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Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody's look at all levels of the enterprise open source stack. The blog will look at the organisations that are embracing open source, old and new alike (start-ups welcome), and the communities of users and developers that have formed around them (or not, as the case may be).

SOCA's Frightening New Approach to Music Piracy

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Yesterday I <a href=http://blogs.computerworlduk.com/open-enterprise/2012/02/serious-organised-crime-agency-takes-down-music-site/index.htm>wrote about the unusual aspects of the Serious Organised Crime Agency’s take-down of the music site RnBXclusive. As I noted then, there are still lots of questions to be answered here, but another piece of the puzzle has been given to us in the form of the following <a href=http://www.soca.gov.uk/news/401-music-website-takedown-latest>statement on SOCA’s Web site:

A warning has been directed at users frequenting a music download site which was taken offline on 14 February by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The action has prompted wide-ranging responses from website users, the general public, and other sites.

The targeted SOCA activity, which lasted 32 hours, was part of an operational programme aimed at protecting UK businesses and the wider economy.

The website in question specialised in RnB and enabled access to music obtained by hacking, including some which had not yet been released. IFPI estimates losses to legitimate businesses and artists caused by the site to be £15m a year. During the week running up to arrest phase the website had 70,000 users daily, mainly males aged 18 to 25 years.

SOCA has monitored responses since 08.30 on 14 February when rnbxclusive.com was taken offline following the arrest of a man for suspicion of conspiracy to defraud. He has now been released on bail pending further enquiries.

Responses to the takedown have included action by three more music sites. One has taken itself offline voluntarily, one claims to be considering taking itself offline, and another has posted a claim on its home page to now only be dealing in legal music files following the activity. A number of site users have deleted their download histories. Commentary on Twitter and other social media has been global.

SOCA’s holding message to users who had been frequenting the website was taken offline at the conclusion of the first phase of the operation on 15 February.

Let’s examine some of the points raised there.

The mention of the IFPI (International Federation of the Phonographic Industry) adds to my suspicions that this, or a similar music organisation, was behind the latest move. After all, I doubt whether the IFPI just happened to have an exact estimate of the “losses” this particular site was allegedly causing unless they were following it carefully, and that suggests they were doing so for a particular reason – getting it taken down.

The £15 million a year is, of course, complete nonsense, since it is doubtless based on the old “every file shared is a lost sale” argument that was <a href=http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2009/01/judge-17000-illegal-downloads-dont-equal-17000-lost-sales.ars>debunked <a href=http://arstechnica.com/old/content/2004/07/4008.ars>years ago. Many people use download sites to try out music, which they then go on to buy because they like it, or simply delete it because they don’t. Some sales were certainly lost by people who don’t fall into either category, but the £15 million sum is ludicrously inflated like many such figures bandied around by the recording industry: remember when the RIAA tried to sue Limewire for <a href=http://www.computerworld.com/s/article/9215074/RIAA_request_for_trillions_in_LimeWire_copyright_case_is_absurd_judge_says>trillions of dollars?

That same paragraph has the following statement: “The website in question specialised in RnB and enabled access to music obtained by hacking, including some which had not yet been released.” As I wrote yesterday, I was told that the site had allegedly broken into music companies sites in order to obtain unreleased music. It’s interesting that once more SOCA omits to use the word “alleged” in its descriptions: I can’t help feeling this is going to be brought up if and when this case comes to court. After all, there is a persistent pattern of assuming the accused is guilty that I find odd at the very least.

But let’s look at the last part of that sentence: “including some which had not yet been released.” The implication there is that some of the music “obtained by hacking” had been released. But that’s just insane: there are probably a million copies of every released file floating around the Internet – only a masochistic idiot would go to the trouble of breaking into a server somewhere to obtain things that could be downloaded in a couple of seconds.

The same paragraph concludes: “During the week running up to arrest phase the website had 70,000 users daily, mainly males aged 18 to 25 years.” Really? How does SOCA know this? Were they monitoring the site for a week beforehand? If so, how? Had they broken into the site? And where do they get such detailed demographics from? It’s not as if you can tell someone’s sex and age from their IP address....

And that brings us to the most striking – and disturbing – aspect of this statement: it’s all about people who have been using this site:

A warning has been directed at users frequenting a music download site which was taken offline on 14 February by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. The action has prompted wide-ranging responses from website users, the general public, and other sites.

Remember that the most bizarre aspect of the SOCA message left on the Web site was the threats that it directed towards users, including the display of their IP address, and warnings of “up to 10 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine”. And now SOCA is emphasising precisely that aspect. It’s hard not to get the impression that this takedown was about putting the frighteners on users and other music sites. For as the statement says:

Responses to the takedown have included action by three more music sites. One has taken itself offline voluntarily, one claims to be considering taking itself offline, and another has posted a claim on its home page to now only be dealing in legal music files following the activity. A number of site users have deleted their download histories. Commentary on Twitter and other social media has been global.

This, again, is curious. It was emphasised to me yesterday that the takedown was not a simply matter of dealing with copyright infringement, but about the more serious matter of allegedly breaking into other sites. I find it hard to believe that the “three more music sites” mentioned above all acquired files in a similar way. So that suggests to me that they are just unnerved by the SOCA action, and are being understandably cautious.

And that really seems to have been the main aim of the SOCA action: “pour encourager les autres”. In this respect, it is exactly the same as the completely over-the-top takedown of Megaupload, which <a href=http://torrentfreak.com/elite-anti-terror-police-went-after-megauploads-kim-dotcom-120207/>apparently involved large numbers of New Zealand’s elite police force. That also seems to have been an attempt to escalate the seriousness of the move in order to frighten other sites (with some <a href=http://torrentfreak.com/mega-aftermath-upheaval-in-pirate-warez-land-120128/>success.) As the statement notes: “Commentary on Twitter and other social media has been global” - as if that is what SOCA wanted.

This approach raises some important questions. First, is this really the best use of SOCA’s resources? Taking down a minor music site for allegedly breaking into some music sites, and then using this as an opportunity to scare users seems like a total waste of SOCA’s time – and the public’s money.

In particular, the grand claim “The targeted SOCA activity, which lasted 32 hours, was part of an operational programme aimed at protecting UK businesses and the wider economy” is simply laughable: how did this action protect “the wide economy”? It suggests that SOCA has taken IFPI’s inflated claims of its own importance at face value. The site in question was merely a tiny blip in the recording industry, which itself isn’t very important in the larger scheme of things (people tend to forget that the Internet economy is vastly bigger than the entire entertainment industry.)

But there’s a far more disturbing aspect of this takedown and the follow-up statement. Both make it clear that SOCA seems to think that instilling fear into companies and the general public is a legitimate way of enforcing the law. But the history of the 20th century teaches through multiple terrifying examples where a police apparatus that operates through fear eventually takes us. Do we really want to go there simply because the recording industry refuses to adapt to the digital world?

SOCA’s statement concludes:

SOCA’s holding message to users who had been frequenting the website was taken offline at the conclusion of the first phase of the operation on 15 February.

If its senior offices have a whit of good sense, they will not proceed to whatever the second phase might be. Instead they will get back to instilling respect for the law by showing it to the public with proportionate actions and truthful claims – rather than indulging in these kind of bullying tactics that could seriously undermine the whole compact of law enforcement with British society.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

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