Global mall

Internet - Andrew Brown fears big business's growing control over the web and its potential

Two significant developments in recent weeks show where the real power lies on the web, and document the rapid transition of the Internet into little more than a support structure for a global shopping mall built around multiplex cinemas.

The first is a story of lawyers and money closing down on a 16-year-old Norwegian boy, Jan Johansen, who was arrested after lawyers for the film industry complained to the Norwegian police about his activities. The teenager (whose father was also arrested) is a Linux hacker who had found a way to get Linux computers to play films off DVDs. The DVD is a kind of supercharged CD that is meant to replace videotape for storing films, though it can obviously store music and conventional software as well. Compared to tape, DVD holds more, offers much better quality and comes in a more robust form. Best of all from the industry's point of view, it is designed so that copying it is easy but pointless because it can only be played back through some fancy decryption hardware.

Software companies hate selling you anything, because once it's sold, you own it, and they can't sell the same thing to you again. Practically the whole industry's marketing effort is devoted to getting round this unpleasant fact. What they dream of is renting it, so you must pay again and again every time you use it. This is what the licences you must agree to before opening any piece of software claim you are agreeing to, though everyone ignores them. But encryption technology makes these agreements enforceable. DVDs lend themselves to all kinds of iniquitous pricing schemes, because the disks can be encrypted so they can only be played back on players sold in a particular country. That way you can sell a film for $12 in the US and not worry about people importing it to undercut a price of £24 in this country, given that the $12 disk won't work on an English player. Or you could offer special versions to suit Islamic or Chinese censors. The possibilities are enough to make any lawyer salivate.

The software to play back DVDs is available for Windows and Macs, but not for Linux. So the existence of the scheme was a standing challenge to two of the hot buttons of any Linux hacker: the idea that there is anything technical that their machines cannot do, and their belief that all software should be freely copyable. Johansen was one of the people who last autumn cracked the encryption scheme so that DVDs could be played on Linux computers - or anything else you wanted. Note that he did so using DVDs that he had bought and owned himself and that he had a perfect right to play on his other computers. The companies suing him contend that he had no right to work out how their encryption functioned and to break it. You can see why they are worried: the code has now been published widely, which might enable pirate factories around the world to profit hugely. But it will still be a monstrous injustice if a teenager's life is ruined because he made it harder for George Lucas and Rupert Murdoch to make a few extra million dollars.

Much of the evidence submitted by the Motion Picture Association comes from boastful postings on Slashdot.org from kibitzers of the hacking attempt. The way in which the most unconsidered fragments of dialogue can come back years afterwards to prove the cost of free speech links this story with the other development. This might actually be the way to make the web pay - at least for advertisers. USA Today discovered that the biggest advertising company on the net, DoubleClick, has bought a direct marketing company whose database contains details of 90 per cent of American households. DoubleClick's ads record the identity of every computer that clicks on them, and can then track it across the net. Once this information is tied into a junk-mailer's database, big brother's salesmen are watching every move your mouse makes.

The crucial link in this chain is the customer survey: all of the personal information that more and more websites demand before they will give you free information. Once a computer that has accepted an identifying "cookie" file from a DoubleClick ad has also been used to give the owner's name and address to another website, the game is up. My wife has taken to filling in all these survey forms in the name of Caroline Stalin, and I urge all readers to do the same.