The week before last, the folks who run The Pirate Bay were on trial for violating copyright laws in Sweden. The Pirate Bay is one of the largest and most popular Bit Torrent sites. They host millions of torrent files that allow people to connect with each other and share music, movies, video games, and other media. That’s right, they don’t actually have any illegal music or movies on their servers, they’re just showing you how to talk to other people who do. But what, you ask, does this trial have to do with Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google? Read on to find out.
There is one essential way that computers and the Internet have changed our society that, even now, few people truly grasp and understand. As the price of storage has come down, we save more and more of the data we produce. After all, why would you delete anything when you could just spend $40 and get another 100 gigabyte hard drive? The same goes for big companies, too. As the cost of storage has gone down, they’ve had less and less incentive to delete information about the people they’ve done business with. In fact, new data mining techniques make that data potentially very valuable. What happens, then, if everything you do online, every email you write, every purchase you make, and every website you visit gets recorded somewhere for several years or even forever. But even more than that, as security cameras become more and more common your movements are recorded, too, and the companies and governments that do the recording may keep those videos as long as they want. That is the world we live in today, but the implications of this reality are not well understood.
This past week was jam-packed with exciting and interesting tech news, so today I bring you two, yes 2, amazing stories for the price of 1. First is somewhat of a followup from my column two weeks ago: last Monday, the Wall Street Journal posted an article about how Google’s policy shift away from net neutrality, along with a similar move by several major proponents of net neutrality, could spell trouble for the movement and signals a change in Obama’s stance on net neutrality. The second story is that the RIAA has stopped suing individuals for filesharing. The copyright wars are over, let the Intarwebz rejoice! Of course, neither of these stories are quite as simple as they seem.
The debate surrounding Net Neutrality is heating up and the stakes are very high. Net Neutrality is the idea that anyone can use the Internet for whatever they want as long as it’s not malicious. Even when someone does something malicious online, the crime is doing something malicious, not misusing the Internet. Furthermore, the companies that own all the cables and sell you service (known as ISPs or the telecoms) don’t charge more for using one website than another. All they care about is how much data is going across their networks and how fast it’s going. But, the telecoms want to change that. They want to get rid of Net Neutrality and start charging you and/or companies extra money based on what websites you use. They compare it to cable TV where customers get most of it for free, but have to pay extra for some channels. This is a poor comparison, though, for many reasons. The biggest one is the relative power of the media companies (that is, the companies that own the channels) and the cable TV companies (the ones that broadcast the channels.) Both companies, in that case, are usually very large, very rich companies that negotiate from relatively even ground. The Internet is much more decentralized and innovation is happening much faster than in the cable TV world. If I came up with a great way to use the Internet tomorrow, I could share it with my friends or start selling it right away. If the big companies could charge extra for different uses of the Internet, it’s very likely that no one would use my new invention because no one person would want to risk paying the extra money to try it out. Right now the rules and laws aren’t completely clear, but most people interpret them to mean that the telecoms aren’t allowed to discriminate between different uses of the Internet like that, but telecoms are working very hard to change the rules.
About three weeks ago, T-Mobile launched the first phone running Android, Google’s new, open-source cell phone operating system. A quick search will turn up lots of reviews of this phone and the OS, so if you want a review, go read one of those. I’m more interested in talking about why Android is a Big Deal™. The phone itself (known as the G1) is pretty good, I’ve been using it for about two weeks and liked it, but the phone is not what’s revolutionary, it’s the software. Most people are pretty used to making a distinction between their computer and the software the runs on it (Windows, Firefox, etc.), but that’s not something that we think about with our cellphones. Truthfully, most people probably still won’t make that distinction. But as more and more phones fall into the category of smart phones (like the BlackBerry, iPhone, and G1), we’re likely to see the market center around two or three operating systems for cell phones just like we’ve seen with PCs and laptops. But Walker, you ask, what’s so cool about Android?
Today marks the beginning of the FCC’s auction of the 700 Mhz radio spectrum. This is the portion of airwaves used by TV right now. But, of course, that will all go away starting in February 2009, but the question is what will take it’s place?