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Pathfinders: Upload, download, freeload !

Imagine a wall that reaches to the sky and stretches to both horizons. You are standing on one side of it. On the other side is Everything. Everything humanity can produce, its food, its art, its society. There is only one way through that wall, through a tiny hole. You move closer. The hole in the wall is a cash-machine. On the screen it says ‘Entry Option 1: Pay Cash’. You have no cash. You press Cancel. The screen says ‘Entry Option 2: Build Wall.’

The people who put that wall in place are the builders of capitalism, which claims to provide but really deprives. What choice do you have? You help them build their wall.

From paranoid Pink Floyd, let’s cut to an upbeat children’s TV favourite, only this time with a Marxist makeover. Enter Bob the Unbuilder. Bob is going to show us a clever trick with capitalism, aren’t you Bob? Can we wreck it? Yes we can! And how does Bob unbuild the wall? Obviously, by taking away the bricks. And he’s doing a very good job of it, in the one sector of capitalist wealth and endeavour that is hardest to build a wall round – commercial information.

A digital book, a CD, a software program or a movie, unlike chocolate cake or gold bullion, can be ‘stolen’ an infinite number of times without ever disappearing from the owner’s table. In UK law, the act of theft involves an intention to deprive the former owner permanently, but in duplicating data this clearly cannot apply. Thus, for those with a vested interest in depriving us of access, this strange theft /non-theft creates a special category of problem, one which they struggle to make the rest of us take seriously.

The information revolution has given rise to a debate about what it is reasonable to ‘protect’ – that is, build a wall round, and what ought on the other hand to be free. At one extreme we find the film and music industries, whose main argument is that ‘stealing’ their produce reduces the population of potential buyers, thus ‘permanently depriving’ them of revenue. But is that true? At the other end, Bob and his little army of anonymous software diggers and rippers, while busily exposing every encryption key the capitalists can come up with, will argue just as cogently that most of these so-called potential buyers are not really buyers anyway because they don’t have £13.99 to waste on a stupid film they’ll only watch once in any case. Who is right? Nobody knows. Nobody has ever done an economic study which proved it either way (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Copy_protection). However, producers are only taking the same line as supermarkets, which are well known for pouring bleach on their skips of discarded fresh fruit and vegetables, to prevent poor people eating for free.

And why should anything be free, after all? This is a world where everyone pays. Would you agree to forgo the money from your magnum opus or your hit single? Well, it’s a circular argument. We all want money because everyone wants money from us. That’s why capitalism has to be abolished all at once, or not at all. But it’s very strange that, while baked beans are even cheaper than chips, you don’t see people vehemently debating that they ought to be free, as of ‘right’. Yet in the parallel universe of information technology, we see precisely that debate. If software is useful everywhere, say the cybercommunists, it ought to be free everywhere. And Bob and his hackers, not waiting for the gainsayers to be won over, dig in and make it so.

In reality, what is going on is not a moral debate about rights but a digital class war. Those who own and control – or try to control – the means of production and distribution of information, software and entertainment, are doing everything they can to prevent the rest of us getting our hands on it for free. And they would succeed easily, but for Bob the Unbuilder, an unpaid amateur computer nerd who sees any copy-prevention system as a challenge to his ingenuity. System after system has been hacked, broken or reverse-engineered. The industry-standard system for videotape copy-protection was defeated by the sublimely simple act of passing a magnet over the cassette spine. The 40-bit encryption Content Scramble System for DVD was meant to be unbreakable, but was broken within three years, while the industry has been chained to producing the same unmodified system for the following decade for fear of customer backlash from existing DVD player owners. The very latest high definition DVD encryption system has been broken in just three months, with the code-keys published everywhere on the internet and even being sported on t-shirts (New Scientist, June 9).

But in case one is tempted to laugh at their incompetence, the boffins of Digital Rights Management think-tanks have a serious set of problems to face. They can’t block data-copying completely because of the many legitimate purposes copying might have. If they do make copying too difficult or the authentication procedure too arduous, they can end up encouraging consumers to prefer no-effort cracked copies over the ‘genuine’ paid-for article. There can be legal and political objections too, if the barriers created prevent free trade or transgress a nation’s own laws, a situation which arose with the film industry’s practice of ‘region coding’ and which was challenged in the Australian High Court in 2005, where it was ruled that “modification of devices to circumvent region lockout is allowed under Australian law” (http://en. wikipedia. org/wiki /Regional_lockout).

Ultimately the wall-builders are up against the irreducible problem of the ‘analog hole’. No matter what the encryption system used, at some point the film, or song, has to be decrypted before it gets to your eye or ear, otherwise you won’t understand it. All a hero of the free-entertainment movement has to do is intercept that signal after it has been decrypted, at the weakest point of its security, its ‘analog hole’. This interception can be very ingenious or it can be very simple, as simple as taking a videocam into a cinema and then uploading the result to the internet.

The reason why all this is such a problem now is because the internet has changed the rules of engagement. Thirty years ago, even if you copied a film on video or an album on tape, who could you send it to? Now, with fast broadband connections, clever compression technology and the widespread use of peer to peer file-sharing, which speeds up traffic by taking the strain off central server points, ‘freeloading’ has gone global. And on the other side of the wall, the telecoms companies have gone global too, merging with the entertainment industry to create a new media mega-sector whose common interests are in beating the freeloaders.

It would be ironic if the freeloading bonanza became a victim of its own success, and the sheer volume of traffic brought the internet crashing to its knees, as some pundits are indeed predicting (BBC Online, June 15). Catastrophic network overload would be followed, one presumes, by a dull cyber-winter in which we rediscover books and boardgames.

A sense of futility seems to hang over the film and music industry in their attempts to stop illicit copying. Many companies have just given up, considering the game not worth the candle. Others are hanging in there, launching new UK commercials aimed at making video pirates look like sad and pathetic losers. “We want to create a social stigma. It’s been done before, with drinking and driving,” says one such champion of Hollywood’s deprived millionaires, “We want to make people feel grubby’ (New Scientist, June 9). It won’t work though. There is a world of difference between drink-driving and copping a quick freebie off Metro Goldwyn Mayer. Besides, anyone who reads stories about the growing rich and poor divide (Daily Mail, June 21), or the fact that of the hundreds of people in Britain on salaries over £10m a year., only 65 are paying any income tax (BBC Online, June 21), is not going to feel too guilty about their own peccadilloes. In capitalism, most people know who the real ‘grubby’ thieves are.

The really dazzling question a starry-eyed socialist futurologist might like to contemplate is this: what if, with advances in nanotechnology, we could copy real-world goods, like food, using waste materials? And then what if Bob and his Unbuilders got their hands on the copy-prevention systems?