Digital Britain – Some Points to Consider

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The Digital Britain report will be published shortly. However, no government department will be completely knowledgeable in such a nuanced subject as peer-to-peer file-sharing. So what basic errors might the generalists make based on the submissions made to the BERR last year?

The UK Government will shortly publish its “Digital Britain” report, and based on hints and the interim report published earlier this year, it’s going to be, at the very least, ‘interesting reading’. Back when the responses were published 6 months ago, they were asked if they would be verifying data provided in submissions. Clare Keen, of the BERR press office assured us they would, saying

On the issue of standards of evidence, all responses received considered on their merit. We expect there to be differences in opinions and in information respondents choose to submit in support of their position. However we do not rely solely on such submissions or a single information source when deciding policy. …We use a range of sources to enable us to cross check and investigate claims to develop our own understanding and arrive at our own conclusions. We would always seek to collaborate or cross-check key points of information. Additionally if a party deliberately provided false information they would risk losing all credibility within Government on future consultations or discussions.

Just as a guide, here are some clear mistakes and ‘distortions’ in the submissions provided to the BERR, that we hope they have taken into account.

1 The estimated figures.

Estimated loss figures are commonplace, usually expressed as “in [year], [group] lost [amount] due to piracy”. However, in just about every case, such figures are estimated, based on a set of unlikely assumptions and figures which will maximize the claimed loss. In addition, no supporting data or the methodology used to determine the figure is ever given, even if requested. If the basis for determining the figure can not be clearly expressed, it should bring into question the validity of the claim made from it.

A prime example of the unreliability of these unsupported figures came in January 2008, when the MPAA admitted that at least one figure in their often-quoted LEK study was three times the intended figure (and who knows what the actual figure is). No independent determination of the accuracy of this revised figure can be made, as the data behind it still has not been published.

2 The echo-chamber

In one of the more curious aspects of the way the copyright industry conducts itself, companies are members of multiple groups. Sometimes these groups are a further part of other groups. For instance, ‘Television Against Piracy’ contains members from US studios. These same studios are members of the MPAA, that also filed a response. The MPA(A) is also a member of the ‘Alliance Against Intellectual Property Theft’ which filed the same brief as the British Video Association. These last two also have some of their members submit individual reports. The same is as true for the ISPs as for the rightsholder organizations. Counting responses from organizations that are represented multiple times, gives increased weight to their opinions in contrast to those that played fair and didn’t attempt to swamp the process with shell organizations like a two-bit tax-evader.

3 Redefinition of terms

Terms like “copyright theft” and “illicit P2P” are designed to give preconceptions to the reader, in much the same way the term ‘Intellectual Property’ has come to be used in recent times to encompass copyright patent and trademark law. The only time “copyright theft” can make sense, however, is for the copyright itself to be taken from its owner, rather that the right be infringed. Illicit P2P also does not exist, as the technology is legal, as is the use of it. It is only in certain circumstances that it is found to be in violation of the law, and then only after the specific case has been judged so via the judicial process. Similarly, the “graduated response” (apart from being illegal under European law) system promoted by several respondents should be more accurately termed ‘The Because We Say So response‘.

There are also technical redefinings of terms. One response (BVA/AAIPT) talks of 18,000 Nintendo Wii and 14,000 XBox ‘game files’. However, assuming the files were in the standard scene release format (multipart rars) at only 50 rars per game, that takes the Wii total down to 360, and XBox titles down to 280. Many games are split into more than 50 parts, dropping this down more. In this case, by redefining a segment of a file as a separate file, the impact of the statement can be vastly increased.

4 Illegal Activities

This should be a no-brainer. No activity is illegal until so decided, either in a court of law or by the accused admitting guilt on that particular occasion. Absent either of these, there is no illegality under the British system of presumption of innocence. The impetus for this consultation stems from the pleas to circumvent this basic system of justice by companies that want to gain rewards without any increased cost.

5 Technological filtering doesn’t work

As we saw first-hand with Comcast, attempts to disrupt a protocol can have unintended consequences. One of the respondents is a company that provides filtering systems, but the ineffectiveness of their system with the dominant P2P was described here a year ago. The filtering even of static streaming content using such systems has also taken a blow in the US with the ruling that such systems must consider context; something no technological system can do. The BBC response also underscored the futility of filtering based on file name, at the end of their contribution, where a screenshot shows a hit for Duffy, in a search for Dr Who.

6 Greater term of copyright requires greater expense for protection

With the worldwide continued copyright extensions over the past decades, the number of works that have to be protected will also increase. Thus the trade-off for increased royalty payments is the increased costs to protect these works generating the payments. In the same way that increasing a factory’s storage time of finished products requires a larger warehouse, the cost increase that comes from it is thus the responsibility of the person responsible for the increase, in this case the rights holders.

7 Rights holders are not creators

Throughout the submissions the assumption that “rights holders = creators” is often made. In some it is stated. However in very few circumstances are the rights holders actually the creative talent. In most cases they operate almost like a bank and a distribution center in one, providing financing and assistance to distribute the product, but not actually involved in the creative process itself. Were the “rights-holders” to cease, alternate sources of financing can and would be sought, as would different ways to distribute the finished product. While the quality of the product may not be the same, creativity will not come to a screeching halt and new methods to do similar things cheaply may be created – spurring innovation in that way.

8 These claims are not new

Many of the claims made are not new. With each new leap of technology the ‘creative industries’ make similar claims; the new technology will end the business and should be regulated, or outlawed, or control should be handed over. It has happened with the VCR, Cable-TV, Radio, even player pianos and the phonograph. Despite these regular (every 20 years or so) prophecies of doom, it has yet to pass. Usually common sense prevails, and the businesses adapt and flourish.

These eight points might be common sense to our regular readers, but the question will be if they have been considered at all by those responsible for the Digital Britain report. We shall shortly see.


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