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DRM and ISPs, two threats to an innovative and open digital society

Digital technology has come a long way in a very short amount of time. When I consider that pretty much everything today has some link with a digital system and the internet, but when I was a kid there was no such thing as the internet - it’s a sobering and quite marvelous thought. But the freedom we’ve been enjoying and which made the internet the worlds largest repository of information, of shared ideas and experiences, is becoming dangerously limited and is under threat from those that seek commercial success at our expense.

As I see it, there are currently two goliaths which are hampering further progress, and making serious inroads into restricting the benefits of our digital networked society. Those two things are DRM, and our ISP’s. And the reason that these are becoming thorns in our side is down to profitability.

DRM has nothing to do with protecting artists rights or stopping pirates, and there’s a wealth of information ‘out there’ which makes that perfectly obvious - not least the fact that many artists are against DRM in the first place. DRM means it’s the distributor that gets to say what you can and can-not do with the music/video/content that you’ve purchased. It’s DRM that makes it possible for Apple to sell you a music track that can’t be played on any other device than an iPod or a Mac computer. It’s DRM that allows DVD distributors to decide that you can’t back-up a DVD, or watch a HD-DVD on anything other than equipment that contains their own DRM hardware.

DRM is about creating revenue points where previously there were none. DRM is about being able to sell you the same thing multiple times. DRM is about making you pay for things that you really shouldn’t need to pay for (e.g., new HDMI enabled equipment for your HD-DVDs and high-def computer games, despite the fact that your PC is otherwise capable of playing them anyway). DRM is crippling an otherwise near-utopian system. DRM is not for the benefit of the consumer, the original artist, or anyone other than the distributor of the content. Piracy is not the target. DRM keeps honest people honest, but anyone that wants to circumvent DRM can, will, and already are doing so.

ISP’s are crippling what the internet should be, because they don’t live up to their advertised promises. ‘Unlimited’ broadband is very much limited. Download speeds have increased slowly, but upload speeds have not shifted at all in years. Bandwidth is advertised as ‘unlimited’, but there are soft-caps, and throttled ports, each under the name of ‘fair use’ policy. Fair use would be ISP’s that provide the service they advertise. Fair use should not be restrictions placed on the consumer, but deliverable promises from the suppliers.

It’s easy to see why DRM is promoting a climate that is unfriendly to the consumer, because it’s already having an impact. The ISP problem has so far only hit a select few heavy internet users, but that’s set to change very soon. As an example of a new technology that’s going to suffer hugely because of poor ISP policy, look no further than Joost. The concept is simple, but brilliant. Joost is a platform and piece of software which aims to provide ‘on-demand’ broadcast quality television over the internet. It is entirely legal and funded by the traditional advertising revenue system that anyone with a TV is all too familiar with. It allows users to choose any TV program they like, and start watching it there and then. The Joost system works through a combination of high-power servers which contain newer TV shows, and a peer-to-peer network which share all TV shows between each other. Peer-to-peer simply means that when you want a file (a Joost TV show in this case) your computer downloads parts of that file from other internet users, rather than from a central server. For high bandwidth services, this is pretty much the only way to do things, because the cost of providing so much data from a central server is extremely high. But the ISPs are making peer-to-peer a very handicapped technology. They do that because peer-to-peer networks are built by normal internet users - you and me. But our upload speeds are typically one eighth that of our download speed. So - we could watch TV, but in the time that we’ve been watching it, we’ve only been able to share one eighth of that back to the community. If everyone can only share one eighth of what they consume, the system can not reliably work. ISP’s make this even worse by actively throttling data they think is for peer-to-peer use, dropping the upload speed even lower, or blocking sharing entirely. Why? Because ISP’s internal financial forecasts don’t allow for people to actually use the services that are advertised.

It’s time ISP’s bucked their ideas up because if they don’t, innovative new technologies can not become successful. Their profitability be damned, they need to find a way to deliver on their promises.


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  1. Philip Roche posted 7hrs, 16min, 13sec after the entry and said:

    I had a post very similar in mind but you beat me to it. Very well put. I'm not so passionate about DRM issues as you as I have yet to come across any yet. The ISP issue pisses me off big time though. Even if our exchanges were SDSL enabled, you can bet your heiny that the ISPs would still throttle out upload speeds.

  2. Matt Wilcox posted 23hrs, 30min, 50sec after the entry and said:

    Certainly they would cap it still, because if they were to allow everyone to use the sort of bandwidth they actually advertise the ISPs would see their profit margins crash.

    Britain desperately needs new networking infrastructure, and one that isn't built on century old wire networks. It's very revealing of the British corporate and government attitude when Korea's net access is quite literally orders of magnitudes faster and cheaper than ours. 100Mbps+ is standard over there! 8Mbps is still our 'cutting edge'. It's pathetic, how are we supposed to maintain a competitive edge as a nation?

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