance.”

The tech moguls suggest consumer education, enforcement of existing laws and, perhaps most importantly, that studios get off their fannies and bring their IP content delivery services up instead of whining that consumers are using whatever means available to get video online and on demand.

The studios don't want to deal with pesky Justice Department investigations of potential trade restraints, so they lean on legislators (political contributions are a big stick) to advance their causes in Congress.

But make no mistake: the Hollywood robber barons are no different from the railroad robber barons of California's past. This isn't merely about protecting their businesses and employees. Their goal is to scoop up all the rights of way (Internet protocols as train tracks) and hardware (train cars and media players) to control what moves where, when and at what price.

Anyone who thinks it's a good idea to let the robber barons run the railroad should take a good, hard look at California's public transportation. It's a pretty good indication we are on the wrong track – again.

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