Digital Rights Management: not just a problem for Zune customers (all 3 of them)

Remember the Zune? Chances are you don’t. The Zune was Microsoft’s answer to the iPod. But unlike Apple’s iconic music player, the recent announcement by Microsoft that it is to close down its Zune music service this service is unlikely to result in a mass outpouring of nostalgic ‘I remember downloading my first song from the Zune store’ newspaper stories.

On the face of it, the Zune’s demise is just the latest in a long line of gadgets which never quite managed to capture the public’s imagination. However, thanks to the wonders of digital rights management (DRM) and copyright over-reach, the Zune’s demise carries with it a nasty sting in the tail which each of us should care about, whether or not we ever even came across a Zune in the real world.

From 15 November, it is not just the Zune Music Service that will close, Microsoft will also be closing down the computers which are required to authenticate any music customers purchased containing DRM. As a result of this move, DRM technology, which was always justified as a way of thwarting bad people who did not pay for music, will have the perverse effect of prevent paying customers from enjoying the music they purchased. Reassuringly, music files without DRM, irrespective of how a person obtained them, will continue to play just fine.

It doesn’t have to be this way, of course. Zune music customers can easily convert their music files into a DRM free format using software freely available on the web. But customers won’t be offered this about this option, and not simply because (relatively) few people ever got on board with Zune.

No, the reason why Zune customers will find themselves locked out of their own music collection stems from copyright law, specifically a controversial provision of the United States’ Digital Copyright Millennium Act or DCMA for short. The legislation contains what is known as an ‘anti-circumvention’ provision, which makes it a crime for anyone to attempt to circumvent ‘digital locks’ built into software, such as the DRM found in digital media. While individual Zune customers (they must exist, surely!) are unlikely to ever be prosecuted for converting their music, the existence of the legislation generates a chilling effect such that a corporation such as Microsoft would be extremely unlikely to give customers the option of converting their music to a DRM free format.

If after reading this post you’re thinking, what’s the big deal? It’s worth noting that DRM and the restrictions it imposes on customers is not limited to Zune music files. DRM is found in all areas of our life and is increasingly making the leap from the virtual to the physical world.

While I am personally vexed that the Kindle ebooks I purchase from Amazon which cannot by read on rivals to the Kindle ereader, I am reliably informed that there are more important things to worry about in life.

Today’s revelations that VW was able to use in-built software to get around environmental regulations in the United States may see unrelated to the Zune story but in both cases, DRM plays a crucial role.The anti-circumvention provision applies to the software contained in VW vehicles in the same way it does the DRM contained in the Zune music files. In the VW case, it appears the law prevented researchers from accessing the software, thus reducing their ability to spot the problem with emissions testing. And if it took five years to spot a problem with emissions, there is the very real possibility that access barriers imposed by the DCMA may be preventing safety problems from coming to light. 

Whatever your views on the necessity of DRM to protect software and media, I hope this post has illustrated the problems it can cause legitimate customers and wider society.

Kneel To The Queen: Jeremy Corbyn’s First Week Highlights The Importance of Open Innovation

After voting for Jeremy Corybyn in the Labour Party leadership election, I’ve been watching with interest and no small amount of anxiety to see how he has fared in his first week as leader.

Jeremy’s first week has been significant in many ways but for me the most significant thing has been the way his leadership has revealed the continued influence of deference in our political system and wider society. For evidence of this, take a look at the media reaction to Corbyn choosing not to sing the national anthem at the memorial service for the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain or querying the necessity of ‘kneeling to the Queen’ as a member of the Privy Council.

Whatever your views on the monarchy, this week’s developments highlight how at a foundational level Britain’s political system is far from neutral. As a result of its traditions and customs, it favours established political actors over those who would challenge the status quo. Within such a system, politicians who are comfortable singing God Save The Queen and kneeling before the Queen are conferred with respect while those who take issue with deferential customs  come across as peculiar at best or, at worst, a threat to the system and thus deemed not fit to exercise political power.

The biases exposed by Corbyn’s leadership confirm to me the importance of maintaining the internet as an open and neutral platform upon which innovation can flourish. Unlike politicians under the British political system, innovators are not required to ‘kneel to the Queen’ in order to effect change on the Internet. At its best, the internet provides a commons which everyone has equal access rights over and where innovators can try out new ideas without having to ask anyone’s permission before hand.

Sadly, there are signs that the internet is changing and becoming a less open and neutral platform. While the FCC’s Open Internet Order may protect the foundational principle of net neutrality in the short term at least, the move towards a ‘mobile first’ presents a serious challenge to the open internet.

