Taking a Napster

The problem of mp3s has been around for some time already, especially on the internet. This relatively new format is now all the talk on the Net and is a big selling attraction. The main problem of this format is that it is particularily suited to CD-quality sound files, and has been used to transmit copyrighted musical material illegally for some time.

But since the burgeoning mp3 scene is now a forefront characteristic of the internet, it was inevitable that someone would exploit it. As you know, the major problem of the internet is finding information. This is also true of music files. How would one go about to finding even averagely obscure or new songs ? Part of the answer is in chat rooms which host many virtual mp3 servers. This is an effective solution for people who use IRC. For people who do not want to go in chat rooms and their somewhat dubious safety (or simply cannot, for whatever reason), there are internet engines to help find songs. The most proeminent of them is called Napster.

The Napster program itself does not produce any illegal file. It is basically a search engine for file trades with some add-ons like message boards. Nothing more. Because of this, we are tempted to rebuke Metallica in their childish lawsuit on grounds of copyright infringment and racketeering. If you see this as nothing more than an opportunistic attempt to attack the middleman to hope destroy a complex and unreachable cause, you are most probably correct. It also shows a terribly deficient view of the internet. As somebody (whose name I do not recall) once said, the Internet is like a hive – strike at it and you have the problem of hundreds of bees on your hands. There is an high probability that variants of such a popular program would simply “go underground” and propagate as before. So there should not be any question that the group Metallica is chasing an innocent target.

Peripherally, it drives home the whole problem of copyrights and patents – do we really need them, and to what extent ? The notion of “intellectual property” is an ambiguous and dubious one. However this question is not of particular relevant to the Napster case.

The core of the conflict is that Metallica equates Napster’s presence on the internet with people “breaking into record stores and stealing CDs and tapes”, as their legal counsel puts it. Basically following the same pattern as anti-gun advocates follow (guns are sometimes used to do evil, therefore guns are irredeemably evil), they contend that since a large majority of what is traded on Napster is illegal, Napster should be banned, or at least should ban the software from enabling trade of bands who refuse to see their copyrights violated.

However not only is this a false argument, but even on its own premises it begs the question : what about the other bands who use systems like the Napster community to make their music known ? It is easy for a popular group like Metallica to rail against a small contender like Napster which caters to the needs of the less popular or known musical community. But basically Metallica is not only attacking Napster, but also its fans. Ironically, this kind of grassroots marketing is how groups like Metallica have propelled themselves to fame. By attacking the means by which peaceful people exchange music, they alienate the Internet community.

However, Napster also deserves a part of the blame. Not because of the program itself – it breaks no copyrights whatsoever. However, the company has recently prevented more than 300 000 Metallica fans – “pirates” – from using their software, as well as 230 000 Dr. Dre fans. These lists were provided to them by these groups. Of course many of these so-called pirates were in fact innocuous bystanders in the path of Metallica and Dr. Dre’s zeal to purge their fan base.

Napster’s actions in bowing down to these demands, even as the trial still runs its course, is unacceptable. Metallica has then claimed that this action was not enough and continued accusing Napster of various evils in the press. By bowing down to these unnecessary demands, Napster has alienated more than half a million people for no reason whatsoever. Why should they trust their enemies, is a good question. But they have shown themselves to be no better than Metallica in their treatment of the people who support them. Of course, it is well within Napster’s rights to block access to their software, contrarily to Metallica’s actions which are much more reprehensible.

Of course various solutions can be brought forward, a licensing flag for example. But such measures could be duplicated or bypassed. The crux of the answer is that Napster’s responsability extends to the content of its software. Anyone’s responsability does not extend beyond his own property. That is a primordial part of justice.

It is a law of morality that negative actions entail negative consequences. We observe this with the recent Napster purge, as internet music fans frustrated by these actions turn to other mp3 exchange services like Gnutella, which are more underground and also guarantee anonymity.

