Wednesday, October 22, 2008

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Pirate Bay: the fine line between publishing and “merely providing” data

A recent controversy illustrates the dual role of The Pirate Bay. When this infamous web site published links to files containing forensic evidence in a well-known Swedish murder case, and the victims asked to have the links removed, the website administrators staunchly refused.
Is this example of making-public controversial data to be seen as the operation of an allegedly “neutral” service provider? Or should we rather see any such operation as a form of publishing (making-public) in and by itself? Especially since The Pirate Bay is a website which does all this within a commercial remit. And more importantly: the site itself actually serves to change public opinion on what material should be publicised or best left untouched...

On the 5th of September 2008 it transpired (TT, 2008) that The Pirate Bay was making public some of the evidence from a well-known murder case in Sweden where the victims had been children. This evidence includes forensic autopsy footage, and the parents had contacted the site, begging the administrators to remove the torrent link to the material. Their request had, according to Swedish TV4 News, ultimately prompted this answer from one of the administrators: ‘You’re bloody nagging. No, no, and again, no’ (my translation). The Pirate Bay decided to keep the links despite protests from the victims’ parents and negative coverage of the whole issue in the established mass media. The site’s press spokesman Peter Sunde motivated their decision thus:
I do not think it is our task to judge whether something is ethical, or what other people want to put up on the net. People should be allowed to express themselves and spread material they think is important, that is one of the things we fight for, and that might surely be used for things which are unpleasant, however it is more important that such a possibility actually exists. (TT, 2008, my translation)
This is not only an assertion from their side to let ‘carrier neutrality’ take precedence over any publicist concerns, it also solidifies their position as a real-term institutional actor in Sweden: The national press ombudsman Yrsa Stenius was pressed to defend the ethical norms of the press in relation to their controversial publication. Such norms are not legally mandatory in Sweden, where almost all documents of public authorities are publicly available; instead they are optional, agreed rules which all publicists adhere to. In refusing this mild self-censorship of traditional publicists, The Pirate Bay’s administrators are asserting that they operate along different axes. Their guidelines, their standpoint implies, are those of the ‘carrier neutrality’ of infrastructural services.
   What they seem to overlook here, however, is that a communications network (in the sense of a telecommunications provider) is not a textual actor, or a producer of discourses. In their split role of providing an infrastructure but also a strategic, normative, sometimes-activist, sometimes-dissenting entity, their active decision that “anything goes” becomes not only a carrier decision but a publicist one as well. It is seen as if they are “making their own rules,” and thus challenging the role of publicists in a mass media climate which is already veering further to the neo-liberal agenda that “anything goes” in terms of press ethics and exploitation of individual fatalities.
   Might it be that the strong technological and historical determinism of The Pirate Bay, engrossed in a rapture of shiny new technical possibilities, blinds them to some considerations which might be inevitable if they want to keep their long-run hold on this strategic advantage? In their dogged determination to publicise almost anything, they seem to forget two things:
   1) That their decision to filter out child pornography already in itself constitutes a self-imposed, and at many times arbitrary choice to adhere to some form of ethical standards. Extending this to forensic footage is not a matter of principle but of degrees of damage limitation.
   2) It might be tempting, as a commercial actor, to publish the most controversial material possible, for sheer “shock value” alone. Yet, the decision to go-ahead with forensic footage of this kind most likely makes for a poor PR strategy: In pressing so strongly for this belief in ‘carrier neutrality,’ are they sure to risk important public support for their overall cause?
[Correction: the actual decision to go-ahead should not be considered a PR-related one, as others have noted. TPB shouldn’t shy away from material just because it is “sensitive” to someone. Instead, the PR aspect belongs to the latter role, that of how TPB as a brand/Internet portal should motivate their carrier neutrality.]
   These are not new questions. The press has always struggled with exactly the same issues in terms of self-censorship. Any good publicist would ask him-/herself whether it is right to publish simply because one can. The trouble for The Pirate Bay is that they will not see themselves as publicists, due to their split role outlined above. They are a communications service and a normative influencer of thoughts, opinions, and beliefs about what digitization actually should entail.

