- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2006

To death and taxes, we can add irritating and unworkable laws aimed at controlling the flow of digital information.

Infringement of copyright is not the only reason for such laws. The latest example is the threat by England’s TV Licensing Authority to prosecute people who watch the World Cup on their computers without a license. This can be done either by having a television card in the computer, or by watching over broadband.

From The Register (.co.uk), the English computer site, “Previously it was believed that only PCs with a broadcast card designed specifically to pick up TV signals needed a license. But ahead of the BBC’s streaming of live World Cup coverage, TV Licensing has said that it will prosecute in cases in which TV is watched on a PC regardless of how it is received.”

The details are of no interest to Americans, but the clumsiness, intrusiveness, and illogic of enforcement are, as they characterize such efforts in general.

The British government keeps records of all purchases of television cards for computers. It will prosecute the officials of a company whose employees are found to be watching illegally, even if the officials didn’t know it was being done. And so on.

“The Licensing Authority operates by cross referencing equipment sales against license holders and chasing down those with equipment but no license.

“We have a database of more than 28 million addresses, so our enquiry officers know exactly which unlicensed business premises to target,” said a TV Licensing press release.” Surveillance. Control. Databases. And of course if people can watch without having a special card, catching people will require more extreme measures. All of this to keep people from watching soccer.

The principal is that, in a digital age, the flow of information cannot be controlled without scattershot laws, ever-increasing watchfulness, and laws that are both excessively restrictive and a major annoyance.

The quest to control digital flow begins to look like the war on drugs: After four decades and billions of dollars, your daughter in high school can buy any drug you’ve heard of, and probably some you haven’t, effortlessly and at reasonable prices.

Some problems can’t be solved by laws, and some laws just aren’t enforceable. So, it appears, with digital piracy. Might it not be time to come up with another approach?

Recently, ThePirateBay(.org), the once-Swedish site that allows the downloading of copyright movies over broadband connections, was raided by Swedish authorities. Its servers were confiscated. So those who ran it simply went to Holland, carrying backups of the system, and went back online. As fast as the entertainment industry plugs one leak, bright geeks find another.

Meanwhile in countries all over the world —Thailand, Mexico, China, for example, all of which I have recently seen — pirated DVDs of movies and music on CDs are openly displayed en masse and sold everywhere. The large numbers of lawsuits filed by the Recording Industry Association of America have apparently done nothing to end piracy. In short, the anti-piracy campaign just isn’t working.

Congress needs to recognize technological reality and find another way to pay (for example) musicians for their work. Musicians actually produce something of value. The record companies are little more than a means of distribution. They have been made technically unnecessary by the Internet, a better means of distribution, and they try to maintain a profitable monopoly by legal means. They might as well try to outlaw calculators to protect sales of slide rules.

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