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Can a people's revolt end this digital tyranny?
Digital economy laws side with the media industry robber barons...
Written on BA 0049 flying from London to Seattle and dispatched to silicon.com via my hotel's cheap and nasty wi-fi service.

After more than 15 years of web freedom, the dark side of the force is making new moves to gain control, and it looks like a new global tyranny is being engineered with P2P sites and users the prime target.

Looking back over history I cannot find a time when some freedom of a people or group has not been under threat or unjustly curtailed. Given a free hand, it seems all rulers and governments of every complexion are naturally prone to become autocratic in the extreme.

And so, Robin Hood, the recent film starring Russell Crowe, appropriately starts with the words:

"In times of tyranny and injustice when law oppresses the people, the outlaw takes his place in history."

Hmm, quite profound, I thought, especially in the context of governments enacting new digital economy laws. Rightly or wrongly, and I suspect mostly wrongly, these laws come down on the side of the media industry robber barons, who are trying to hang on to the technology and business models of the past.

Stifling creativity and progress?
Unfortunately, such laws and controls restrict the legitimate use of P2P networks and will stifle creativity and progress. Sadly, history tells us that such retrograde industries never seem to change in time to avoid death, while en route they often cause significant economic damage. At the same time, governments and legal systems are mostly outmanoeuvred by the new technology.

Today, an invisible guerrilla force are causing focused mayhem. So far they have only flexed their net muscles a fraction, but it is clear that they have an ability to overwhelm specific targets at will.

This could be a short sharp action, or the so-called Operation Payback could turn out to be a prolonged one that began with limited cyber attacks on:

  • Motion Picture Association of America
  • Recording Industry Association of America
  • BPI, the UK recorded music business body
  • The Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft
  • Stichting Bescherming Rechten Entertainment Nederland
  • US Copyright Group law firm
  • Global anti-piracy lobbies and financial extraction campaigns
  • Web policing companies worldwide
  • Various government agencies
  • Some compliant ISPs
  • Individual law firms specialising in this area

Who is responsible? This is where it gets fuzzy. Certainly it is more than just the net anarchists who are currently claiming the credit. There are also contributors from the huge lobby up in arms against what they see as a threat to our net freedom and a new form of digital tyranny.

Highly educated rebellion?
Of course they are all invisible and, judging by some of the actions, a number are from the ranks of IT professionals. Such a large number of really smart people are going to be impossible to track down and silence. Unlike a medieval rebellion, these combatants are far better educated and equipped that the forces of the ruling class.

The morality of all these actions is up for debate, but I get the impression that most see it all as an attack on net democracy. Our freedom to communicate and act is a sensitive area and one where governments need to tread lightly. Not getting it, especially when most of the population does, is particularly dangerous. It has ended in government and industry tears before - remember pirate radio and the CB wars?

Change always follows rebellion, one way or another. Hopefully this fight will be over before too much damage has been done.

So far, servers and companies have been overwhelmed and disabled in a series of denial of service attacks, but it is rapidly getting more sinister.

ACS:Law, a P2P settlement firm, has taken a real beating. Attackers crashed its server into a default state allowing access to sensitive files. Over 365MB of private emails and letters were taken and published online along with individual credit card details. Those UK ISPs who complied with, or refused, request for user information were also identified and made public.

Legal action and fines
As a result the Information Commissioner's Office is considering legal action against ACS:Law for violating the Data Protection Act as sensitive user data was not secured appropriately. This could result in a fine up to 500,000. Ouch.

Will this escalate? Many governments worldwide are looking at digital economy legislation with the EU going for a three strikes rule and the USA bill proposing that top-level registrars such as Icann and Nominet can be instructed to close down offending websites and ISPs without a trial.

My forecast is that none of these approaches will work and all attempts of this nature are futile. Within days of the latest UK legislation being made public it was effectively neutered by numerous free software applications. Dare I say it: mobile phone jail-breaking is but another manifestation of the same user frustration.

Looking to history, full-scale wars often start in this way. But this time overwhelming ingenuity, force and purchasing power is not with government and industry - it lies with the user. Perhaps worse for those governments that just don't get it, a good percentage of the IT industry is not with them either.