A wave of panic among surfers
The music industry is now targeting users in its campaign against file-sharing on the Web. In less than six months, Israelis who upload music files to the Internet could be facing lawsuits.
Ever since connecting to the Internet, back in around 1995, A. has experienced a number of crises that have threatened his main hobby and obsession in life, but he has managed somehow. This time, however, something fundamental in his daily routine is liable to change. Since he learned about 10 days ago of the threat by the Israeli branch of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) to file charges against anyone who uploads music files to the Internet, he has been in a panic. Unlike previous times when he was forced to change his downloading habits, this time he admits he may simply have to stop downloading music from the Internet.
"I have plenty of experience," he says. "I was presumably in a similar situation when they closed Napster and later Audiogalaxy, but back then I just needed to look for an alternative. What is happening now is a new situation that was never before in Israel. I won't believe it until I actually see it happening, but because I'm a pretty cautious person, I won't want to be even at a thousandth of a percent of risk. Since reading about the federation's intention to prosecute people like me, I think about it every day, and I even lowered my profile on the Net."
For A., a lower profile is a relative thing. Since he got a broadband connection about two and a half years ago, he has downloaded about 1,000 albums via file-sharing services. "I have something like 25,000 files," he says after a short tour of his crowded hard disk. He currently has about 60 gigabytes of music files on his computer, but, as mentioned, he has started to exercise more caution. "Since hearing about their threat, I no longer download six to seven albums every night. I am also doing wholesale burning of files that are on my computer and then deleting them from the hard disk," he says. Nonetheless, he is aware that he is also uploading to the Internet, for the benefit of other surfers, between 100 to 200 files per day. "That's not a real lot. There are people who share much more," he says, in an attempt to reassure himself.
It looks like A. has good reason for concern. For years, the record companies have been trying to frighten music consumers in Israel in several ways, but it appears their new fear campaign has real teeth. In the past, there have been commercials against counterfeit versions of CDs in which Israeli artists appear conveying a message that pirated discs are liable to silence Israeli musicians and performers. Subsequently, there were commercials that made the exaggerated analogy between purchasing pirated CDs and buying drugs. At some stage, it was even claimed that the money from counterfeit discs is used to finance terrorism. But this time, the music industry is abandoning the strategy of reeducation and directly threatening its consumers, just like in the United States, where the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has already sued several thousands of file sharers.
The man at the forefront of the local battle against file sharers is Motti Amitay, the anti-piracy coordinator of IFPI, a group funded by Israeli and American record companies. Judging by the reactions of surfers to the reports about the IPFI's aggressive plans, Amitay - who was completely anonymous until a week ago - is set to become the bad guy of the Israeli Internet. It is no surprise that he has a very different view of himself.
"I'm the bad guy? What are you talking about?" Amitay says and laughs. "I'm the good guy. I defend the vital assets of the State of Israel - its culture. The people who say I am bad are lending a hand to the collapse of this industry. Whoever steals music, and it doesn't matter whether this is on the street or via the Internet, is a partner in crime and is cutting off the music industry. The bad people are those who do this, not those who enforce it. During the past four years, there has been a steady drop of 5-10 percent a year in the sales of discs in Israel. We attribute this mainly to the Internet."
According to Amitay, last year, as part of the record companies' global policy, the umbrella company under which the Israeli federation operates decided that in 2005 Israel would be included in the list of countries where an active enforcement effort would be made to counter the phenomenon of downloading music from the Internet. Toward the middle of the year, after an information campaign that Amitay says will offer file sharers a last chance to stop their activities, the federation will begin to submit lawsuits against music downloaders. The ones to be initially targeted are surfers who upload more than 50 files a day. According to Amitay, the federation has not yet decided whether the enforcement efforts will focus on the piracy of Israeli music or on any kind of music. In any case, the procedure will be the same for both.
The software used by the record companies to scan the Net will provide the federation with the IP (Internet protocol) addresses of surfers who meet the piracy criteria that it defines. While the IP address identifies specific computers, there is no way of knowing who is sitting at each computer. The only thing this unique number reveals is the identity of the lowly surfer's Internet service provider (ISP). In order to reveal the person behind the IP address and file charges against him for violating intellectual property rights, the federation will need to turn to the ISPs and receive the information from them.
The ISPs, naturally, have no interest in handing their clients over to the federation. Not only are they obliged to protect the privacy of their users, but file sharing - an activity that accounts for about 70 percent of all data traffic on the Internet - is usually the main reason that people sign up for their broadband connection. Thus, judging by the ISPs' declarations that they will only divulge the identities of their users if forced to do so by court order, a legal battle can be expected to develop in Israel along the same lines of the one that took place in the United States.
Amitay refuses to say whether he is disappointed by the position expressed by the ISPs at this stage, and says: "We hope they will help us in the battle to save the culture of the State of Israel and our image in the world in this field." When asked whether the legal battle to force the ISPs to reveal their users' identities would be economically worthwhile, he says determinedly: "This is not a matter of whether or not it pays off economically, but rather a question of `to be or not to be.' If we don't want to shut down the industry and the culture, we must do this."
Will it succeed, in your view?
Amitay: "We have data showing that in the U.S. a significant decline in downloading has occurred since they began prosecuting those uploading files to the Internet, and we are relying on their experience."
Dr. Michael Birnhack of the University of Haifa's Center for Law and Technology says the current move by the record companies is an act of desperation. "Their goal is not to see money, but rather to intimidate, plain and simple. This is not the first time they are using scare tactics, but now they are pulling out the big guns - frightening the users themselves. They are doing this because they have given up on suing the software makers."
`My life will change'
Birnhack also does not accept the equation the federation is trying to make, according to which prosecution is needed in order to rescue Israeli music and culture. "The file-sharing communities can be used in two ways. It is possible to do good things and bad things with them. On one hand, they are used to violate intellectual property rights, but on the other hand they provide an opportunity for artists who have not succeeded to work their way into the centralized music industry. The record companies balance between art and money, with an emphasis on the money. The problem is that not all art makes money, and this results in boring mainstream music."
What will happen if lawsuits are filed?
"In the short term, they will succeed. And after the initial lawsuits and noise this creates, there will indeed be a decrease in the downloading of files. But, in my opinion, after a short period of time, if they don't continue prosecuting, there will be an upswing again in downloading, and it is liable to grow even stronger. In the meantime, the industry - especially in Israel - will lose a lot of points among listeners. Israeli surfers have a certain ethic that derives from the accessibility to musicians here, which is much greater than the accessibility to musicians in the United States. If the industry treats surfers like criminals, this ethic will be hurt and people will simply not buy discs. The customer is always right, even when he is wrong. From a business perspective, they will be making a very big mistake, in my view, if they go ahead and prosecute surfers."
Meanwhile, it seems that in A.'s case, the federation's scare tactics are definitely making the impression Amitay is seeking to create. A. is beginning to prepare for the day after, even if it still seems far away. "My life will change because music is the thing that I really like and it is all around me," he says. "It's much more than a hobby. It's really a part of me, and if I stop doing this, I will have a big hole that I will need to fill in other ways. I'll either order music from Amazon, or I'll meet with friends and simply exchange CDs with them, without the Internet. I have no other choice."
Don't you ever feel that you are stealing the songs you download?
A.: "To tell you the truth, no. About 80 percent of what I download is independent music by artists who are signed with labels that are not well known, and I tend to think and want to believe that the artists who create this music are interested in having as many people as possible listen to their work. I don't listen to Madonna or M People and things like that."