Saturday, March 31, 2007

If We're the Pirates, Then Why is the RIAA Acting Like Captain Hook?

In the heated debate between the Recording Industry Association of America and advocates of the current file sharing free-for-all, the starkness of the two choices often blinds participants to the possibility of a third way. In their zeal to protect the right to freely download as much music as possible on peer-to-peer networks like Kazaa and Limewire, the digital generation conveniently forgets that free music downloads mean that their favorite artists get no compensation for the work that they have done. Likewise, in championing the cause of the copyright, the RIAA has alienated music fans and driven the digital music revolution underground.

File sharing is here to stay. A technology, once invented, cannot be wished away by any amount of legal action or by massive fines imposed on users of that technology. The RIAA would do well to realize finally that their old mode of distribution is crumbling, and if it wants to get any piece of the digital pie, it should sign on to a subscription scheme like the one outlined by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. This middle path, that would allow users to continue downloading any music they desire using a program of their choosing, would nevertheless come with a nominal monthly charge that would be distributed directly to artists based on the popularity of their songs. The aggregated money would be on the order of $3 billion annually in pure profit, and would bring file sharing into the light.

Of course, the real benefit of such a plan could be the end of the RIAA itself, or at least the end of the current system within which it operates. Musicians could bypass record labels, producing and promoting their music to a mass audience on the web. Musicians who still want to use the services of producers and promoters supplied by record labels would still have greater control over their music, because the power would be shifted from recording industry middle men to the artists and fans, where it belongs.

Personally, I see nothing morally wrong with downloading any music that I choose. If I want to support a band or an artist, I can do so by buying a CD if I so choose, by attending a concert, or by promoting the band or artist among my friends. The only problem arises when an artist is not fairly compensated for their work. I would gladly pay a monthly fee for unlimited downloads if I thought that money would land in the pockets of my favorite musicians. I certainly do not want to force artists out of the music business because they cannot make a living. Still, it does not seem fair that I should be denied the legal right to listen to music simply because the RIAA wants to maintain its commercial stranglehold on the industry. Music should be about the artists and the fans, not about corporate suits whose only interest lies in maximizing their own profits.

In the mean time, I will continue to download music. I am doing so purely for my own personal enjoyment, not to "pirate" copies for resale. Looking back at the history of radio, television, VCRs, DVD recorders, Digital Video Recorders and other technologies, it is easy to see the pattern of industry disapproval. People with a lot of money always want to protect their right to make even more, even if that is not what is good for society. Stifling innovation in the name of capitalistic greed is not my idea of taking the moral high ground. The RIAA should stop trying to maintain control over a broken system, and start working to correct that system for the sake of fans and artists alike.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

RFID Chips ... 5¢
Remembering Where You Put Your Freedom .... Priceless

Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, a new technology for tracking consumer goods and consumers themselves, are an intriguing though potentially harmful scientific advance. The tags small enough to be embedded in virtually any product, and can even be inserted under the skin. The tags emit a specific radio frequency that, when detected by a reader, transmits data ranging from personal identification of the bearer of the tag, to product information relating to the specific item tagged, to financial information in the case of automated credit cards and traffic toll transponders.

RFID has many potentially positive uses. It has the ability to eliminate the need for long checkout lines, because consumers could simply pick up items in a store and walk out the door, paying for the items through an automatic debit system using RFID readers installed at the exit. RFID already reduces lines at toll bridges and subway stations, and could one day help prevent the loss of luggage at airports.

In spite of the lure of convenience, RFID technology has set off a firestorm of concern among privacy advocates for its potential misuse by corporations and governments to track citizens with Orwellian efficiency. Visions of a world in which powerful private interests and totalitarian governments bent on monitoring our every move have led some to call for strict laws and consumer boycotts in an effort to stem the tide of tyranny.

Still others have noted that many of these potential harms could be visited on society by existing technologies, and admonish critics for paranoid grandstanding. In a speech to the Annual Computers, Freedom and Privacy Conference in 2006, Information Technology and Innovation Foundation President Rob Atkinson presents the case that all the hubbub about RFID is for naught. Atkinson's speech was delivered in response to an opposing address by Katherine Albrecht, founder and director of CASPIAN (Consumers Against Supermarket Privacy Invasion and Numbering). Atkinson's dismisses privacy concerns as unfounded because citizens are smart enough and have enough political clout to prevent abuses.

It is possible, as Katherine warns, that the government could forcibly implant RFID chips in our bodies. But will this happen? In assuming that it might, Katherine assumes that: a) consumers are easily manipulated dupes; b) corporations and governments are all powerful Leviathans; and c) there are no laws governing either.

Atkinson seems to be living in a dream world where the reality of terrorism has not already eroded our privacy rights beyond even the most outlandish nightmares the Founders could have imagined. Atkinson entitles his speech, "There is Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself," an apt description of the truth for the exact opposite meaning he intends to convey. Fear has been the driving force behind the Bush administration's successes in plunging our country into fascism, and it is not out of the question to believe that even greater threats loom that could push the global balance of power to the extreme right.

Private citizens are only protected from corporations and governments so long as they are willing to fight to protect their rights. When even those in power refuse to stand up to the shredding of our constitution, I hold out little hope that the "wisdom of the masses" can save us from destruction. People, for all their intelligence and ingenuity, can be led like lambs to the slaughter given the right circumstances. The specter of terrorism has enabled the government to get away with that which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. As Adolph Hitler wrote in Mein Kompf,

[T]he principle— which is quite true in itself — that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility; because the broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily.

In other words, the bigger the lie, the more people will believe it. On the slippery slope toward New Babylon, it is this truth that should keep us awake at night.