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Movie Spies Are Fun; Movies' Spying On The Internet Is Not

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Hollywood for years has had a fascination with spies. Some are action spies, like the various incarnations of Bond, James Bond, or cerebral spies like Alec Guinness' masterfully subtle George Smiley. All sorts of people have played TV spies, from Robert Culp and Bill Cosby to Patrick McGoohan, Robert Goulet and the fabulous Lady Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee.

There have been spies who watch and listen to us without our knowledge. Gene Hackman had a creepy turn as the telephone eavesdropper (technically not a spy, although he spied) in The Conversation in 1974. Ten years ago Will Smith's Enemy of the State played off of the then-paranoid "fantasy", now a reality, of the all-hearing National Security Agency (NSA). The current crop of Bourne films shows a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with the technical capability to listen and see anything and anyone at any time.

It wouldn't be an issue if Hollywood's fascination with monitoring our words and images was confined to fiction. But over the past couple of months, the fourth wall has been broken and Hollywood is now setting itself up to play a new spy game for real. In this new game, the public departs from its traditional role as movie fan, and would now be movie victim. And instead of using the resources of a super-secret government agency to do its spying, the movie industry would use the resources of the companies who do the bidding of the super-secret government agencies -- your once-friendly local telephone companies.

The movie industry wouldn't call what they want to do "spying," of course. They have more polite, more indirect ways of couching their goals. Exhibit A in that regard is a speech by Dan Glickman, the chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) given March 11 at an industry event in Las Vegas.

The speech was breathtaking not only for its internal inconsistencies but also for its obvious obfuscations, particularly concerning Net Neutrality.

He started off with a positively giddy report on how well the movie biz is doing as the industry "could hardly be better at the box office." Some of the data points included 17 movies earning $100 million, up 50 percent from 2006; seven movies making $200 million; four movies making $300 million; 1.4 billion tickets sold in the U.S. last year; 600 films produced, up from 450 in 2006. As Glickman said, "film is alive, well and growing as an American art-form and consumer experience."

But despite all of this good, even great news, there's still the threat to the industry of "what happens when one illegal copy [of a movie] makes its way to the Internet -- God forbid on opening weekend -- and is instantly available to the world." What happens? There would have been 18 $100 million movies? The technology hasn't changed all that much in the past couple of years. Chances are some movies escaped onto the Net before or at release. And yet, things still look pretty good, according to Glickman.

To stop that one copy from being spread to the world, Glickman said, "new tools are emerging that allow us to work with Internet Service Providers to prevent this illegal activity. And, new efforts are emerging in Washington to stop this essential program."

Glickman said: "This effort is being called by its proponents 'net neutrality.' It's a clever name. But at the end of the day, there's nothing neutral about this for our customers or for our ability to make great movies -- blockbuster first-run films -- in the future. If Washington had truth in labeling, we'd call this proposal by another name: Government regulation of the Internet. Government regulation of the Internet would impede our ability to respond to consumers in innovative ways, and it would impair the ability of broadband providers to address the serious and rampant piracy problems occurring over their networks today."

The challenge Glickman put forth: "Do we take a stand for intellectual property rights or cast them aside in the digital environment? Are we permitted to respond to consumers, innovate on their behalf and compete with the world or are we told by our government to stand down? Today MPAA and all of our studios are standing up in opposition to broad-based government regulation of the Internet. We are opposing so-called 'net neutrality' government action. And, in the process, we are standing up for our customers, for our economy and for the ability of content producers to continue to create great movies for the future."

That was certainly a stirring address, a clarion call to arms against an evil menace to society. And in the spirit of the truth in labeling meme, here the label or two for this speech: Hogwash. Nonsense. A twisting of the truth and a subjugation of reality on more levels than we could count.

It is truly ironic that the movie industry, of all industries, rails against "government regulation." This is the industry that persuaded Congress that copyright should last almost forever. This is the industry that wanted the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to impose a "broadcast flag", also known as copyright controls, on digital television. Viacom in 2002 threatened to withhold high-definition content from CBS unless that flag was in place.

