Blaise Alleyne's Techdirt Profile

Blaise Alleyne

About Blaise Alleyne

Techdirt contributor, songwriter, violinist, web developer, University of Toronto graduate (computer science / English / philosophy) and master's student, free culture/software advocate.

blaise.ca/

Posted on Techdirt - 6 February 2012 @ 07:17pm

Can Facebook Really Bring About A More Peer-to-Peer, Bottom-Up World?

Mark Zuckerberg’s letter to shareholders included in Facebook’s IPO filing contains a pretty bold vision for Facebook to not just connect people and enable them to share, but to fundamentally restructure the way that the world works:

By helping people form these connections, we hope to rewire the way people spread and consume information. We think the world’s information infrastructure should resemble the social graph — a network built from the bottom up or peer-to-peer, rather than the monolithic, top-down structure that has existed to date. We also believe that giving people control over what they share is a fundamental principle of this rewiring.

We have already helped more than 800 million people map out more than 100 billion connections so far, and our goal is to help this rewiring accelerate. [emphasis added]

That sounds pretty lofty, but if you recognize that Facebook provides a social networking service that hundreds of millions of people use — but forget for a moment that it’s Facebook — it’s quite a bold “social mission.” And there are many examples of how the service has been used as a key tool in affecting change on everything from opposition to the Canadian DMCA to the Arab Spring. There’s no doubt that the service makes it easier for people to organize in a more bottom-up way.

But, once you remember that it’s Facebook we’re talking about, the vision sounds more problematic. Could Facebook ever truly bring about a peer-to-peer, bottom-up network? The notion seems to be an inherent contradiction to Facebook’s architecture — as a centralized, proprietary, walled garden social networking service. Facebook may enable a more bottom-up structure, but it’s a bit disingenuous for Zuckerberg to decry a monolithic, top-down structure when Facebook inserts itself as the new intermediary and gatekeeper. As a centralized, proprietary, walled garden service, Facebook is a single point for attacks, control, and surveillance, never mind controversial policies or privacy concerns. Facebook may enable a more bottom-up and peer-to-peer network compared to many things that came before, but there is something fundamentally at odds with a truly distributed solution at the core of its architecture and its DNA.

To realize the full potential of bottom-up, peer-to-peer social networking infrastructure, we need autonomous, distributed, and free network services — the sort of vision that StatusNet/Identi.ca or Diaspora have tried to bring about. Rewiring the world to create a more bottom-up, peer-to-peer network is a bold vision for Zuckerberg to put forth — and one that Facebook has advanced in many ways — yet it’s fundamentally at odds with the reality of Facebook as a centralized and proprietary walled garden.

Posted on Techdirt - 6 February 2012 @ 09:39am

Canadian Songwriters Want To Embrace File Sharing, But Do They Have The Right Approach?

in 2007, the Songwriters Association of Canada gained some international headlines with a proposal to legalize non-commercial peer-to-peer file sharing through an ISP levy. This sort of proposal wasn’t new, but had not been so prominently put forth by an artist organization before. There were serious problems with the proposal, but it stimulated a healthy debate and it started from many correct premises — that file sharing should be embraced, that digital locks and lawsuits were not a way forward, etc. But it was a non-voluntary, “you’re a criminal” tax that could open the floodgates for other industries to demand similar levies.

I was a member of the Songwriters Association of Canada from 2007-2011, and I had the opportunity to express my concerns about the proposal to many people involved. Last year, I attended a session with an update on the proposal, and was surprised how much it had changed. The proposal had dropped the legislative angle in favor of a business to business approach, with an actual opt-out option for both creators and customers of participating ISPs. Unlike groups behind other licensing proposals, the SAC has actually been responsive to many concerns, and unlike other artist groups, the SAC takes a decidedly positive view on sharing music and the opportunities technology provides to creators. This attitude comes through in the proposal:

Rather than a legislative approach to the monetization of music file-sharing as we originally envisioned, the S.A.C. is now focused on a “business to business” model that requires no new legislation be enacted in Canada.

