Tuesday, 10 January 2012

The Futility of Internet Censorship

Background
Starting today the customers of two Finnish Internet operators, Elisa and Saunalahti are no longer allowed to access The Pirate Bay website. This is because the District Court of Helsinki ruled in favour of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, IFPI Finland in October 2011 and ordered Elisa and Saunalahti to block access. However the court ruling did not address the other two major Internet service providers in Finland, TeliaSonera and DNA whose customers are still free to access The Pirate Bay for the time being.

The reason why Elisa was targeted by IFPI was because IFPI's statistics claim that more than a third of Elisa's customers were using The Pirate Bay. Although the court ruling compelled Elisa to block access, it has appealed the decision.

The reaction to this was what you might guess: some Elisa and Saunalahti users will change their ISP to one that does not censor their Internet usage while IFPI website and the website of Finland's Copyright Information and Anti-Piracy Centre apparently faced a denial of service attack and/or were hacked. Meanwhile most people simply won't care, although personally I think they should as this issue relates closely to Freedom of Expression.

YLE has a news article about the case: Pirate Bay block comes into force in Finland.

Personally I think the whole situation is completely and utterly stupid.

Why Internet Censorship Won't Help
The first obvious point is that blocking a static list of domain names and IP-addresses simply can't keep up with content providers. Within a day or so there will be a new domain that is not in the court's list of forbidden domains which will allow Elisa and Saunalahti customers to access The Pirate Bay content again. In the meanwhile, they can still access The Pirate Bay via the Estonian mirror site, thepiratebay.ee which for some reason or other was not blocked among the other Pirate Bay domains.

And then there are the anonymity networks such as The Onion Router (Tor). It takes only a moment to download the ready-to-use browser bundle and voilá, The Pirate Bay is available once more for Elisa and Saunalahti customers as Tor prevents ISPs from seeing what the target website is. Even if the operators would attempt to block access to the public Tor network, users can usually get around this by using Tor bridge relays. Well, I suppose the operator could cut the users completely off the Internet. Not that it would make much difference if the user is determined enough.

So the point is that attempts to force Internet censorship simply won't work in any practical sense. Even the Great Firewall of China leaks well enough and attempts to limit Internet communications during the Arab Spring were not all that successful. While failing all serious attempts to block determined users from accessing forbidden content, it is the common users and legal businesses that end up suffering for it.

So why not try to work with the people instead of against the people?

Appeal to Reason (free tip, no charge)
At least in Western countries there is no intrinsic value in listening to pirated music, watching pirated movies or playing pirated games. It is an effort to gain access and download the pirated content, there are many quality and security related issues and if there are any problems the user can't expect any help from customer support. So why do people do it then? One common reason probably is that they have no other access to the content they want (e.g. a TV series that isn't available in their own country) or the purchase price is simply too steep (60 € for a PC game?!).

Online piracy would become less common if the media producers were a little less greedy, while becoming a little more consumer friendly. Lower the prices a bit while making the content more widely available and more convenient to access it. Sure, the price per unit would be less but if more units are sold instead of being distributed illegally that should end up making a nice extra profit.

For example, I could download pirated copies of my favourite games but I actually prefer to pay for them in the Steam Store and Origin Store because it is much more convenient. Steam allows me to reinstall my games as many times as I want (because limiting the number of installations is just petty and unbelievably greedy); I can install them to as many computers as I want but that's ok because Steam only allows me to play on one computer at a time; my games have access to Steam Cloud that stores save games and settings while also accessing the Steam community so I can keep in touch and play with my friends easily. On top of that there are good discount offers, and I can donate extra copies to my friends for free. It is safe, easy and most of all, convenient and that is why I willingly buy my games from Steam instead of wasting my life with pirate copies.

Another good example comes from Manning Publications. I often buy books through their Manning Early Access Program, which allows me to buy a book for a discount fee while it is still being written. This enables the community to cooperate with the author, which in turn results in higher quality when the book is eventually finished. During the MEAP peried Manning sends me PDF work-in-progress copies of the book and when the book is completed I get the final version as a PDF. If I paid little extra I will also get the print copy in mail. When the eBook formats become available (.epub and .mobi) Manning sends me a friendly email with instructions how to download them for no extra charge.

So there are good examples how to provide good customer service with an open attitude, and still do good business. There are many ways to make media access more convenient for the consumers and here's the age old truth: people will give their money away and feel good about it if they can also feel that they are getting their money's worth in exchange.

So IFPI and the like around the world, instead of thinking that it is your God given right to strip people of their money whenever half an opportunity presents itself, why not think about how to give better value for money? A happy customer is a steady customer. Why not try to find ways to provide better services to the consumers, so that instead of running after free pirated copies they would choose convenience over effort for a modest fee? Let's just be sensible about it, alright?

And if you don't know how, just contact me, and for a reasonable fee I can solve your problems and make you feel good about the result ;-)