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Following complaints brought by the Motion Picture Association (MPA) a United Kingdom high court has ordered ISP British Telecom (BT) to block access to the pirate file search website Newzbin2.
Newzbin facilitates the distribution of pirate files shared by members of the Usenet newsgroup which for many years has been a well-kept secret within closed circles of piracy nerds. Usenet’s rule number one?
‘The first rule of Usenet is, you don’t talk about Usenet.’
It seems rule number one has let the pirates down. Due to loose tongues and growing coverage and attention from niche computer magazines and websites, Usenet has entered the public consciousness and finally attracted serious interest from anti-piracy groups.
The MPA securing a blocking order for a site like Newzbin2 is a new precedent in the UK, and will be remembered as a serious mistake in the battle against online crime. BT’s Cleanfeed censorship system was previously – and sensibly - reserved for blocking websites containing child pornography, snuff films and other cases of serious, harmful human exploitation.
The decision to move away from this policy and use an ISP’s most advanced technology to protect the profit margins of media multinationals will have several unfortunate consequences.
Firstly, media attention has massively raised Newzbin & Usenet’s public profile, generating a huge surge in Usenet-based piracy and downloading. The order has also spurred Newzbin to secure the continuation of their service by developing software for Windows, OSX and Linux which circumvents Cleanfeed.
Understandably, Newzbin are reluctant to reveal the full technical details of their new standalone desktop client. According to speculation and some snooping carried out by website TorrentFreak, it uses a combination of novel encryption methods, takes advantage of the TOR project’s web anonymity network, and features ‘agile’ technology which can run circles round systems like Cleanfeed.
Not only have Newzbin demonstrated the ineffectiveness of current Internet blocking systems, they have potentially shown the really evil internet denizens – those causing actual human suffering - ways to get around such blocks. Raising public awareness of the TOR project is also a double-edged sword.
TOR is used by all manner of people around the world to securely and privately use the internet, hiding their location, identity and the details of their online interactions from prying eyes. Most importantly, TOR is valued by those who need to circumvent repressive censorship in their own countries. It is a powerful force for information dissemination, free communication and self-education wherever those rights are being removed by extremist or oppressive governments; consider that TOR was a main target in the recent fake SSL attacks on Iranian citizens.
Then there's the laughably ineffectual act of imposing the Newzbin blocking order on a single ISP, affecting only a small portion of UK internet users - who can obviously abandon BT whenever they feel like it.
Sharing – traditionally considered a virtue - has always been there.
People like to share, and all signs indicate that trying to stop them tends to backfire. The majority of people with the means will continue to support their favourite artists and creators by buying the products they love. The corporate notion of ‘lost revenue’ presented by the likes of the MPA is an obvious falsehood – the average (poor) illegal downloader is not going to suddenly start buying Blue-Ray releases just because they can’t download them. They will simply find another way, or wait.
But now, thanks to the media coverage of this case, people with low incomes, being squeezed by runaway private sector profiteering and damaging cuts to benefits and the public sector, are being told exactly how to save some money and stay safe from prosecution - in the pages of the mainstream press.
The people in charge of anti-piracy organisations are exhibiting their ignorance, and executing their demands through the courts in a clumsy and cack-handed manner. By unleashing the attack-dogs of censorship on such a basically harmless, tech-savvy and advanced group as Newzbin, the authorities have squandered one of their best weapons on a meaningless target.
If only Usenet members had stuck to rule number 1, and corporate greed was given less credence in the court of law, the authorities could concentrate their limited resources on stopping the real scum on the worldwide web.
Gez Hebburn Sept 2011