Our basic belief however remains the same: Music file-sharing is a vibrant, open, global distribution system for music of all kinds, and presents a tremendous opportunity to both creators and rights-holders. […]

People have always shared music and always will. The music we share defines who we are, and who our friends and peers are. The importance of music in the fabric of our own culture, as well as those around the world, is inextricably bound to the experience of sharing. [emphasis changed]

As the copyright debate heats up again in Canada in light of SOPA and new pressures on pending legislation, this positive attitude towards peer-to-peer file sharing was expressed again in a recent TorrentFreak interview with the SAC VP, Jean-Robert Bisaillon:

We think the practice [of file-sharing] is great and unstoppable. This is why we want to establish a regime that allows everyone to keep on doing it without stigmatizing the public and, instead, find a way for artists and rights holders to be fairly compensated for the music files that are being shared. […]

Other positive aspects include being able to find music that is not available in the commercial realm offer, finding a higher quality of digital files, being able to afford music even if you are poor and being able to discover new artists or recommend them to friends. […]

Music is much better off with the Web. The internet network allows for musical discovery despite distance and time of the day. It has sparked collaborations between musicians unimaginable before. It has helped artists to book international tours without expensive long-distances charges and postal delays we knew before. [emphasis added]

However, significant problems remain with the proposal. For example, the original criticism still stands as to how this would scale for other industries — what about book publishers, newspapers, movie studies, video game manufacturers and other industries that are also crying foul about “piracy”? The SAC dismisses other cultural industries pretty quickly, as if only the music industry is concerned about unauthorized copying. And, just like private copying levies have suffered from scope creep, as people no longer buy blank audio cassettes or CDs, or short-sightedness, as technology changes rapidly, it’s not clear how the SAC model would adapt to growing wireless and mobile computing or more distributed file sharing. Many more questions remain: Would small, independent artists, who are not charting through traditional means, get fair treatment? Is it wise to largely rely on a single, proprietary vendor, Big Champagne, for tracking all distribution? Would consumers be paying multiple times for music? What does it mean to “self-declare not to music file-share” in order to opt-out?

But the central problem with the proposal is the SAC’s copyright crutch. Jean-Robert Bisaillon says things like,

The Internet has dramatically increased the private non-commercial sharing of music, which we support. All that is missing a means to compensate music creators for this massive use of their work. [emphasis added]

And the proposal says things like,

Once a fair and reasonable monetization system is in place, all stakeholders including consumers and Internet service providers will benefit substantially. [emphasis added]

The SAC seems obsessed with a “monetization system,” when the truth is there is no one model, no magic bullet. Rather, the the sky is rising and the path to success involves all sorts of different models and creative approaches, most of which don’t depend on copyright or worrying about getting paid for every use. Even a voluntary license plan is still a bad idea. The means to compensate music creators isn’t missing, it’s just increasingly found outside of copyright.

Still, it’s important for the SAC’s voice to be heard as the copyright debate heats up again in Canada. As a creator group offering a positive take on peer-to-peer file sharing, and denouncing an “adversarial relationship” between creators and fans, they offer an important counterpoint to the SOPA-style provisions being pushed by Canadian record industry groups. I would take the SAC’s constructive and responsive approach over record industry astroturfing and fear mongering any day.

Posted on Techdirt - 9 August 2011 @ 10:06pm

Canadian Telcos Appoint Ex-Cabinet Ministers To Their Boards

Two of Canada’s big three telcos have recently appointed former cabinet ministers of the ruling party’s government to their respective boards. A few weeks ago, Bell appointed Jim Prentice, who was responsible for telecom policy and regulating companies like Bell while serving as Minister of Industry in 2007-2008. Then, while former cabinet minister Stockwell Day’s new “government relations” not-a-lobbying-firm has raised concerns about loopholes in lobbying laws, this past weekend Telus named Day to its board. (How long until Rogers aligns with industry standards and finds an ex-minister of their own?) OpenMedia.ca decried both appointments as examples of big telecom “cozying up to the government,” but journalist Peter Nowak argues it’s the system’s fault: “Lobbying is so pervasive and deeply integrated” into the system that the only way to deal with it seems to be to “fight fire with fire,” as even new wireless carriers have quickly learned — i.e. don’t hate the players, hate the game.