This is a “work in progress” extract from a longer article soon to be published in the Culture Machine journal: Doing it for the good of the net: The Pirate Bay as strategic sovereign.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The fantasy of cultural control, and the crisis of distribution

What strikes me, when reading Armin Medosch’s fascinating account of the increasingly hostile downside to all the “free” culture hype of lately, is how different logics of control become layered upon one another and serve to reinforce each other in rather nebulous ways. New technologies allow for freer exchange, but this becomes seized upon also by the cultural industries which then come to expect cheaper terms of trade for everyone involved, especially struggling artists. All this while we’re all applauding, because “free” is always good, isn’t it?

[...] the common word that digitisation makes it easier to access stuff is in fact only superficially true. Once again, on the raw, jungle-like networks this accessibility is directly determined by the search function. Mesh-like spheres like p2p and Web 2.0 networks might help to heighten the visibility of individual acts of consumption/production, but only in a way which is temporary, never fully overseeable, and ultimately statistical, where a panoptic view can only be attained by means of a search. And searches, as we all know, require prior knowledge.
Precisely because of this, well-maintained and comprehensive metadata is not enough. Active and deliberate connectors are still needed, especially since one of these primary connecting practices is the one linking the online with the offline, a gap which should not be seen as a barrier but which becomes exacerbated by the purely online ventures of social networks and torrent archives. Here Piratbyrån, Deptford.TV and burntprogress share similarities, despite the decidedly different practices of these three examples. They re-territorialise and by doing so, compel everyone into opinion or at least awareness. They shed light. They editorialise. They redistribute, or at least help users organise themselves to privately re-distribute in more orchestrated and thus more meaningful, potentially profitable ways. That can only be a good thing.
Jonas Andersson comments on the contributions made by Armin Medosch and Rasmus Fleischer (Piratbyrån) that are to appear in paper form in the Deptford.TV diaries II — Pirate Strategies reader (forthcoming, OpenMute publishing), and in digital form on Armin’s site

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Some notes on the Internet and media history

A worldwide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionised business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information. Romances blossomed over the wires. Secret codes were devised by some users, and cracked by others. The benefits of the network were relentlessly hyped by its advocates, and dismissed by the sceptics. Governments and regulators tried and failed to control the new medium. Attitudes to everything from newsgathering to diplomacy had to be completely rethought. Meanwhile, out on the wires, a technological subculture with its own customs and vocabulary was establishing itself. (Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet, p. 1)
The telegraph = the Victorian Internet
Tom Standage argues that in the 19th century it was a common expectation that newspapers would be redundant, simply because news would be piped into people’s homes. Instead, the opposite happened – newspapers became increasingly important as they started reporting on the remote corners of the world, thanks to news agencies (Reuters etc.) which blossomed thanks to the telegraph.
The Internet has seen similar expectations, exaggerations and hype: in the 90s, ‘cyberculture studies’ was guilty of much of this, luckily cultural studies now treats the Internet more as a mundane technology, closely integrated with the everyday.
The Internet is not an “information superhighway,” it is, in many ways, a series of tubes, very much akin to telegraphy. Also, remember that the Internet is not a total chaos – it is closely managed through protocols, protocols which allow for a good degree of freedom. However this rather unrestricted freedom is now under threat:
As the tubes are getting congested, some argue for closely regulated “express lanes” (see the Net Neutrality debate below). Moreover, the tubes are getting monitored by governments (see the Data retention debate). Also, their function in aiding underground economies is not a simple anarchic free-for-all (see the BitTorrent debate).
Overall, we can see several tendencies on the Internet that resemble earlier developments in media history:
Net neutrality --- compare with telephony, telegraphy, motorways etc
Data retention/ censorship --- compare with phone tapping, Stasi type supervision
The BitTorrent hydra --- compare with the consolidation that happens in free markets, emergence of oligarchies

