Recently a Dutch court summoned two Dutch Internet providers to stop providing access to The Pirate Bay, a torrent site hosted in Sweden. The case was brought to the court by Stichting BREIN, a Dutch organization which is mostly funded by the entertainment industry from Europe and the US. I am not a user of The Pirate Bay myself, so I had to check if my own provider was also forced to cut that site off, and it was. While this has no impact on my actual Internet use, this really, really bothers me.
Torrents are no more than short codes which identify a specific piece of data, shared over the Internet. The data itself is not necessarily hosted in one particular spot. Someone just starts hosting it and publishes a torrent, and then others grab the torrent and begin downloading the data. That way the data gets spread over the Net. As long as all the data chunks are available for download somewhere (not necessarily all in one place), anybody who gets the torrent can start downloading the data, and automatically becomes a provider of the data. The more people that are downloading the data, the easier and faster it can be acquired.
Torrents are actually a great and modern way to distribute data. Classic downloading requires the data to be offered in one spot. If many people are interested in getting the data, it will be slow to download, and probably cannot be accessed by most people who want it. Contrariwise, if accessed through a torrent, getting the data actually becomes faster when more people are downloading it. But since there is no central place for the data, if you seek a particular piece of data, what you need is a place that allows searching for an appropriate torrent. This is a service provided by sites such as The Pirate Bay.
Now, it is definitely true that The Pirate Bay is hosting torrents that allow the downloading of software, films, and music, owned by people or companies that do not allow their property to be spread around in this way. Whether or not that means that The Pirate Bay is doing something illegal is debatable: it is not actually hosting illegal materials, and neither is it required to check whether the torrents that it hosts are pointing at illegal materials. The Swedish courts don’t think it is doing anything illegal. Still, this is a grey area, and I can imagine that the owners of the materials do not like to see The Pirate Bay offer the means for Internet users to get easy access to their property. The question is: what can they do about it?
Could they try to get their property removed from the Internet? No, that is impossible under the torrent concept, as the property is stored in many places in many different chunks. Could they try to get the torrents removed or disabled? Again, that is impossible as the torrents themselves are very small files which can be found on thousands of places on the Net, most of which fall under judicial systems which are not interested in helping the property owners. Their only option is to try to limit Internet access in places that they have some control over. And that is exactly what happened in The Netherlands, when BREIN, on behalf of organizations as the MPAA and the Dutch BUMA/Stemra, sued two Internet providers and got a court order for getting these providers to cut off access to The Pirate Bay.
As I said, this bothers me. A major reason is that besides providing torrents for illegal materials, The Pirate Bay provides access to legal materials too. Cutting off The Pirate Bay completely is like me going into a shop and find that I can no longer buy a knife, because someone was murdered with a knife recently and now knives are no longer made available, despite all their useful applications. A second reason is that, regardless of how one views The Pirate Bay, the Internet providers that allow us to access The Pirate Bay are definitely not engaging in illegal activities. And still the court orders them to change their activities.
But what I find most disconcerting is that this move of Stichting BREIN is completely ineffective. The Pirate Bay is not the only torrent site; there are many, many more. And the two Internet providers they sued are not the only ones in The Netherlands, not even the biggest ones. And there are many channels besides torrents by which illegal materials spread around. My main worry is: BREIN knows all this. So why did they sue and why are they so happy with winning this case?
They are happy because it sets a precedent. They have now made Internet providers responsible for ensuring that their clients are not using the Internet for downloading materials that are owned by their financial backers. So now they have some control over what users can and cannot do on the Internet. I call this the Chinese Solution. In China, Internet access is very limited, as the government has final say about what content from foreign countries their citizens get access to. The Chinese Solution is what BREIN wants to implement in The Netherlands, with themselves (i.e., the companies that they represent) in the role of the government.
Stichting BREIN has been able to force two Dutch Internet providers to remove access to The Pirate Bay. That is today. Tomorrow, they will identify one hundred more torrent sites, and with the precedent in hand, will force the providers to cut off access to those too. And then they will give the same order to other Dutch Internet providers, pointing out the precedent. Followed by expanding to the courts in other countries (through one of their sister organizations), as there is now a precedent in The Netherlands which they can refer to. Of course, during this process Internet users will still find ways to get access to torrents. Then it is time for BREIN’s next step: automatic control, at the Internet providers’ sites, of what users do on the Net: if they are downloading materials with torrents, they will be cut off automatically. Is that possible? Not only is it possible, it is technically easy to do. And after the torrents are gone, they will remove access to movies and music on the Net, unless provided by sites approved by Stichting BREIN. I have no idea how far BREIN will actually be allowed to go, but you can rest assured that they aren’t content with their first small victory — there is much more to come.
The Internet is a place of unlimited freedom. And unlimited freedom has its dark sides next to its shiny bright sides. There is no way to put a small limitation on that freedom which is effective in achieving the goal of removing one particular part from the Net. Thinking that you can stop users from downloading illegal materials by removing access to The Pirate Bay is the same as thinking that you can stop teenagers from looking at Internet porn by installing a CyberNanny. The only way to actually stop people from getting from the Internet what they want, is complete control over their access.
The choice is either total freedom, or a severely crippled Net, completely under the control of one organization, just like they have in China. It is clear that what BREIN wants in this respect is diametrically opposed to what Internet users want. But it is Cake or Death, there is no middle road.
Additional (May 10, 2012): As I predicted, Stichting BREIN has now sued the other Dutch Internet providers and got a court order for them to block The Pirate Bay too.