RBOCs stand tall against recording industry

FRAMINGHAM (09/25/2003) - I usually don't say nice things about telcos. And I almost never say nice things about their lawyers. But here I'll do both: Kudos to the lawyers at Verizon Communications and SBC for opposing the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA's) request that the telcos compromise the privacy of their customers. Way to go, guys.

Here's the deal: the RIAA has asked the regional Bell operating companies, including Verizon and SBC, to monitor customers' usage of their digital subscriber line services and report downloads of copyrighted material. To their everlasting credit, the telcos have refused to comply and are fighting the RIAA in federal court.

"The recording industry is essentially granting itself more power than law enforcement has under the Patriot Act," Sara Deutsch, Verizon vice president and associate general counsel, said in one report.

The RIAA doesn't believe that civil rights are the issue.

"[The phone companies' position] doesn't pass the laugh test or the smell test," Matt Oppenheim, RIAA senior vice president of legal affairs reportedly says.

With all due respect, Mr. Oppenheim, that's horsepucky.

The former Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) have a long and distinguished track record of protecting their customers' privacy, even at the expense of the telcos' own interests. I worked with RBOCs in the mid-'90s on the development of quality of service that would have required IP packet inspection. RBOC executives ultimately rejected these services because they conflicted with customer privacy.

What doesn't pass the smell test is the RIAA's own position with respect to copyright enforcement. Ultimately, its approach is outdated, impractical and Orwellian - and benefits neither the artists whose interests the RIAA supposedly represents, nor the fans whose dollars fuel the entire music industry.

Don't get me wrong: I believe in copyright protection. Artists, software developers and other content creators have the right to be compensated for their efforts and deserve protection of their intellectual property.

But that's not what the RIAA is really fighting for. The RIAA acts on behalf of record companies, not artists. And record companies are fundamentally distributors and promoters - not creators - of content.

What's going on is that the Internet has dramatically cut the costs and enhanced the efficiency of distribution and promotion mechanisms, in the process is making obsolete many of the core business processes of record companies. In other words, record company executives are in approximately the same position that manufacturing workers were in during the '80s and '90s: Their jobs have been made redundant by technology.

The real reason the RIAA is attempting to force telcos to drag their customers into court is to protect the jobs of record executives, not the rights of artists, who benefit from less expensive and more effective distribution mechanisms.

What the RIAA needs to do is wake up and develop cost-effective distribution and promotion models that serve fans and artists well. If it can't, the organization should be replaced by one that does.

Regardless, kudos to Verizon and SBC for standing up to the RIAA's encroachment of our civil rights.

Johnson is president and chief research officer at Nemertes Research, an independent technology research firm. She can be reached at johna@nemertes.com.

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