This is the industry comes crying to Congress every year for new, even more Draconian penalties and crimes because their members aren't making as much money as they think it should. Their newest "Pro-IP" bill just passed a House subcommittee on March 6.

This is the industry, or at least part of it, that pays lip service to, but doesn't really care about, the exceptions to the copyright law for "fair use" of materials, that would have consumers pay each time they buy a DVD or CD and make a copy to another device the consumer owns. This is the industry that seemingly wants an Intellectual Property czar in each cabinet-level agency.

Let's not talk about some vapid anti-regulation philosophy here. Hollywood's paths to the Hill to the White House and to the FCC are well-worn.

Let's talk about their concept of a free and non-discriminatory Internet as a barrier to innovation. There's no barrier to innovation now. Look at the adoption by NBC and others of Hulu, a new distribution mechanism for movies and TV shows using their version of the peer-to-peer (p2p) protocol that the movie industry blames for all the theft.

Net Neutrality has nothing to do with prohibiting innovation or for making movies available in the future. If anything, a free and open Internet would put all movie makers on equal footing and not subject to the whims of what one telephone or cable company might do with one movie company at the expense of another. If anything, Glickman and his crowd should endorse Net Neutrality out of self-preservation.

What Glickman is proposing under the guise of working with ISPs to prevent illegal activity also has nothing to do with a non-discriminatory Internet. It has to do with invasion of privacy and presumptions of guilt and spying on American citizens who have done nothing wrong.

There already is a mechanism for dealing with copyright infringement. It's one that the content community went to great lengths to pass. The industry persuaded Congress to pass the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998 as a means of protecting online content. So far, it seems to be working without the need for spying. As the Content Alliance, the umbrella group, put it in a March 3 letter to Congress: "The DMCA, in its 10 years, has failed to produce the hypothetical harms posited by its detractors; to the contrary, it has enabled an explosion in the amount and kinds of new legal offerings of creative works available to consumers."

What the movie industry wants is the ability to look at each packet every person sends across the Internet and try to discern whether that little bit of information carries material the movie industry thinks shouldn't be carried. In the name of trying to "prevent this illegal activity" the movie industry and its willing partner AT&T will employ technology, deep-packet inspection or other, to see what every Internet user is doing.

The Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA) had a good term for it. In a March 14 letter to Glickman, IFTA Pres. Jean M. Prewitt called what Comcast did to throttle traffic on its network "private vigilantism." The issue is not whether thegovernment should regulate the Internet, she said, but is "whether there will be effective oversight to prevent a handful of corporate giants from imposing their own version of private regulation to the public's detriment." Piracy concerns, she said, should not be used an an excuse for "private vigilantism."

Set aside the fact for now that not all unauthorized uses of copyrighted material are illegal. That means that even if AT&T flags something, or blocks it, a person's legitimate right to use information or material could be compromised.

What right do they have to do that? Who gave the movie industry or AT&T (Verizon is yet holding out, to its credit) the authority to assume that illegal activity is taking place, and thus search for it? Or, which is worse, there might be no assumption of illegal activity, but they are searching through packets anyway, just to discern their nature in order to determine whether there should be suspicious transmissions present.

It would be like police officers breaking into homes just to see if there are any stolen goods lying around. Or it would be like telephone companies spying on Americans on the off-chance someone is talking to someone who might know a terrorist.

The telephone companies are already using up their political credits in a big way to get the White House to defend their surveillance under the guise of national security. What's going to happen when AT&T gets sued for invasion of privacy for snooping someone's legitimate Internet transmission? Will they run back to Congress asking for retroactive immunity as means of protecting a valuable American industry? Or will they ask for proactive immunity to do it ahead of time? Or is that simply more "government regulation of the Internet"?

Spying and hypocrisy are a deadly combination. They might make good movies. They make terrible policy, and it's about time the movie people and their friends realized it.