The New York Times

September 22, 2003

Music's Struggle With Technology

LIFE, like television, is full of reruns. And long-time watchers of
technology trends say the entertainment industry's attack on peer-to-peer
software - the technology at the heart of the song-swapping mania - follows
a familiar pattern.

Every technology can, of course, be used for evil or good purposes. Cars
can be used in bank robberies, and radiation can cure cancer. But many new
technologies go through a stage of demonization, and communications
technologies come in for an especially tough hit from people who feel
threatened by them.

Long before girding against the Internet, for example, the entertainment
industry objected to cassettes and videotapes because they would allow
people to copy music and programming without making additional payments.
Even FM radio was opposed by the record companies at the outset because the
high fidelity broadcasts were free. The early defenders of the industry did
not understand the ways that the power of the new communications tool would
help them market their goods to a broader audience.

The current fight over peer-to-peer technology closely resembles a grand
battle in the 1990's over encryption technology, which secures the contents
of communications from prying eyes. In that case, the opponent was not the
entertainment industry, but the Clinton administration and its law
enforcement and intelligence agencies, which tried to restrict the use and
spread of strong encryption ("crypto," in geekspeak). The technology was an
essential tool for businesses and consumers who wanted to protect privacy;
because of their resistance to the government crackdown, many encryption
restrictions have been lifted.

But, at the time, government officials argued that crypto, if unrestricted,
would bring disaster upon disaster. The Clinton administration encouraged
the adoption of encryption products with a "backdoor" that government could
unlock. "Uncrackable encryption will allow drug lords, terrorists and even
violent gangs to communicate with impunity," Louis J. Freeh, then director
of the F.B.I., testified before a Senate committee in 1997.

Similar accusations have been lodged against peer-to-peer - or P2P, as it
is commonly known - which also has the potential to become a powerful tool
for network communications and pooling computer resources. The
entertainment industry has tried to portray the networks as hotbeds of
crime and havens for child pornography. Yet many in the tech world say
there are so many possible uses for P2P that "it's impossible to imagine
them not being developed," said Lance Cottrell, the president and founder
of   a company that provides tools for enhancing privacy online. "Music was
just the first killer app, but I think it will be the first of many."

Mr. Cottrell said that efforts to restrict access to P2P technology will
not deter bad people but the efforts will hinder honest users. "People who
really desire to steal will find ways of doing it," he said. But as with
encryption, "restricting it means it is only available to the real bad

The potential public benefits - like new computer networks that make worker
collaboration easier,  la the entrepreneur Ray Ozzie's Groove Networks, or
clusters of PC's linked to pool their power and resources - could be
delayed in the P2P fight, just as the tug of war over cryptography hindered
the ability of business to protect communications and databases from
intruders, said Bruce Schneier, a security expert and author of "Beyond
Fear: Thinking Sensibly About Security in an Uncertain World." "In both
cases, a large well-funded organization is fighting the little guy."

The similarities do not stop there, Mr. Schneier said, because in both
cases legal remedies have been sought "to solve an inherently technological
problem." Those seeking to restrict the new technology are using "legal
intimidation" to fight their battles, he said. And, he predicted, the
ultimate outcome will be similar: "Strong crypto would inevitably be used.
Digital files are inevitably copyable." The real goal of the pushback  in
both cases, he said, is to delay change.

A former government official who fought on the opposite side of the crypto
battle from Mr. Schneier says the similarities between that fight and the
battle over file sharing are striking - but so are the differences. Stewart
Baker, former general counsel for the National Security Agency, said, "The
N.S.A. had a lot of clout, but it didn't have political action committees."
The entertainment industry's political influence has already manifested
itself in such laws as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which
made it easier to go after digital pirates.

But file trading has things going for it that encryption never did, Mr.
Schneier said: ease of use and products that millions of average consumers
crave. That popularity, he said, could eventually tip the balance in favor
of the file traders. Federal lawmakers are questioning the industry's
tactics, and he predicted that politicians at the state level - "where
intellectual property interests just haven't been active" in making
political contributions - would begin rising to the file traders' defense.
When that happens, he said, the tide is likely to turn, because "people who
have to buy their friends don't have any when it matters,'' he said.

"Money is nice, but voters matter," he added.

If Hollywood cares to learn from the crypto wars, the lesson might be that
it is more realistic to adapt to powerful technology, rather than
quixotically try to block it. "It's unstoppable," said Elan Oren, the chief
executive of iMesh, a peer-to-peer file sharing company based in Israel.

Technologies can be stubborn. Efforts to knock them down can send them
rebounding back with a new twist. In the case of encryption, the technology
continued to grow more powerful and researchers poked holes in the
government's weaker alternatives. In the case of peer-to-peer applications,
the makers have found increasingly clever ways to help traders act
anonymously, and without a centralized service that can be shut down.
"That's where the behavior of the industry up to now actually got us," Mr.
Oren said.

If pushed further, he said, the P2P makers will eventually offer complete
anonymity for users. If that happens, he predicted, "we'll see something
nobody wants, including the industry": a cumbersome and expensive system of
high-tech copyright protection required by law. Mr. Oren said he believed
that the industry could reshape itself to woo file traders, converting them
to file payers and saving their businesses. "If we convert 10 to 20
percent, it's a huge success," he said.

But for now, Mr. Oren says, he sees only counterproductive delays, and an
underlying attitude from industry that seems almost Luddite. "From 1999 to
2001, if you enabled the R.I.A.A. to have the plug of the Internet," he
said, referring to the Recording Industry Association of America, "they
would unplug it."

R. A. Hettinga <mailto: [EMAIL PROTECTED]>
The Internet Bearer Underwriting Corporation <http://www.ibuc.com/>
44 Farquhar Street, Boston, MA 02131 USA
"... however it may deserve respect for its usefulness and antiquity,
[predicting the end of the world] has not been found agreeable to
experience." -- Edward Gibbon, 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'

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