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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 February 2006, 09:17 GMT
Locking down our digital future
Debate over digital rights and the place of user-generated content in the internet of the near future shaped a key conference on the developing digital world, writes internet law professor Michael Geist.

Last week all roads in the digital world led to Rome.

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Hundreds of government officials, policy experts and companies descended on the Italian capital for a conference on the future of the digital economy.

Jointly hosted by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the Italian government, the meeting marked a turning point in the digital content debate, as several long-simmering concerns emerged as mainstream issues.

The discussion pointed to two competing approaches for the creation and distribution of digital content in the internet era.

One approach, advocated by conventional content companies from the movie and music industries, as well as by US government officials, emphasised the need for digital rights management (DRM) technologies to "lock down" content.

They argued that DRM allows them to set specific limitations on the use of content, thereby facilitating commercial models such as individual downloads or full subscription services.

DRM supporters assured delegates that their models were gaining marketplace acceptance as the content owners claimed that they stand ready to license their material for distribution on multiple platforms such as the internet and mobile phones.

User-generated future

While the emphasis on DRM was not unexpected, the alternate approach, which focused on user-generated content, took many delegates by surprise.

Described as "amateur" content, the conference featured numerous presentations on how the combination of easy-to-use technologies and widespread internet access has unleashed an unprecedented array of new creativity.

Rather than reducing their reliance on digital rights management, content owners blamed electronics makers for a lack of interoperability
These included discussions on Creative Commons, an alternate licensing system that has enabled individuals to make more than 60 million works available to the internet community; Flickr, the photo-sharing site that features millions of digital photographs; and the BBC Creative Archive, which allows UK residents to re-use original content from that country's public broadcaster.

The popularity of weblogs, or blogs, also attracted considerable interest. David Sifry, the founder and CEO of Technorati, a blog search engine, reported that his company now tracks more than 27 million blogs, with 75,000 new blogs created every day.

Moreover, the popularity of blogs is not strictly a North American phenomenon. Last month Technorati tracked more blog postings written in Japanese than in English.

Passing the blame

Notwithstanding the support for the DRM and user-generated approaches, both face threats that could hamper their development.

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DRM supporters seemed ready to acknowledge that the technology has created consumer concerns.

Although there was still little discussion of the privacy and security problems that were typified by last year's Sony rootkit controversy, many speakers admitted that major problems have arisen from the lack of interoperability that has made it difficult for consumers to transfer lawfully acquired content from one device to another.

For example, the Napster music subscription service has been hurt by the inability to transfer songs to an Apple iPod.

Rather than addressing the problem by reducing their reliance on DRM, however, the content owners lay the blame for the lack of interoperability on consumer electronics makers.

This was characterised as "content neutrality", with the DRM backers looking to legislators to require the electronics makers to reconfigure their devices to allow the locked content to work on all devices.

A two-tier internet?

While the content owners battle the electronics makers over DRM solutions that may still leave consumers paying more for less, the growth of user-generated content faces two threats.

One threat comes from the limitations of DRM-enabled content, which can severely limit or prohibit legal modification of material.

These concerns were raised last week at a UK parliamentary committee hearing on DRM by well-respected organisations such as the British Library.

Other forms of user-generated content are increasing
User-generated content also faces the threat of the two-tiered internet, which has garnered increasing attention in recent months.

This refers to internet service provider (ISP) plans to restrict subscriber access to software such as BitTorrent, which is widely used to distribute user-generated content such as independent films or open source programs.

The two-tier internet could also hamper the growth of tools used to locate user-generated content, since ISPs such as BellSouth, Verizon, and Telus have all raised the prospect of charging websites and services for the right to deliver content to their subscribers.

While established websites may pay such tolls, many smaller sites could be forced out of business by these ISP demands.

In light of these developments, the conference ultimately sent a mixed message about the future of the digital economy.

The internet has sparked a remarkable outpouring of new creativity and provided conventional content owners with exciting new marketplace opportunities.

Yet legislators may be forced to intervene to ensure that consumers are protected from onerous DRM restrictions and that ISPs are precluded from using their positions as internet gatekeepers to harm innovation.

Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.

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