Neither Prentice nor Day will be lobbyists, but it seems obvious that their knowledge of government is being sought for the purposes of lobbying. In the broadband space, Bell has been butting heads with the government and regulators over issues like wholesale usage-based billing. In the wireless space, the next spectrum auction is approaching and incumbents want to avoid a repeat of the last auction, where 40% of the spectrum was reserved for new entrants and the government forced incumbents to offer roaming agreements — rules ironically set by Bell’s new board member, Jim Prentice.

Are these appointments examples of regulatory capture? It might appear that way. It’s certainly a case of telcos gearing up for a heavy round of lobbying that’s unlikely to favor consumers, but it’s hardly a case of blatant revolving doors. Day was not actually responsible for telecom policy, and Prentice was behind rules that angered incumbents. If the government favors incumbents in the next spectrum auction or backs down on wholesale usage-based billing, that would be a different story, but Canadian incumbents are scrambling because they’ve lost some big battles. This isn’t so much a cause for deep concern as it is a challenge to those who favor more competition in Canada to keep pressing the government to follow through on what it’s started.

Posted on Techdirt - 9 May 2011 @ 10:05pm

Could The Ultimate Legacy Organization – The Vatican – Be Out In Front On Copyright?

A recent blogger meet up hosted by the Vatican received some attention for comments with which Techdirt readers would be familiar on copyright, attribution, and new media business models. For example, Italian blogger and author Mattia Marasco highlighted the importance of attribution, but said that copyright is “an old model,” when it comes to new media, and Dutch podcaster Father Roderick Vonhogen said that journalists will have to get used to their material being reused, but those who focus on quality will make it. The ideas are nothing new (and just some of many expressed at the event), but it’ll be interesting to see if the Vatican is listening. Marasco and Father Roderick are not Vatican officials, though in recent years the Pope and other Vatican officials have expressed concern over “an unduly rigid assertion of the right to intellectual property.” (The Holy See has, however, asserted its own right to protect the figure of the Pope, but it’s unclear what exactly that means.) The Vatican also announced an upcoming News.va website, which will make extensive use of social media and apparently use a non-commercial Creative Commons license (according to Father Roderick [33:40]). Not bad for a 2000-year-old institution. There was also a call for the Holy See Press Office to consider bloggers, when releasing advanced copies of Vatican documents. The meeting was intended to open a dialogue between bloggers and the Vatican, so it’ll be interesting to see what the Vatican takes to heart from the encounter and how they continue down the new media path.

Posted on Techdirt - 23 September 2010 @ 03:17pm

Grooveshark Wants To Judge Your Soul

Dante Cullari made an observation on the Music Think Tank Open blog last month that seems to have gone unnoticed: Grooveshark’s privacy policy has a “soul” clause. Unlike other “immortal soul” clauses, I don’t think Grooveshark’s is intentional.

“This [personally identifiable] information may also be kept longer than 6 months by EMG if a user is found by EMG’s soul judgment to be suspect of carrying out illegal, unlawful, or dangerous actions with or in this service. Prior to keeping IP address information for more than 6 months, the user will be notified via email about their suspect status.”

The privacy policy still says that, though Dante also grabbed a screenshot.

grooveshark-soul-judgement-11

Somehow, I don’t think Grooveshark actually intends to judge a person’s immaterial soul for evidence of suspicious activity. But, lest you think it’s a lone typo, the phrase “soul purpose” also appears later in the policy.

“EMG may allow 3d parties to place cookies and other tracking technologies, such as web beacons, clear GIFs, web bugs, tracking pixels on the Site for the soul purpose of allowing that 3d party to record that a User has visited the Site and/or used the Service.”

grooveshark-soul-purpose1

I think they meant “sole.” Somewhere, in the depths of my own soul, it feels like somebody was relying on spell check a bit too much…

Posted on Techdirt - 23 September 2010 @ 01:02am

Ontario Premier Says Cellphones In Class Could Be Useful

With schools, cell phones and a politician in the same headline, you’d think the story would be about another attempt to ban technology, but in Ontario, Premier Dalton McGuinty is telling schools to be open to uses for cellphones in the classroom.