Metallica’s legal counsel has stated that if Napster is to stay in operation, it should break the privacy of its users to look into the stream of data that they transmit, that their program controls, in order to identify the songs and identify which songs are legal or illegal to transmit. One can easily see that the mere classification of legal or illegal songs – millions of them – would be virtually impossible. Furthermore, songs can be easily renamed – to identify songs positively would require complex software. Thus, Metallica’s solution is impossible to implement and once again shows a complete ignorance of the Internet.

This brings another inevitable question : is this another scheme to break our privacy ? The music industry is shouting for a reform of privacy laws, to fight the internet users’ anonymity. In order to get to the individual criminal, the opinion-pushers want to destroy our online rights. That is clearly unacceptable and smacks of another attempt to undermine the freedom of the Internet. Says privacy advocate Sobal, “[i]f there’s one issue I could identify as the most significant policy area in the coming years, I’d say it would be anonymity”.

Whenever under the guise of internet taxes or attacks on our privacy, the government, the businesses and interest groups are constantly attacking our internet freedom. That is clearly unacceptable in the short-term as well as in the long-term, for if we permit these forces a foothold on the internet, we will have already lost the battle. As you can observe clearly in this one example, any breach on our structure of rights eventually grows as the democratic process get a hold of it. It is a small jump from regulating Napster, to forcing non-confidentiality on all internet middlemen, to attempting to regulate people’s every online action. This is not a hypothetical or far-fetched scenario : it is laid down to us already by Napster’s enemies. What strange pitfalls our future holds !

Criminality by proxy

I have compared Napster to a hive. Perhaps that was not an entirely precise analogy. If you wish to imagine how information is transmitted, you would find that it resembles the manufacturing of products in the retail industry. Products and information are made, transmitted, and sold. Information itself is merely another category of products, one that is becoming more and more important.

The simple travel of a newly-made mp3 with the help of Napster is :
mp3 makers -> Napster -> customers

As we say in database analysis, these are both relationships of one to many. You can easily see that it would be much easier to make the whole system crumble by directly attacking Napster. Since the middleman industry for mp3s is not very developed yet, there are not enough of them to have relationships of many to many. That is why the new emerging programs, like Gnutella, are decentralized :

mp3 makers -> customers
(with software) (with software)

This is a relationship of many to many. The system does not have a weak point, and thus is much more difficult to attack.

This observation of the flow of information also helps us relate this case to many other similar cases. One which has come to public attention is child pornography. There is no doubt that such enterprise is rather illegal, much like copyright-breaking mp3s (but of course for vastly different reasons). However the customer of such items does not produce them : he’s at the end of the line. Much like Napster, he is accused by proxy – he represents the burden of guilt that should be rightfully the producer’s. The hysteria when we cannot strike at illegality is to strike at the most vulnerable point on the chain, which in this case happens to be the consumer of such pornography.

If people want to manufacture an industry around illegality, there is strictly nothing wrong with that. As long as there is a demand for such an industry, the demand will follow. That is perfectly natural and has nothing to do with legality or illegality, unless we want to attack the notion of free trade itself. And indeed we do find that the ultimate goal of attacking proxies is to destroy privacy – which is a characteristic of the freedom to trade on any terms desired. As I said, anyone’s responsability does not extend beyond his own property. To assume otherwise is a gross misrepresentation of justice. Abandoning this limit of personal responsability would expose each and every one of us to a possibly limitless chain of responsability and illegality. To put a twist on the typical “communist butcher” scenario, if I buy a slab of meat from a butcher who happens to be a criminal, have I incriminated myself ? Yes, if my personal responsability is blown away – if there are no more limits to what I can be held accountable for.

But the problem does not end there, unfortunately. The attack against Napster, and other proxies, is merely a symptom of a greater disturbance in public opinion against our freedom of speech and action. Speech which treats of illegality (and therefore a tool, as it is, to illegal actions) is being increasingly censored. The american government is about to pass a law which would outlaw any literature or speech on how to make, grow or use any illegal substance. How far from there to the censoring of any speech which protests governmental control ? A mere stone’s throw. With such public trends, where is the libertarian and general freethinking community headed ? What does it do to rectify this situation ? Not much, my friend, not much. We intellectuals make such pretty sitting ducks…