Chris Barton 's Opinion

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: Pirates may help lawmakers see the treasure

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Copyright debate shows politicians have no idea what the internet really is.

National's Jonathan Young likened the internet to The Terminators's Skynet - an artificially intelligent computer system which revolted against its creators and sought to destroy humankind. Photo / Supplied
National's Jonathan Young likened the internet to The Terminators's Skynet - an artificially intelligent computer system which revolted against its creators and sought to destroy humankind. Photo / Supplied

Some idiotic statements were made during the passing under urgency of the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill in Parliament last month.

National MP Katrina Shanks led the charge of the uninformed, blithely telling the House: "But it is really important to remember that file sharing is actually an illegal activity." The patently absurd statement - billions of people share billions of files, photos, videos, etc every day - reveals a breathtaking ignorance.

It didn't stop there. "It is interesting how software develops over time as well. It is so common, and I had no idea that the software was so common," Shanks wittered.

"I did a little search on Google on Jonathan Young's iPad beside me. In fact, that is technology in itself." Gosh.

Just when you thought it couldn't get any more inane, up stepped National's Jonathan Young to remind us about the movie The Terminator and declare: "In that film a computer system called Skynet ruled the world. It was like the internet today."

It's sad enough that these people are making laws to control something they clearly don't have a clue about. Sadder is what, as politicians, they fail to see. The internet is the greatest democratising force of all time - surpassing the printing press in reach and influence.

Yet these politicians show they really have no idea what the internet is. Some commentators weren't much better - one declaring "the internet and file sharing are one and the same thing." No, they're not.

Music or movie files travelling via BitTorrent or other peer-to-peer file sharing programs are just one of many types of traffic that travel on internet tracks. Other travellers include web pages, music files from the iTunes store, software updates, email, instant messages, phone conversations via Skype and other internet telephony services, streaming video and audio via YouTube, plus heaps of other stuff.

And over the next 10 years you can guarantee there'll be new types of traffic that we can't yet imagine.

The beauty of the internet is its simplicity. First, that it's open and not under central ownership or control so anyone can join and no one decides what it can be used for. And second that it's designed to do one simple thing: deliver packets of data from one place to another. In doing so, it's agnostic. The internet doesn't know what's in the packets - fragments of files, web pages, email, porn videos, phone conversations, images, whatever. The network doesn't care, delivering them all equally.

In the process the internet and the devices tethered to it - computers, iPads, mobile phones, etc - become a giant copying machine. When viewing a web page, for example, a copy of the page is loaded into the video memory of your device to display it on the screen. Look at something on the web and you've made a copy of it.

Which is why applying outmoded copyright laws to control what the net does, automatically and effortlessly by its very nature, is never going to work. Digital technology has made it so easy to copy, edit, remix and publish anything that is available in digital form that everywhere you look - on blogs, Facebook, Flickr and YouTube - you'll find something that infringes copyright.

If you really want to stop copying, you have to shut down the net.

The point here is that our copyright laws, and especially the current bill, are laughably out of touch with reality. These are laws doomed to fail - as they have for a decade or more - and yet our politicians keep passing them. It's an exercise in futility, and brings the law itself into disrepute.

Worse still, these are laws that undermine New Zealand's sovereignty. As WikiLeaks cables show it's the United States making these laws, not us.

The cables show how successive governments have been puppets to American meddling, largely driven by the American movie and music industries' inability to adapt to internet disruption of their business model.

What's needed here are politicians prepared to say no (as the Green Party did) - to pause and think about what's really at stake and look at other ways that creators, in the age of the internet, may be rewarded for their work.

To recognise that file sharing protocols are actually an incredibly efficient mechanism for delivering information and to stop the gross imbalance that has been allowed to develop between the legal privileges of rights holders and society's need to facilitate innovation and creativity.

Above all, we need to realise that passing a law that bypasses due process, gives primacy to the accuser over the accused, and cuts off an individual's internet access because he or she might have downloaded some songs, is draconian and a waste of time and money.

Fortunately, if you care about these issues, there is a way to make your voice heard.

Help the Pirate Party of New Zealand become a registered political party and then vote for them in the next election. With some representation, at the very least, it would raise the level of debate in Parliament.

It's not as silly as it sounds. The party follows in the footsteps of the Swedish Pirate Party founded in 2006 which aims to reform laws regarding copyright and patents as well as strengthen the right to internet privacy.

In 2009 it got 7.13 per cent of the total Swedish votes in the European Parliament elections, and ended up with two seats in the European Parliament. Power to the people.

To email Chris, click on the link below.

- NZ Herald

Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

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