McGuinty, who won’t even let his ministers keep the devices during cabinet meetings, said he understands they can be a major distraction, but there is a “right way” to use them in class.

“Telephones and BlackBerrys and the like are conduits for information today, and one of the things we want to do is to be well-informed,” he said. “And it’s something that we should be looking at in our schools.

The issue came up in light of the Toronto District School Board rethinking its blanket ban, and “exploring ways to make [mobile devices] more acceptable.”

Political opponents are already mocking McGuinty, and his government does have a really mixed track record on technology… but the comments here are actually quite reasonable. There’s room between the “discipline theater” approach of a total ban and the teacher’s nightmare scenario of a total free-for-all. A good acceptable use policy would attempt to reduce distractions while not precluding ways in which mobile technology can be helpful in the classroom.

I attended a strict private high school in Toronto from 2001-2005, and we had a blanket ban on electronic devices… but teachers were smart enough to know when it made sense to ignore the ban. I used my PDA to take notes and manage homework in every class, and another student in my year often used a tablet computer. The ban was eventually lifted after I graduated, acknowledging the fact that more and more students were using laptops and mobile devices in ways that helped them learn, while I’m sure they still have a no nonsense policy for students goofing off or distracting others. Rules are needed to minimize bad uses, but that shouldn’t prevent people from exploring good uses.

So, good for McGuinty for recognizing that we’re better off exploring applications for mobile technology in the classroom than simply trying to ban it.

Posted on Techdirt - 26 July 2010 @ 05:10pm

Lawsuit Averted As WordPress and Thesis Settle Differences Over Themes And The GPL

Free (libre) and open source software is one of the best examples of an alternative to restrictive copyright, but even within these communities there can be heated debates about licensing. The WordPress community just witnessed such a debate between the founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg, and the developer of a popular premium WordPress theme, Chris Pearson, over whether or not themes are subject to the GPL (WordPress’ license). The GPL applies to derivative works of a program—requiring that they, too, must be licensed freely—but Pearson maintained quite publicly that he wasn’t subject to it and could use a proprietary license for his theme. This caused tension between him and Mullenweg, until last week, when Pearson gave in and switched to a split GPL license.

Without getting too bogged down in the legal details and community politics, the dispute is of interest for a couple reasons. Although some open source developers believe the GPL is too restrictive, copyright enforcement is approached in a very different way by free software projects than proprietary software companies or the entertainment industry. Mullenweg had sought a legal opinion from the Software Freedom Law Center over a year ago, and they agreed that the PHP part of a WordPress theme (which interfaces directly with WordPress code) is subject to the GPL, while JavaScript and CSS are not. Pearson disagreed, relying on some pretty novel legal arguments, but those were countered by others in the community. Mullenweg began to put more social and business pressure on Pearson, offering to pay for people to move away from Thesis to premium WordPress themes fully available under the GPL, and speaking publicly about how he felt Thesis was hurting the community by violating the license. Things became pretty heated, and the two squared off in a joint interview, failing to reach any visible consensus. It seemed like a lawsuit from Mullenweg would be the only way to resolve things—something he’d been trying to avoid at all costs—but a week later, the legal conflict was averted as Pearson switched to a split GPL license (i.e. PHP is GPL, as required; proprietary license for the rest). It was messy, but very different from the sue-first-ask-questions-later approach of so many copyright holders, and a lot less messy than a lawsuit could have been. The business and social pressure caused some tension in the short-term, for sure, but ultimately led to a resolution without nearly as much pain or division as a lawsuit within the community might have caused.

This kind of disagreement also highlights the fact that free software licenses (like the GPL) and the free culture licenses they’ve inspired (like some of those offered by Creative Commons) are ultimately hacks on a restrictive copyright system; they’re merely tactics to reverse the negative effects of overly restrictive copyright, but not at all the ideal scenario. For example, we’ve seen concerns over how Creative Commons licenses act as a contractual layer on top of copyright, and non-commercial restrictions can also be a source of tension. Sometimes these disputes help a community to better develop its position on copyright and licensing, but other times, they’re a sign that these licenses are still just a hack on a less than ideal system.

