UN Agency Aims to Increase State Control Over Internet

The International Telecommunication Union, an international agency originally formed in 1865 to regulate international telegraph lines, will meet this December to debate handing governments more control over the Internet.

The World Conference on International Telecommunications  will convene Dec. 3 in Dubai to update the International Telecommunications Regulations treaty, and may mark an unprecedented encroachment by the ITU into Internet-governance.

Delegates will be discussing a number of proposals championed by authoritarian regimes like Russia, China and Saudi Arabia aimed at enhancing governments’ ability to block and spy on online traffic, and reducing the control of U.S.-based Internet-governance bodies like ICANN (which assigns Web addresses).

Most alarming to Internet freedom advocates is an initiative called “Requirements for Deep Packet Inspection in Next Generation Networks,” a technology standard that would allow state telecom authorities to decrypt Internet communications traveling within their borders. The coalition of authoritarian states is also seeking more control over the assignment of IP addresses (which advocates fear could be used to muzzle online dissent) and an spam-blocking powers that some worry could be used to silence activists.

Aside from those specific proposals, online-freedom advocates are inherently skeptical of the ITU’s attempts to assert authority over the Internet, in part because the body is dominated not only by governments but also officials from incumbent telecoms, which are both generally seen as the open Internet’s natural enemies.  Telecoms in developing countries, for example, want to treat the Internet more like international phone calls, charging online firms like Google high fees to pay for network upgrades and maintenance.

UPDATE: [Dec. 3]  The level-headed Sam Biddle over at Gizmodo marked the first day of the Dubai conference by pointing out that try as they might, Russia, China and the Gulf States have no chance of succeeding with their online power grab for a number of reasons.  First off the ITU operates on a consensus basis, meaning that basically every one of the 193 countries represented have to sign off on a proposal for it to be adopted.  Secondly — and perhaps more importantly — the ITU has no enforcement mechanism, so even if it decides that something should happen, it has no way to actually make it happen.

Biddle imagines the conversation thusly:

ITU: “Hey, United States, almost all of us agree that ICANN shouldn’t be in charge of this important function of the Internet. Hand it over.”
USA: “No.”
ITU: “Well, all right.”

So we can hop down off the barricades and go back to playing Fruit Ninja.

House GOP Publishes Sane Copyright Reform Policy; Immediately Retracts It

Heads are still spinning after House Republicans’ stunning about-face on a copyright reform proposal that had Internet freedom advocates cheering — for about 24 hours.   Less than a day after declaring that “current copyright law does not merely distort some markets — rather it destroys entire markets,” the House GOP caucus retracted a position paper calling for more user-friendly policies.

The policy brief from the House  Republican Study Committee took a distinctly libertarian view of intellectual property familiar to many netizens who advocate greater freedom for consumers to access and use digital content now locked up with Digital Rights Management software.  Given that it was House Republicans, rather than Democrats, who scuttled the much-loathed Stop Online Piracy Act, it didn’t seem completely outlandish that the GOP caucus might see a twofer in appealing to a younger demographic at the expense of the Democratic party’s Hollywood paymasters.

Unfortunately, it took less than a day for lobbyists from the recording and movie industries to convince the GOP that the status quo on copyright was just fine, after all.

Explaining that the proposal “was published without adequate review,” officials from the Republican Study Committee effectively said that they didn’t really mean it when they declared “copyright violates nearly every tenet of laissez faire capitalism” and  “hampers scientific inquiry.” In fact, after a good night’s sleep, the GOP even decided that it could no longer stand by the assertion that “in a world where everyone copies stuff at home all the time, the idea that your iPod could make you liable for a billion dollars in damages is excessive.”

The remarkable document immediately vanished from the RSC website, but lives on at the sites of groups seeking to preserve the unicorn-like appearance of a sensible copyright reform proposal from a major political party.  Entitled “Three Myths about Copyright Law and Where to Start to Fix it,” the policy brief dismantles common misconceptions that rights holders rely on to maintain their monopolies over their intellectual properties:

1) That the purpose of copyright is to compensate the creator — the Constitution actually stipulates that the copyright system is meant to “promote the progress of science and useful arts.”

2) That copyright is a representation of free market capitalization — on the contrary, it actually establishes monopolies

3) That the current copyright regime leads to the greatest level of innovation and productivity — the paper notes that “excessive copyright protection leads to what economists call ‘rent-seeking’ which is effectively non-productive behavior that sucks economic productivity and potential from the overall economy” (see: patent troll)

The retracted paper made some common-sense recommendations for reform, including reforming a statutory damages regime that can leave teenagers liable for millions of dollars, expanding the range of “fair use” beyond only short snippets and parody, establishing penalties for false copyright claims, and imposing high fees (based on the revenues generated by the protected work) for copyright renewals.

It remains to be seen if any of these proposals will ever make their way into an actual copyright reform bill, but it looks doubtful that such a user-friendly bill will be coming out of the House GOP caucus.

Microsoft Patent Will Have Your TV Watching You

A creepy Microsoft patent recently published by the US Patent Office aims to use the software giant’s Kinect technology to peer into your living room for the purpose of reporting content-license violations.

Ominously titled “Content Distribution Regulation by Viewing User,” the patent envisions a future license regime in which viewers would pay for streaming content according to how many people would watch it.  A night on the couch watching a rom-com with your significant other would thus cost you less than hosting a crowded viewing party for the season finale of the latest smash-hit zombie/vampire show.   But if you paid for an intimate twosome and decided instead to host a dozen of your closest friends, your TV would know — and alert the proper authorities:

The technology, briefly described, is a content presentation system and method allowing content providers to regulate the presentation of content on a per-user-view basis. Content is distributed to consuming devices, such as televisions, set-top boxes and digital displays, with an associated license option on the number of individual consumers or viewers allowed to consume the content…  The users consuming the content on a display device are monitored so that if the number of user-views licensed is exceeded, remedial action may be taken.

One hopes that such “remedial action” would entail simply an additional charge, rather than, say, a seizure-inducing blast of strobe lights from the screen, or a home invasion by commandos from the Motion Picture Association of America.  But the sense of intrusion such technology could cause may not feel much different.

The patent speculates that the viewing license could be limited by specifying viewer age, or even “views tied to user identities,” implying that the surveillance capabilities of Microsoft’s version of Orwell’s telescreens would go beyond simply counting heads.

Aside from the distinct creep factor of Disney counting the number of children in your living room, or Cinemax logging your identity every time you settle in for some late-night soft-core, there’s obviously the worry about mission creep.  It goes without saying that the moment such a draconian licensing scheme goes live it will be hacked beyond recognition by Pirate Nation.  And once these monitoring capabilities are deployed as standard gear in set-top boxes and consoles across the nation and plugged into the Internet, the scope for mischief is immense.

Regardless of how imminent or feasible such a license enforcement regime may be, this patent does highlight a very current issue just dawning on many digital consumers — that when you rent, or even “buy” digital content, you’re only really purchasing permission to use that content under conditions set by the copyright holder.   Kindle owners don’t really “own” the ebooks they’ve “bought,” and your right to possess the MP3s you “purchased” from iTunes dies with you.

As absurd as it may sound, it would be perfectly legal for a content provider to bury in their user agreements all sorts of restrictions on how you are permitted the use the movies, ebooks and music that you “buy,” stream or rent.  And given the scramble to restore profits squeezed by the digital revolution, you can bet rights-holders and content providers would be thrilled to implement any sort of licensing scheme that could help them charge a few cents more per use.

The only thing that’s holding them back is the lack of an adequate enforcement mechanism — and Microsoft has an idea for that.