Sunday, 26 June 2011

Technology can work both ways, problems and solutions

Contradictheory By Dzof Azmi

TECHNOLOGY is about making things easy. You want to send a message, click – that’s it. You want to download a song, click, click, click. A bit more difficult, but that’s it. You want to attack a website – well, that’s several clicks away, too.

In fact, attacking a website is now as easy as downloading a script and clicking on it. During the recent cyber attacks on 51 Malaysian Government websites, it was suggested that most of them were victims of such “script kiddies”.

The raids on the government websites were said to be in response to the blocking of 10 file-sharing sites on the Internet. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), which blocked the websites, alleged that it did so because the websites were violating the Copyright Act. They made available content which had been copied without permission, for download for free.

I have written on the subject of downloading content for free from the Internet before. My conclusion then was that if it’s Malaysian entertainment content, it is good if more people can access it as easily as possible.

Admittedly, if you have to do so by breaking the law, that is another thing altogether.

Yet, I believe the steps taken by the MCMC in response to pleas by copyright content owners is a misstep. If you are trying to prevent piracy, trying to block the hosepipe that is the Internet drop by drop is not likely to succeed.

It’s a problem of supply and demand. For music, movies and TV shows, the demand for cheap or free access is high. As a result people will resort to many difficult things, including paying RM150 a month for Internet access and learning how to download content for free. Well, as I said, the Internet makes the difficult easy.

The reasoning behind blocking the websites is that it will stem supply. However, because the Internet is intrinsically designed to provide access that’s as easy and reliable as possible to content that resides on it, blocking one website will only lead people to look for another. And blocking 10 will result in 10 others taking their place.

Even if you could block all the websites, the open nature of the Net will most probably result in alternative routes. There was a time when file-sharing programmes such as Kazaa and Napster ruled the wires. When they were unceremoniously blocked and banned, people just moved on to alternatives.

The problem is that the demand is too high. So, instead of restricting supply, perhaps we should just admit the real solution lies in satisfying demand.

Although it’s a rather simplistic way of looking at the problem, this paradigm shift has proven to succeed in another, seemingly unrelated field – the war on drugs.

In the late 1980s, Switzerland’s problem with drugs was similar to that in many other countries in the world. The problem extended beyond the existence of addicts; it brought with it additional crime, be it in the form of drug pushers who looked to sell their goods illegally, or users who burgled to pay for their addiction.

This prompted the Swiss Government to embark on an aggressive programme against drugs. But instead of just trying to lock up more drug dealers, they also looked at the users. In particular, they realised that not all addicts responded well to treatment, and that their demand for “hard” drugs would remain.

So, the Swiss did the next best thing – they tried to reduce demand of illegal drugs by prescribing heroin.

In 1994, the Medical Prescription of Narcotics Programme set up clinics around Switzerland and identified hard-core users, who were then given injections of pharmaceutical-quality heroin daily, combined with medical, psychiatric, and social monitoring.

For this, the addicts paid 15 Swiss Francs or approximately US$8.50 (RM26.30) per day.

After three years, not only were participants’ health more stable, the use of illicit heroin and cocaine had dropped. And, they were more likely to have a home and get a job. Income from illegal activities dropped from 69% to 10%, and the number of offenders and offences decreased by about 60% in the first six months of treatment.

A 2004 World Health Organisation report concluded that for every dollar invested in the programme, US$12 (RM36) was saved on law enforcement, judicial and health costs. The programme is recognised to be so successful that in a 2008 referendum more than 68% of Swiss voters chose to keep it.

How does this work for illegal downloads? I’m not suggesting we have free cinemas for hard-core download addicts, but I believe that if you make it easier and cheaper to access legitimate content, it will reduce the number of illegal downloads. In short, satisfy the demand and people will not abuse the supply.

Right now, Malaysian-made movies are available almost on-demand via products like Astro First and HyppTV. For only RM15 you can watch a movie that has premiered relatively recently.

It’s a low price, but still not low enough to deter piracy. The good news is that I think the price can go down further.

In the United States, a company called Netflix allows people to view all the movies they like, whenever they want, at US$7.99 (RM24) a month. Not only is their selection wider than what our local providers are offering, the cost also works out to be lower in the long run if you are a serious movie addict.

At the end of the day, technology is just a tool that can work both ways. Instead of just using it to make it hard for lawbreakers to commit crimes, shouldn’t we also make it easy for law-abiders to get what they want?

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions.