Rhodri Marsden: Should legal music sites get special treatment?

Cyberclinic
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The Independent Tech

The record label Ministry of Sound made an eye-opening move a couple of weeks ago to tackle the problem of illegal file sharing. Or at the very least, to put the fear of bejesus up alleged offenders and perhaps rake in some cash in the process. Its solicitors sent out some grimly worded legal communiqués to 2,000 individuals, demanding compensation for their free 'n' easy sharing of Ministry of Sound tracks to the tune of a few hundred pounds, or else face their full wrath in court. Many paid up straight away, while others simply binned the letters, imagining – not without justification – that the threats were essentially toothless.

There's been a lot of debate over whether this "speculative invoicing" tackles the problem effectively (one senior music business figure I spoke to muttered that Ministry of Sound's actions were "ridiculous") and it does look a bit like a stable-door-horse-bolted scenario in light of some stats compiled by the music trade publication Music Ally last week. They posed the question of whether search engines – and particularly Google, with its 70 per cent market share – should accept far more responsibility for the huge amount of traffic they direct to illegal download sites when perfectly benign search terms are typed in. True, searches on Google.co.uk for this week's top 40 albums generally direct people to legitimate outlets. But add "download" or "mp3" to the search and a mass of torrent sites are returned in the top five results. Indeed, when Music Ally added "mp3" to a search for the new AC/DC album, the first link for buying the thing in a way that would actually benefit AC/DC was buried somewhere down the fifth page.

It begs the question of how savvy we all are about the difference between legitimate and illegal ways of obtaining music, and the nature of the search engine that directs us towards them. Google prides itself on returning links that we want to follow; its wildly successful business model entirely depends on it. So, if Google's famed website-ranking algorithm is doing its job properly – and there's no reason to suspect it isn't – when we type in "download" or "mp3", that would indicate that we're secretly hoping to grab the songs for free. The question is whether Google, as it does with medical retailers in the USA, should allow legitimate music purchasing sites a special dispensation to rise up the rankings artificially to encourage us not to break the law. Those who accuse Google of popularising and legitimising illegal sites through their prominence on the search engine would say an emphatic "yes". Google, meanwhile, would see its role as more of a passive overseer – and its colossal might means it's hard to force it to do anything. But according to music industry body the BPI, there are "fruitful discussions" afoot which, who knows, may melt some of the ice from Google's frozen heart.



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The latest iPhone app to be swiftly removed from Apple's online store is Handy Light, an innocent-looking thing which lets you use your phone as a pocket torch. Its swift elevation up the app charts looked a bit odd, until you discovered that it was a smokescreen for a tethering app – a way of allowing your laptop, or another device, to use your phone's 3G internet connection. Some phone manufacturers and mobile networks have become incredibly reluctant to allow this in recent years, putting hardware and software barriers in our way to make us to splash out on things like wireless dongles and MiFi units that essentially do the same thing.

But if we've already shelled out to a mobile network for a certain amount of data, what's the problem if we choose to use it up with a laptop rather than a phone? Vodafone, for example, charge £5 for a 500Mb tethering bundle with an iPhone 4, but 1Gb of data is already included in the price plan. It's like the BBC suddenly deciding that Doctor Who will be shown on pay-per-view. "Look, people want this, so let's charge them twice."

If you're geeky enough to get around the tethering hurdles, can the networks even tell if you're using a laptop rather than a phone? Possibly, if they examine the data closely, which they're unlikely to do unless you're exceeding your limit. Which, I note, is still described by Orange on their iPhone 4 page as "unlimited", despite being 750Mb per month. This column will henceforth be billed as containing "unlimited" information, despite being 750 words long.

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