• Net neutrality – an unregulated Internet or “express lanes” for proprietary content and services?
Many current arguments for “Quality of Service” imply that there should be dedicated “express lanes” for things like voice and real-time video, which require instantaneous, low-latency data streams. Big broadband providers like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T mean that peer-to-peer applications like BitTorrent now flood the Internet, prompting alternate methods like bandwidth limits and priority-based Quality of Service for voice and video.
But this clashes with the principle of providers’ non-interference with what is communicated over their networks, the idea that the carrier remains neutral to its users.
The term “network neutrality” was coined only recently, but advocates argue that the concept existed in the age of the telegraph. In 1860, a US federal law subsidizing a coast-to-coast telegraph line stated that
...messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception, excepting that the dispatches of the government shall have priority.
Will a “tiered Internet” mean that companies can exclude competitors and unwanted applications from their own “express lanes”?
Censorship is in technical terms a form of violation of net neutrality. Quoting Wikipedia:
Violations of the principle of network neutrality also occur in the censorship of political, “immoral” or religious material around the world. For example China and Saudi Arabia both filter content on the Internet, preventing access to certain types of websites. In the United Arab Emirates as of 2006, Skype was blocked.
Singapore has network blocks on more than 100 sites. In Britain, telecommunication companies block access to websites that depict sexually explicit images of children. In Norway some ISPs use a voluntary filter to censor websites that the police believe to contain what they believe are abuse images of young children. Germany also blocks foreign sites for copyright and other reasons. In America public institutions (e.g. libraries and schools), by law, block material that is related to the exploitation of children, and “obscene and pornographic” material. However, the network filters also block sites and material relating to women’s health, gay and lesbian rights groups, and sexual education for teenagers.

Worldwide, the Bittorrent application is widely given reduced bandwidth or even in some cases blocked entirely.

Worldwide, under heavy attack from spam email, many email servers no longer accept connections except from white-listed hosts. While few care about the rights of spammers, this means that legitimate hosts not on the list are often blocked.
Proponents of a “tiered Internet”:
* AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Time Warner
and their lobby groups like Hands Off the Internet and
* Some Internet pundits (Bob Kahn)

Proponents of net neutrality:

* Most Internet pundits (Tim Wu, Lawrence Lessig, Tim Berners-Lee etc), invoking the argument that net neutrality/deregulation has been part of the Internet since its inception
* Large Internet companies like Amazon, eBay, Google, Microsoft
* Interest groups like

See previous blog post for further information.

• IPRED2 – “ensuring the enforcement of intellectual property rights” (IPRED2 = Second Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive)
A proposed EU directive that incriminates infringements of intellectual property rights.
Targeting those who merely link to copyrighted content. Aren’t Google thereby also criminals? A link is a string of text, it is a phrase. In other words, does banning links constitute banning free speech, and can pirate copying only be blocked through such measures?

• Data retention – authorities archiving when, where and who you talk to, email or connect to (websites, FTP etc). Quoting Wikipedia:
On 15 March 2006 the EU formally adopted Directive 2006/24/EC, on “the retention of data generated or processed in connection with the provision of publicly available electronic communications services or of public communications networks” The Directive requires Member States to ensure that communications providers must retain, for a period of between 6 months and 2 years, necessary data as specified in the Directive
* to trace and identify the source of a communication;
* to trace and identify the destination of a communication;
* to identify the date, time and duration of a communication;
* to identify the type of communication;
* to identify the communication device;
* to identify the location of mobile communication equipment.
For what purpose?
Allegedly homing in on terrorists and crime syndicates – but are these the only uses for this extensive supervision? What about lesser crimes, like pirate copying, tax evasion etc?
With phone calls, everything but the content of the call is archived. But when distinguishing between content and metadata in an email, doesn’t that require the supervisor to have access to the whole email? And who is to say that the supervisor might not retain also what is said given that situation?

See previous blog post for further information.

