Many problems on the Internet today resemble the game of whack-a-mole: a pointless arms-race, a futile gesture, a Sisyphean task that nevertheless draws investors and commercial interest against all reason. Some of them are arguably necessary and server some social good: one example is blacklisting of zombie PCs used for spamming or the takedown of phishing websites. As soon as the ISP taken down the offending site, five more are already opening for business. This is the sad state of the art when it comes to phishing and breaking up botnets.
Then there are other games of whack-a-mole played on global scale with far more dubious social benefits. Our friendly content industry has been at the forefront of one: the war against peer-to-peer file sharing networks. RIAA and MPAA (collectively dubbed the “copyright thugs” by Stanford’s Larry Lessig) have engaged in a no-holds-barred battle against piracy online. The original Napster was the first casualty of this crusade. Later P2P systems such as Gnutella, eMule, Kazaa, Morpheus and most recently BitTorrent found themselves in the cross-hairs. Unlike Napster these ultimately proved far more resilient and difficult targets because of their true distributed architecture. Napster ran a centralized index, its Achilles heel, one that could not exist without the corporate entity keeping the service. It was no match for the lawsuit. More lawsuits followed: Kazaa was forced into operating out of a front company located overseas, to seek better jurisdictional protection but the P2P genie had been unleashed. Grokster went all the way to the supreme court, only to be held accountable over its users’ actions. Over time RIAA/MPAA feeling increasingly indignant and wronged, started going after users instead of technology, often resorting to questionable tactics such as injecting bogus content into networks, remote tracking and surveillance of P2P users. In late 2003 and all throughout 2004 came the highly publicized cease-and-desist letters to users. (Usually on target, occasionally giving rise to comical cases of mistaken identity.)
Now an article on CNN/Money says this game of whack-a-mole is not working. Quoting the new RIAA president:
“P2P remains an unacceptable problem. […] The folks engaged in the practice are doing more of it.”
iTunes has sold about 2 billion tracks since inception. By comparison,the article cites an estimate that every month half as much songs are traded on P2P networks. Way to go, Apple.