The needs of professional writers, and why their current proposals will backfire.

I am not a professional writer. I’m not paid for the blogging that I do on this or other sites, and in fact I don’t get paid for my policy work on Copyright and Free/Libre Software (with a handful of exceptions). One of the ways I get paid is as an independent software author, and from this I have a strong interest to protect the interests of other independent creators.

I have found it extremely hard to be on the opposite side of policy debates than the individuals and associations that also seek to protect the interests of independent creators. It is not that we disagree about whether authors should get adequately compensated for their important contributions, but the opposing ideas of what policies would help or hinder that shared goal.

The Creators’ Copyright Coalition is the lobbying arm of another organization called the Creators’ Rights Alliance. I was first made aware of them as they were announcing their founding meeting in April 2002. I wrote an open letter to the members of the coalition, warning them that giving more power to intermediaries would make their situation worse. This coalition includes The Writers Union of Canada and the Professional Writers Association of Canada. In November 2004, these same authors were outraged by a freelancers contract being pushed by CanWest, and I again wrote them a letter warning them again about putting more power in the hands of intermediaries.

It is now the beginning of 2008, and the situation has only gotten worse. The Creators’ Copyright Coalition has increased the volume of their call for policy changes that mandate that even more intermediaries actively control their customers (ISPs, software authors and device manufacturers. See: Copyright lobby to IT sector: It’s all your fault! In some cases it is.). At the same time, freelance writers are feeling very worried about the latest Canwest contract. The Media Club of Ottawa hosted a meeting on January 26 to discuss this contract, and it will also be discussed at the Canadian Authors Association on February 12.

I have to admit that I am baffled by the fact that their own policy proposals will only make their situation worse. As bad as they think Canwest or any of the other traditional media publishers are, it is going to get far worse for freelance authors if they have to negotiate with even more powerful phone, cable and remaining software/hardware companies that will exist if governments follow the proposals pushed by the CCC.

The key to the issue they are dealing with is a common one of the relative negotiating power between the parties. As media concentrates, this means there are fewer potential employers for authors. This gives the employer the upper hand as the author is really left with a choice of “take it or don’t get paid” as there are fewer alternatives that the author can opt to choose instead.

The solution to their problem is media diversification, and to lobby for anything that will reduce media concentration and give options to authors so that they can negotiate more reasonable contracting terms.

The Internet as it was proposed in the early 1990’s (neutral networks, endpoints in control of their own technology and software choices, etc) would have been a great leveller as it allowed new media companies to form and find their own audiences who could easily find them. Unfortunately the configuration of the Internet is being redesigned, largely on behalf of the Copyright lobby, to remove much of its ability to be a leveller.

There are groups working in this area, such as the Campaign For Democratic Media and Net Neutrality Canada. Groups supporting professional writers should be strongly in support of these groups. The coordinator of the Campaign for Democratic Media has been blogging about copyright with a view far closer to my own than that of the CCC.

Is the problem that these groups representing creators don’t see how imposing the roll of controlling IT/ISP customers will hand very specific monopolists in the IT sector control over the marketplace?Once the technology is in place to allow an ISP, hardware manufacturer or software author to control their customers for the purpose of reducing copyright infringement, this identical technology will be used for anti-competitive and other harmful purposes.

Lets look at the ISP issue, understanding that the analysis of the hardware/software provider situation is similar.

The protocols for the Internet were designed under what is called an End-to-end principle where all the smarts were at the endpoints, and the components in the middle were dumb. Being dumb allowed them to be fast and cheap. A router only needed to concern itself with the source and destination addresses of a single packet of information, and very quickly decide which of its network connections a packet should be sent out on. While the routing tables became larger and larger, and the logic required to determine the ‘next hop’ in routing became more complex, this was still a comparatively simple task.

In order for ISPs to do the type of control asked for by Copyright holders (or even the type of monitoring that Bill Royds suggested in a comment), ISPs will need to install enough smarts to sort those packets into specific streams of information, look at the protocol (is it web traffic, an email, etc), and then monitor the contents. This is easily many hundreds of times more expensive an operation than the original task of routing.

And at the end of the day, all someone needs to do is encrypt their traffic using common security software and any content monitoring becomes impossible. That is, as long as copyright isn’t abused as an excuse to ban privacy and security enhancing tools.

This will be more expensive as far as money is concerned to purchase the equipment and maintain the complex software, but will also be expensive as far as computing resources is concerned. While we can create routers that run very quickly on very high speed network connections, the massive computing power required to carry out this tracking will either require supercomputers for routers or much slower routing. This will not allow the Internet to scale to the speeds we have otherwise been expecting and hoping for.

One “solution” to this problem has already been promoted by the phone and cable companies, which is to partition the network into the Internet which is routed through these complex inspecting routers, and an “intranet” where the provider will offer their own pre-vetted services through higher speed routers. While we may eventually have high speed fibre optics to the home, our connection to the “Internet” will likely be slower than DSL is today, and the additional bandwidth will only be available to the services offered by our ISP (IE: television stations and telephone service).

If you are a content provider you will either have to make deals with these ISPs to become part of their Intranet, or you will be on the very slow lane called the Internet. And if the ISP decides that they don’t like your content or services competing with them, they will trivially be able to add controls to their inspecting Internet routers to target you (slow down or entirely disable your service).

And somehow this is supposed to be better for Canadian creators?

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