Pirate Bay Down! Panic, Paranoia and Plain Speaking
It is now two days since a raid by Swedish police on the mountain lair of its server took down the world's most attitudinal torrent tracker Pirate Bay. The internet is awash with rumours and claims about what has happened, and what will happen to peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing in the future. Owing to my addiction to the obscurer corners of art cinema, I am an inveterate file-sharer myself, and therefore have a strong vested interest. Here's my take on the responses to tpb's outage so far.
The commentary up to this point has mainly reflected the two poles on views of the future of the net:
1. The Pirate Bay will always come back, and if not, something else will replace it, because of the nature of the internet. Copyright holders are pursuing an inevitably losing war against file-sharing, and only changes in their business model will reduce it.
This could be true. I'd like it to be. Today I have been downloading from another bittorrent tracker, which actually I find I prefer to tpb.
2. This is the beginning of the end for torrents. After blocking torrent trackers in many countries, the copyright holders have a coordinated take-down campaign to deal file-sharing a death-blow, to destroy the remaining trackers and to block torrent files from even appearing on google.
Although it veers towards conspiracy theory, and perhaps overstates the power of a few companies, it could also be true that torrents' days are numbered. From my own experience as a downloader however, the torrent universe has never been brighter, populated with movies I could only dream of a few years ago. For instance, my partner and I have Rwandan friends, so wanted to discover more about the genocide on its 20th anniversary. I downloaded half a dozen feature films apart from the obvious Hotel Rwanda, including two excellent movies where white people were almost completely absent, made in local language Kinyarwanda.
3. A number of positions between these two extremes.
4. A generalised and impotent panic about the loss of a favourite website and the pleasure it provides.
This shows that even in the non-corporate web, people are remarkably passive, relying on a brand just as they rely on facebook for their social interactions. Sad.
5. If this is the end for Pirate Bay specifically this is a good thing, because it has sold its soul to the Mammon of porn ads etc. The major espouser of this position is one of the original founders of Pirate Bay, Peter Sunde.
Firefox's ad-blocker means I miss out on the chance of a Russian wife unencumbered by bridal gown. People bothered by ads in their browser need educating. Sunde's point about the demise of tpb as campaigning organisation is taken, however.
6. Further to this, Sunde argues, while the corrupted Pirate Bay persists, no innovation is happening in digital file-sharing, to move us on from the 13-year-old technology of the bittorrent protocol.
As someone concerned for the future of the open web, and the democratising of culture in general, I sympathise strongly with Sunde's line. As a movie downloader, however, bittorrents supply everything I need, so I want them to carry on (see above).
As with almost every discussion about the internet (and almost nothing else!), I find I sit on both sides of the fence. If the next web needs different tech, I selfishly hope it's a smooth transition.
How to break the Chinese and Vietnamese firewalls
OR How piracy is the greatest spreader of culture in history
I am currently in teeming and steamy Hanoi, surely one of the greatest cities in the world, having taken the epic sleeper train up from Da Nang in central Vietnam. Yesterday I lighted on an old quarter bookstore (not more than a table on the street) with a very shrewd and discerning selection of English language books. There I found a copy of Jonathan Neale's excellent "People's History of the Vietnam War". Astutely the old lady running the store suggested to me Graham Greene's classic "The Quiet American" to go with it, but I had just finished reading it. Glancing at Jonathan's history, the misspelt cover pages and scanned text showed me it was a pirate copy, which I'm sure would be a great delight to the author, even more if it was in Vietnamese. I couldn't check that yet. This is not an article to discuss the pros and cons of copyright protection so I will simply state that I consider file-sharing to be the most vital disseminator of culture in the world. My own use of it is fairly prolific, though probably not by ths standards of teenagers I know. Torrents found through pirate bay furnish our fortnightly film club of deeply obscure art movies, and the magnificant aaaaarg.org gives me more serious food-for-thought reading matter than I can ever get through, and helps impoverished doctoral students the world over. Downloading from spotify and youtube allows me to consume music on my smartphone whenever I travel. This activity is made more fun by the ferociously concerted attempts of a few corporations to alter the very nature of the internet in order to protect their sadly outdated business models. The resulting game of cat and mouse is frequently absurdly unequal, like watching repeated episodes of Tom and Jerry. When ISPs were forced to ban pirate bay by a daft court judgement, it took me two minutes to find a proxy, and pirate bay's traffic rose with the publicity.
So much for the corporate-sponsored legislative firewalls. Here in Vietnam there is a state-sponsored firewall no less absurd and meretricious. In Da Nang we can't get facebook (no tragedy for me), but can get the BBC. In Hanoi it's the reverse. (I shoud point out that I do not use the BBC for its news, which is as unreliable as any corporate media's, but for its excellent football coverage at what is a crucial juncture of the season for the Gunners.) A quick and simple installation of the excellent anonymity network Tor, gives me a blow-by-blow account of the Arsenal's battle for a Champions' League place. In the lobby of our hotel yesterday I met a young Chinese woman despairing at the blocking of the Zuckerberg empire in her home country. She said that people in China paid for a service to get round the Great Firewall (a VPN?). With something as important for human rights as internet freedom, trust someone to try to make money out of it. I suggested Tor to her as a free alternative. The Chinese authorities are continually trying to block Tor, but bridging apparently makes this much more difficult. For further information, see this excellent article.
Meanwhile, I must go out and buy a beautiful wooden birdcage in Hanoi's bustling markets, though not of course to house a bird. For someone who opposes corporate and state attempts to cage the internet, that might be considered hypocritical.....
NEW SHOW! - People2People
I am currently experimenting with using skype video calls for a new show called People2People, "the show where citizen journalists talk to other citizen journalists around the world". It gives a really exciting opportunity for eye-witness reportage by a method which is technically fairly straightforward.
We are aiming to upload these shows directly, without editing, because skype is low quality to begin with, and another compression should therefore be avoided.
We're using Supertintin Recorder, which allows you to record skype in avi format. So far I have recorded 640 x 480 pixels, which produces a reasonable quality image (23mb for 5 mins - would be better if it was twice that - but it says it's recording a video bitrate of 2300 kbps, which is lots - next I will try the higher pixels setting to see what effect that has on picture quality).
I like the fact that Supertintin has a 5 minute limit in the free version, because that's plenty long enough for a watchable skype show. Really it is! Almost all talk shows on the internet are far too long....
The software also allows you to set both the position and the size of the interviewer's picture-in-picture.
For cutting from interview to video or stills, we are using skype's sharing option. The main problem with this is the slowness of the changeover of picture, with some freezing of the talking heads occurring and so forth. We may be able to get quciker at this, or do it more smoothly, with more practice. The important thing is to keep talking, and have no gaps while you wait for pictures!