• The BitTorrent “hydra”
P2P-based file-sharing is extremely decentralised, fully comparable to an “underground” or “alternative” economy.
As such, it is completely deregulated if not anarchical, but ironically recent developments show an increasing consolidation.
The BitTorrent infrastructure is often likened to a hydra – if one head is cut off, two new ones will grow out. Yet some of these heads are disproportionally bigger and more influential than the other. Why? Essentially because of the convenience of economies of scale, where one comprehensive search engine is better than 14 very limited ones.
What’s the problem then? This top-heavy infrastructure is more vulnerable to legal clampdowns, and it is generally more monopolistic (say if The Pirate Bay started demanding charges etc). As with broadcasters or newspapers, small sites can specialize and cater for more niche interests.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

“Net neutrality” no simple matter

The idea of a tiered Internet, with “diamond lanes” for heavy commercial services like web TV and IP telephony, is a key contemporary issue - not only technically, but democratically. The issue is not, however, entirely without irony...
New Internet services like Joost and YouTube are about to exceed the capacity of the underlying Internet backbone of cables and switches. Only the other week, Google themselves warned us that the Internet as it stands today isn’t suited for TV. Therefore they want to cooperate with the cable operators, who have earlier been frightened that companies like Google would take over the lucrative market for Internet TV. The term “net neutrality” was one of last year’s buzzwords in the US, in the debate about whether network operators would be allowed to appropriate parts of the Internet infrastructure and create “diamond lanes” dedicated to heavier traffic like, particularly, web TV. Many, including Microsoft, Google and Yahoo, were strongly critical towards the idea, and instead advocate a form of net-neutrality where telcos and cable operators would not not be able to decide whose data should flow faster or slower. They want to legislate for all Internet traffic being equally treated; this is most of all in the interest of Internet companies like the abovementioned, since these otherwise would risk to pay extra for being allowed to utilize these “diamond lanes”.
      What has to be noted is that the debate is, without exemption, all about services like TV, games and IP telephony — that is, transmissions which require to be instantaneous and which are essentially based on flows of data (streaming), as opposed to transmissions of objects (file-sharing). These instantaneous services are typically suited for rigorous DRM; essentially copy-protection and fees. The self-imposed challenge that the network operators say they have ni front of them — to “upgrade” the Internet backbone — is, in other words, a shortcut to increased commercialisation of not only the infrastructure but also the very Internet experience in itself.
      This is why so many file-sharers, who often see themselves as defenders of the digital commons or even as anti-capitalists, strongly oppose this tiering of the Internet, and instead propose net neutrality.
      There is, however, an ironic contradiction here.
      Because file-sharing spokesmen (like for example Piratbyrån representative Rasmus Fleischer) often duly criticise another form of neutralism, more specifically the form of technological neutralism which purports to have an equilibrium of laws applying across the board for all types of communication, regardless of its form and technical logic. The present, debated EU law proposal on data retention for example presupposes, somewhat simplified, that nation states should be enabled the rights to wire-tap sensitive communication networks, analogue as well as digital ones. To equate these fundamentally different technologies is technological neutralism, and it is fundamentally naïve when applied to ontological differences between technologies: just think about how easy it is to encrypt digital communication compared to analogue, or how hard it is to overlook p2p-based file-sharing compared to radio channels. Note how questionable it really is to implement a TV license for computers, or to implicate blogs and web services into a regulation system originally devised for magazines and newspapers.
      This later form of technological neutralism is therefore seriously misleading, Fleischer argues, and many with him. But what happens if we flip the arguments, and turn some of his remarks on this type of neutralism against the abovementioned “net neutrality” debate?
      The net neutralists — that is, the file-sharers who oppose the commercial severing of the Internet backbone — then appear directly nostalgic: the argument that the Internet must remain what it always has been itself presupposes a form of Platonic ideal world, to which habits and traditions connected to established media gradually can be allocated and be given “eternal” appearance. One example would here be the assumption that there is an “Internet idea,” which is later manifested through different media technologies (wireless, ADSL, fibre optic direct lines...). These technologies are seen as different variations of the same idea, and their respective differences are glossed over; the Internet backbone is assumed to serve heavy BitTorrent junkies as well as occasional e-mailers, and nothing will ultimately change this.
      Net neutralism is in that sense a way to repress, or to postpone that which is unmanageable to the future. It is a safe assurance that the relative statelessness, facelessness and independence from commercial actors that the base structure of the Internet has been able to gain from will remain.
      And I can definitely understand them. But the problem is that current services like for example BitTorrent after all create bottlenecks, which affect all users when some users download terabytes of pornography and computer games. The Internet isn’t a superhighway, it is pipes after pipes which all have limited capacity. When they are full, they are full. And you have to wait. If the large majority of consumers want to have that mythological future, repeatedly said to be around the corner, where we can have immediate video conferences and get streams of (undeniably DRM-packaged) HD video directly into our living rooms, well then we also have to grab the bull by the horns and realize that the options we make today in fact might be a side-track which would take us far from the initial idea of the Internet, historically speaking.
      Once again an example of how the globalization-critical Left actually often constitute the conservative, retrospective voice in today’s doubtlessly increasingly commercialised society. The issue has been referred to as a democratically central one, but the self-interests shine through — not only Internet companies and network operators in-between, but between those who want to have an Internet where many file-share “for free” (exploiting the system, in other words*) and thus push the existing, communal network to its limits, and those who happily want to bring us to a far more sequestered space. Do we want to pay the expenses for an Internet which more and more will resemble those commercial futuristic scenarios where homes have screens on every available surface and are constanly online, on interminable credit? Is this an unavoidable development when file-sharing otherwise risks to eat up all the capacity that the communal lines has to offer? Have the positions actually been advanced that far?