It’ll be interesting to see how Thesis fares in the long-run with a split licensing approach compared to other premium themes that are 100% GPL. Regardless, it’s nice to have a more or less happy ending where the community was able to resolve things without getting the courts involved.

Posted on Techdirt - 8 December 2009 @ 10:58am

SOCAN Tries To Keep Its Copyright Consultation Submission Offline And Secret, But Fails

We were just talking about how SOCAN, the Canadian copyright collection society, was going after gymnastics clubs for kids using music in their practice routines. Now they’re getting some well-deserved attention for other antics. Michael Geist explains how SOCAN tried to keep its submission to the government copyright consultation secret. The organization apparently requested that its submission not be posted online, even though that was part of the consultation process. The government made it available anyways, but only by email upon request. Of course, it’s now available online elsewhere [PDF].

SOCAN’s recommendations aren’t surprising. They call for a making available right (article 22 of the submission), a broadening of the private copying levy (article 30), anti-circumvention provisions (55-56), notice-and-takedown (59), copyright term extension (60), and no further exceptions to copyright (34, 48). But rather than outright declaring war on consumers, they copy the language (poorly) of those seeking more effective copyright reform. For example, they claim that the “rights of users and creators” are already “balanced” because “the Copyright Board of Canada provides a fair mechanism to set the royalty” (45) — someone had better tell the gymnastic clubs! Another great example: They want to expand the private copying tax levy to digital audio players so that it’s “technologically neutral.” (11) No word on when they’ll want it to apply to hard drives in general. SOCAN also repeats the ridiculous argument from the Toronto copyright townhall that “unwarranted” fair dealing provisions would mean asking creators to “work for nothing:”

Copyright amendments must not set up unwarranted exemptions, or otherwise limit the copyright royalties paid… If you deprive SOCAN’s members of copyright royalties, you are basically asking over 35,000 Canadian individuals to take risks and work for nothing. That’s not realistic, and it’s not fair. (34-35)

It’s just laughable to suggest that more flexible fair dealing (i.e., something like the American concept of fair use) would mean artists not getting paid. Do artists “work for nothing” in the U.S.? Though, it should be no surprise from an organization that claims that, if you use a Creative Commons license, you “won’t get paid” and your work may become devalued. To a collection society, getting paid can only mean royalties, and the value of music can only mean… well, royalties.

Best of all, they seem nervous about Industry Minister Tony Clement, who’s given some indication that he wants to craft forward thinking policies. SOCAN recommends that the Standing Committee on Canadian Heritage have sole responsibility for copyright reform (article 66). The Heritage committee is involved in the process, but as Geist points out, this recommendation betrays some discomfort with Clement and the Industry Committee, since the Copyright Act clearly grants the Minister of Industry responsibility for copyright. So, first, we get a laundry list of maximalist demands using the language of “balanced” copyright reform, then a suggestion to ignore the Copyright Act and exclude the ministry they’re not comfortable with (you know, the one focusing on the economic concerns) from having any responsibility in reform? No wonder they wanted to keep the submission secret.

Posted on Techdirt - 12 November 2009 @ 11:24am

Free Doesn't Mean Devalued

The concept of zero took ages for societies to recognize, let alone understand. Mike has explained before how it’s been a stumbling block in economics for some libertarian and “free market” types more recently. People who think about economics in terms of scarcity get upset when abundance pushes price down towards zero, as if the economic equation were broken. But if you flip the equation and think of it as a cost of zero, you realize that the trick is to use as much of those abundant goods as possible, adding value to complementary scarcities for which you can charge. Zero doesn’t break economics, it just requires a different approach.

