Hearts and minds and CPUs


The digital playground is also a battleground, with issues of copyright at the forefront and a conflict over net neutrality simmering on the backburner.

Here are some recent developments in those areas that you might want to take note of:

Copyright - The Canadian Recording Industry Association is calling the penalties set for stealing digital content in Bill C-61 a "licence to steal," as a result of the maximum penalty of $5,000. For the recording industry, which has tried to sue teenagers for hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past, that's too low. According to an interview of CRIA president Graham Henderson on, "Once this bill is passed, you could go online and steal every movie that's ever made, every book and every song, put them on your hard drive (assuming we all have 1,000 TB drives), admit liability, and write a $5,000 cheque. That would be the full extent of it - and it would be the first rights holder who would get all the money. Nobody else would get a cent. It's close to saying that for people who want to steal stuff, there's a compulsory license of $5,000."

Now Canada has always been something of a Wild West when it comes to copyright, largely thanks to some incredibly naïve judges who don't quite understand that the act of photocopying a page from library books or taping a record onto an audio cassette is very different than ripping music from a CD then sharing that file with tens of thousands of people through a peer-to-peer network or torrent site. A tougher law was always in the works, and one with real penalties for people who download and upload copyrighted content. Bill C-61 is fair - among the fairest in the world when it comes to issues like fair use - but it does establish a minimum and maximum in terms of penalties. In my opinion the maximum is reasonable - courts rarely impose the maximum anyway, but generally do a stress test to see how much people can afford when levying fines, so raising the maximum to $10,000 or $20,000 is somewhat meaningless. People are also more likely to pay the lesser fines without dragging the issue out in court, which probably saves Canadian taxpayers millions of dollars.

On another front, Canadians who download content illegally may have another cause for worry. Around the globe, governments are currently working on ACTA - the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement - which would establish international standards for copyright infringement and fair use that would likely be a lot stiffer than Canada's laws. One aspect of the agreement - which was released in draft form in April - is the ability for border agencies to go through your phone and laptop to search for materials that violate copyright - songs, movies, software, etc. Likely, infringements would result in a fine in all but the most serious cases, but it's a safe bet that the majority of people out there would have to think twice before bringing their computer along for the ride.

Last week the European Union adopted a written declaration that would create some exceptions to ACTA to protect citizens' rights. As well, a petition was sent to U.S. President Barack Obama to end the secrecy over the full text of the agreement. There is concern that ACTA could be used as a pretext for invasive searches and that the lack of any concrete definition of "fair use," could lead to bigger problems.

Net Neutrality - On the net neutrality front, the latest concerns have to do with what companies are doing rather than the legislative angle. For example, the recent proposal by Google and Verizon that would eliminate net neutrality completely on mobile devices and create a tiered Internet where people would pay more for faster content. Then there's the hardware approach, where chipmaker Intel - which recently acquired the security software company McAfee - would build a line of vPro (verification pro) chips where only approved code gets to run on your system. While it would make computing more secure, ensuring that only vPro certified software would run on a machine, it's also a departure from the whole open x86 architecture that built the PC market. Some are concerned that it creates a "walled garden," similar to Apple's App store model. Ultimately, vPro could limit choice, innovation and development, it would screw Linux users and could even limit web browsing by insisting that you only visit approved sites.

On the legislative front, the rhetoric to have governments establish net neutrality laws that would make it illegal for Internet providers to elevate, throttle, ban or charge extra for content, has ratcheted up a notch. In the last week there have been articles suggesting that net neutrality is necessary for free speech and for business innovation. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who helped develop the world wide web and the HTML standard it's based on, warned that the web is threatened by efforts to get rid of net neutrality.

At the Nokia World Developers Conference, Lee said telecommunications companies would gradually exert more control over content and destroy the open platform that is responsible for the web's success.

Definitely a lot to think about.


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