*) This is of course a deliberately tendentious statement. One could just as well say, given the original Internet peer-to-peer structure of the Internet, that the file-sharers are utilizing the very specific technical strength of the Internet (asynchronous packet transfer, as opposed to DTM) — but then we easily end up on square one all over again: the notion of a form of “Internet idea,” or “built-in logic” specific to the Internet.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Deptford.TV and the ethos of sharing

Our new book is finally published!
Deptford.TV diaries combines wider analyses of digitization and liberated media practices with geographically specific reflections on the current regeneration process of Deptford (south-east London) — a process which is currently documented by the innovative, collaborative Deptford.TV film-making project.
As the blurb reads:
Deptford.TV is an audio-visual documentation of the regeneration process of Deptford in collaboration with media lab,,, Liquid Culture and Goldsmiths College. Since September 2005 we have assembled AV material around the area, asking community members, video artists, film-makers, visual artists and students to contribute statements, feedback and critique of this regeneration process. The unedited as well as edited media content is being made available on the Deptford.TV database and distributed over the wireless network. The media is licensed through open content licenses such as Creative Commons and the GNU general public license. This book is a compilation of theoretical underpinnings, interviews and written documentation of the project. Contributors: Adnan Hadzi, Maria X, Heidi Seetzen, James Stevens, Erol Ziya, Bitnik media collective, Andrea Pozzi, Andrea Rota and Jonas Andersson, alongside selected public-license texts from Hakim Bey, Jaromil and Guy Debord.
Here is an exclusive excerpt: Jonas Andersson's critical analysis of the cultural significance of The Pirate Bay — ultimately a response to Rasmus Fleischer's and Palle Torsson's Grey Commons speech.
download → → → → → → PDF

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Benjamin and digitization

As with [Walter] Benjamin’s pioneering understanding of film in the 1930s, the present era of digitization constitutes a conundrum of a radical, potentially disruptive technology exacerbating some interesting changes and discontinuities in our relations to media materiality, content and carrier.
The metamorphosis of music-listening and the (alleged) obliteration of the aura
Bearing on Walter Benjamin’s cultural analysis of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, I am here sketching on some possibilities offered by the current, globally distributed process of digitization of media content. Some pertinent themes are the question of digital content as artefact or flow; the question of meaning, activity and passivity; and ultimately, I am here arguing, the question of digitization constituting a radical fragmentation of value.
This academic paper was originally presented at Sounds of the Overground, a postgraduate colloquium on ubiquitous music and music in everyday life, held at University of Liverpool 17/5 2006. I want to credit Rasmus Fleischer, Dan Hill and Andrea Rota for inspiration, quotes and food for thought.

To be published in a joint publication following the Sounds of the Overground colloquium. For the current version, see this link (pdf).