But artists and other creators hit a different stumbling block than libertarians (libertarian artists aside…). Zero is a problem because they feel like their art is worthless; they aren’t hung up on scarcity, they’re hung up on “devaluation.” We’ve heard it from journalists. I hear it most often from fellow songwriters. The economic theory makes them feel as though their work is just viewed as some sort of cheap commodity. The thing is, value and price are not the same. Price is monetary value, but value is so much more than money. Price is what gets driven down to marginal cost, but value factors into the demand side of the equation. Expensive things aren’t necessarily valuable, and valuable things aren’t necessarily expensive. I value oxygen a lot, but it seems silly to pay for the air I breathe each minute, given the abundant supply.

More importantly, songwriters who get hung up on “devaluation” confuse recordings with music. They equate the two. A recording is not the song, it’s just an instance of it, and a digital audio file is just an instance of the recording. Equating these reduces music to recordings to files. As important as recordings are, there’s so much more to music. When you think of a song, do you think of the recording, or a memory you had connecting with the music? Do you think of the file and how much it cost, or the emotions, people and experiences that the music conjures up? The recordings are just a means through which we experience the music. Songwriters (of all people!) should know that the value in music is so much more than the price of a recording. It’s not devaluing music to give it away for free, but it can increase its value by allowing more people to connect with it, to know, love and understand it — to value it. It’s through that experience that music is valued, not price!

Ironically, the underlying concern ends up being economic — how will we make money? A price of zero for digital audio files doesn’t mean that no one values the songwriting profession, or that no one is willing to spend money on music and keep songwriters in business. Sharing digital audio files makes the music more valuable and leads to more opportunities for monetization. When you give music away and connect with an audience, the opportunity for monetization is in the associated scarcitiesaccess, containers, community, merchandise, relationships, unique goods, the creation of new music, etc. — by giving people a reason to buy. Getting hung up on “devaluation” is a distraction from the opportunity — the necessity — to experiment with new business models.

So, can we please stop complaining that free means devalued?

Posted on Techdirt - 3 September 2009 @ 03:00pm

Canadian Human Rights Tribunal Declares Internet Hate Speech Law Unconstitutional

The Canadian Human Rights Tribunal has refused to enforce a controversial internet hate speech law, claiming that it’s unconstitutional. The tribunal adjudicator, Athanasios Hadjis, expressed worry back in March about the “chilling effects” that Section 13 of the Canada Human Rights Act would have on the internet. In his ruling Wednesday, he decided that the restriction imposed by Section 13 “is not a reasonable limit” within the meaning of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and thus, unconstitutional. Since the tribunal isn’t a real court, it can’t actually strike down the law, so Hadjis just refused to impose any penalty.

Section 13 prohibits the repeated communication of “any matter that is likely to expose a person or persons to hatred or contempt” via telephone or — since 2001 anti-terrorism measures — the internet. The section is quite controversial; neither truth nor intent are a defense, and it’s not part of the criminal code, so it tends to become a vehicle for cases that wouldn’t stand a chance in a real court. Last fall, an independent review commissioned by the Canadian Human Rights Commission itself called for Section 13 to be repealed (an epic whitewash fail), and some politicians have begun to ask for the same. For serious issues, there are other hate speech provisions in the criminal code with real defenses, handled in real courts. Section 13 makes it too easy for someone to be “dragged through the process,” as Hadjis puts it.

Not only is the section controversial, but its application to the web has been clumsy at best. Hadjis said, when applied to speech online, “suddenly, the chilling effect catches not only individuals who set up telephone messages… but just about everyone who posts anything on the internet.” Hadjis notes that telephone hate messages tend to be overt, while opinions on the internet include many borderline cases. Part of the problem is that there are no safe harbors in Canadian law (or “safe harbours,” as we Canadians would call them). Hadjis was concerned that website owners could be charged under Section 13 for user comments on message boards and blog posts. While this particular website owner doesn’t seem like all that nice of a guy (to be charitable…), twisting the law to make a site owner responsible for user posts would have set a terrible precedent. Hadjis, thankfully, had the common sense to avoid that error. Hopefully Section 13 is repealed soon, and other tribunal adjudicators take note of Hadjis’ ruling in the meantime.

More posts from Blaise Alleyne >>