Thursday 30 September 2010

Everyone's talking about ACS Law (and it's not a new TV series)

By far the most interesting story in the headlines this week has been the release of personal information about alleged file-sharers, acquired from the now-notorious ACS Law. The combination of porn, lawyers , hackers and money seems to have captured the public’s imagination. But for me, the most interest lies in the ISPs, the encryption of personal data, and the implications for the UK’s copyright law.

A very good discussion of the attitudes of ISPs appears on ‘dot.Rory’. In the GQ article on music piracy (which I discussed a few weeks ago), McGuinness complains that ISPs have made billions from the illegal sharing of content. However I firmly disagree with the scatter-gun approach companies like ACS Law take to try and remunerate copyright holders. I was impressed to learn that two ISPs (Virgin Media and TalkTalk) have refused to hand over personal data to law firms. My new-found respect for these companies may well influence my future buying patterns.

The episode has brought the importance of encrypting data prior to sending it into the spotlight. Given that most people assume that their email accounts are secure, I expect a lot of files are currently sent unencrypted. Further, it raises the question of the level of encryption required, as many forms of encryption can be broken by a skilled and determined hacker. The story, this week, of a group of internet fraudsters who stole millions from online bank accounts has shown just how vulnerable our information security can be, even when we think we are taking all the right precautions.

And finally, the ACS Law episode has stimulated discussion about the Digital Economy Act and the practicalities of implementing it. The public anger against ACS Law, Sky and Plusnet is going to make ISPs more reluctant to take sanctions against file sharers. Furthermore, the online community 4chan has proved it has the will and the resources to put up a guerrilla fight against organisations trying to fight file sharing. The need to come up with a viable solution to support content-owners rights in a digital world is now stronger than ever. And a war that has had a relatively low profile until now, has become front page news.

Tuesday 21 September 2010

Disruptive Innovation requires Interdisciplinary Thinking

I was recently leafing through a psychology blog, and a post about The Perils of Interdisciplinarity caught my attention. I very much agree with the statement, “Some of the most engaging research topics today lie firmly on the boundaries between two or more distinct subjects.”

Intersection between two subjects previously thought of as distinct is a ripe ground for coming up with new ideas. In business school terminology, pursuing single discipline research can lead to ‘incremental’ innovations, i.e. steady improvements on existing technologies. Interdisciplinary research, on the other hand, is where you are likely to find ‘disruptive’ innovations, which completely transform whole industries.

A few examples of interdisciplinary technologies that came to mind:
  • Nanotechnology, at the intersection of quantum physics, materials science and engineering. Nanomaterials are already used in some suncreams and cosmetics, and could potentially revolutionise medicine, computing, and the energy industry.

  • Biotechnology: at the crossroads between genetics and manufacturing, biotech has long been touted as a boom industry. Growth has not been as rapid as once predicted, but that is not to say it won’t happen. A lot of interesting work is going on around using artificial photosynthesis on an industrial scale to solve the world’s energy problems.

  • Photonics: the use of light instead of electrical signals in computing is another area that breaks boundaries between quantum physics, information engineering and materials science. A breakthrough was announced this week in the form of the world’s first ‘photonic’ chip capable of complex calculations. It seems that quantum computing may not be far off, which could render today’s information security systems obsolete.
I found it interesting to speculate which combinations of research areas I would like to see more of in the future. Combining some of the process-flow analysis techniques from chemical engineering with macroeconomics could lead to some interesting modelling of monetary / wealth flows; research in mathematical modelling of non-linear systems (chaos theory) might improve the design of manufacturing systems, and (to lead things back to psychology) the study of hallucination and dreaming might help us to understand the scientific basis of ‘time.’ All just wild speculation – but interdisciplinary thinking has to start somewhere...

Monday 6 September 2010

Digital piracy could end up hurting you, too

Music piracy is a controversial and divisive issue, with both copyright holders and supporters of free media vocal for their cause. I recently read an insightful article by on the issue by Paul McGuiness, manager of U2, in August’s issue of GQ. McGuiness argues for copyright protection through legislation that forces internet service providers (ISPs) to issue warnings to persistent file-sharers, and ultimately to then throttle or cut off their internet access. Known as the “Graduated Approach,” this has been adopted in the UK as part of the Digital Economy Act.

A big part of the debate on music piracy is whether or not it actually harms anyone. After all, the reasoning goes, once a piece of music has been recorded all the costs to the creator of that music have already been incurred. Having one more person listen to the music doesn’t cost the originator so why not just let it happen?

Paul McGuiness responds that treating music as a free good causes longer-term damage to the music industry. Without paying listeners, the industry lacks sustainability

“Indigenous music industries from Spain to Brazil are collapsing. An independent study endorsed by trade unions says Europe’s creative industries could lose more than a million jobs in the next five years... this isn’t just about fewer limos for rich rock stars.”

Unfortunately confusion around the issue results from the fact that both lines of reasoning are at least part way correct. Imagine a Venn diagram, where one circle represents people who want an album enough they are willing to pay for it, and the other circle represents people who download the album without paying. The artist is losing out on revenue where the two circles overlap, representing people who would be willing to pay for the album but download it for free anyway*. If someone who would not be willing to pay for the album downloads it, then the artist is not losing out on a potential sale (although they could still raise a moral objection). One of the greatest difficulties from the perspective of music industry is that it is impossible to tell whether someone who downloads something illegally would have been willing to pay for the content.

As previously noted on this blog, the web allows for a wide variety of amateur producers of content to share their material. However the expectation of free content has also been detrimental to some of those on the lower rungs of the professional ladder, and so far a satisfactory solution has not been found.

*The relative size of boxes and degree of overlap in the Venn diagram varies according to the price of the content – a realisation that has lead to the proliferation of cheap downloads and subscriber services for music and TV