Website blocking – the debate

Website blocking proposals are currently with UK Ministers in the latest phase of the online “anti-piracy” efforts of rights holders and content companies. There is a simple belief that if you prevent consumers from gaining access to illegal content by blocking the sites that display it, they will increase their purchasing habits.

While no one would argue against genuine proactive efforts to get consumers to pay for creative work, there is growing concern that this must be done in ways that do not create a greater danger.  Protestors argue that website blocking will not succeed because the ability of ISPs to shut access down is only exceeded by the speed with which they can pop up again at different addresses. Blocking websites, the argument goes,  will also inhibit those that wish to promote and distribute their work for free.
Based on the norms of web behaviour, it is hard not to conclude that website blocking efforts would be like embarking on a highly dangerous game of  “whackamole” – the old video game where you have a mallet and every time you see a mole you whack it back into its hole, only to be presented with another.  (About 15 years ago, at Virgin Records as Spice Girls frenzy gripped the world, the web team created a game of “WhackaSpice” – different Spice Girls popped up out of the ground and you got to splat them down with a mallet. Management refrained from allowing the game on the Virgin website, but the team  had good fun making it.)   The key thing about the game of Whackamole is that you can’t win it, you compete for a high score, but the moles keep on coming – for ever  – faster and faster.  Many predict that this is what will happen with website blocking efforts.
Another real danger of whackamole antipiracy is a threat to free speech in the process. The process for blocking websites would be in whose hands precisely? On what evidence would they make their decisions? How would they be confident that they were always right?  Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga were both victims of a scam this week, that had their videos falsely taken down by YouTube and Vevo. The video sites run relatively automated systems which respond to “cease and desist” notices with immediate “content take down”.  Someone sent them notices of infringement concerning Bieber and Gaga,  that were convincing enough to take their work offline for a significant period of time. The point about this jokey and fraudulent action is it demonstrates that if you take a “guilty before proven innocent” approach to the web and do that at scale, unexpected and undesired outcomes become more frequent.
How would companies make sure that web sites that had creative work on them that was being shared completely legitimately at the request of artists who wanted to distribute their work for free, were not being closed down too? Or would they just be the small price to pay to preserve value elsewhere? Short term benefit for long term loss… sound familiar at all?

Much debate about filesharing has swung back and forth about its respective qualities as being both sales substitutional and artist promotional. Different creative work at different levels of maturity and awareness experiences these qualities in different ways. Major artists, movie releases, TV series and games  experience sales losses – no one can say how much.  The means to measure it is there, but the published statistics suggest more research is required in this area to understand it. Recent research by MusicMetric suggests that file-sharing on bit torrent declines after release dates much more rapidly than sales do.

Young and developing creative producers often make their material available for free download or for sharing on bit torrrent sites in order to become known, to build a fan base, to create a market for their live shows, etc.

Seeking to block websites that offer creative work shared for free may inhibit innovation and growth. It may do something to inhibit unauthorised downloading of major player content, but it may also seriously inhibit means by which new and developing work can be shared and promoted. It may also inhibit the kind of innovation in business models that is so seriously sought by governments.

It is inevitable that when sitting in global headquarters of major publishing or recording companies executive focus is on the value and ROI of each new major release. The level of investment in major titles is such that the pressure to extract every penny of revenue from those releases exceeds any interest in developing work or any other strategic benefits. The only thing that counts towards your quarterly numbers (and your personal bonus)  is how much money your big release of the month is bringing in. Anything you can do to stop that value being eroded takes all precedence over everything else, for now. And now is all that matters. The future will look after itself.

That may well be a perspective which major corporates feel obliged to pursue.  It is not a perspective that should be foisted on the community at large.

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