Instead of freely building web services, developers are increasingly focused on building apps for iOS and Android. Both iOS and Android are, to differing degrees, closed platforms. As such, developers need approval from platform owners before they can innovate, in contrast to the open internet, where no such ‘permission to innovate’ is required. Given the plethora of apps available on both iOS and Android, it would be easy to dismiss the issue of permission as being nothing but a dry, theoretical concern. However, if you look carefully, you can see the detrimental effect permission culture is having on innovation.

Permission culture is evident in the area of adblocking technology. With iOS 9, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, Apple announced it would allow for the first time the development of extensions for its Safari web browser which are capable of blocking content. Up until this point, users were free to install extensions on their desktop computers but not their smartphones. Similarly, earlier this month, Adblock Plus announced it has received permission from Google for the popular adblocking software to be me made available via the Play Store, having previously been banned.

While I am no great fan of adblocking technology, I am concerned that the developers behind the innovation had to seek permission from platform owners in order to reach a mass audience. Just as the biases of the the British political system make it more difficult for unconventional politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn to effect change, the move away from a neutral and open internet towards closed mobile platforms may make it harder for new innovations to emerge which threaten to disrupt the interests of established players. Whatever your views on Jeremy Corbyn and Britain’s constitutional settlement, I hope his brushes with the political establishment encourage others to continue to fight for an open and neutral internet where people are not required to seek permission to innovate.

Is there a case for a Land Value Tax?

On Wednesday evening, I hopped on a train and headed into the city centre to attend my first meeting of the Birmingham Fabians, a local group of the Fabian Society, Britain’s oldest political think tank. I’ve been a Fabian member for years and even did a summer internship with them way back in 2003 but for some reason I’d just never got round to attending a meeting since moving to Birmingham three years ago.

What motivated me to get off the sofa was the subject of yesterday’s meeting, which was titled “The Case for a Land Value Tax”.

Jerry Jones, Chair of the Labour Land Movement, giving a talk on the Land Value Tax at Birmingham Fabians, 9 September 2015
Jerry Jones, Chair of the Labour Land Movement, giving a talk on the Land Value Tax at Birmingham Fabians, 9 September 2015

As someone who has been occasionally been mistaken for a deep thinker, I’ve always been curious about land and the process by which we arrived at our current system of land ownership and taxation. I’ve also been surprised by the strong feelings that can arise when I have questioned the fairness of the current system, in which something like 0.6 percent of the British people own 69 per cent of the land on which we live – and they are mostly the same families who owned it in the 19th century. All too often, the issue of land and and how wealth arising from its ownership is taxed, is something which is off limits.

For this reason, I was more than a little excited to get the chance to learn more about the Land Value Tax from Jerry Jones, Chair of the Labour Land Campaign and author of A Strategy For Replacing Council Tax and Business Rates With a Land Value Tax, a First Step Towards a More Equitable Tax System.

So what is a Land Value Tax then?

As its name suggests, a Land Value Tax (or LVT for short) is a tax on the value of land.

Under an LVT system, all landowners would pay an annual tax or charge,based on the rated value of the land in question. Under such a system, landowners would pay a higher charge when the value of their land rises. For proponents of LVT such as Jerry Jones, LVT is a way of ensuring the whole community benefits when the value of land rises, not just the individual landowner.

Why should landowners be taxed when the value of their land rises?

Fans of LVT justify taxing increases in land values due to their belief in what determines land value. In short, they believe landowners do not contribute to rising land values and are instead, merely the lucky recipients of a windfall generated by others.

Obviously, this is quite a controversial point of view, especially given the primacy of neoliberal economics in our daily lives but it’s worth taking the time to understand how supporters of LVT at this position.

The LVT model identifies two factors which determine land value:

1) The natural characteristics of the land. There will be more demand for land which is particularly fertile or situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty and this will push up its value. LVT calculations purposely exclude effort and investment a landowner may have made to improve the land. The landowner has not done anything to bring about this demand and so should not be able to capture all the rewards.

 2) The desirability of the area in which the land is situated. Demand for land (and there land value) is high in places where more people want to live or work. Factors affecting this demand include being near markets,  transportation routes,  public services, and sources of employment. According to the LVT argument, land value is generated by the social and economic activities of the community as a whole and not the efforts of individual landowners.

While the LVT’s point about land values seems quite ‘out there’ at first, it starts to make more sense when you are presented with examples from real life. The strongest example Jerry gave was what happened when the Jubilee London Underground line was extended in the late 1990s. As you might expect, properties situated close to the line shot up in value without the property owners having to do anything. Owners privately benefited from public investment driving up land value. Conversely, renters who had also contributed to the Jubilee extension through taxation were penalised when the cost of renting rose due to the increased desirability of the area.

The benefits of LVT

In addition to addressing the unfairness associated with landowners benefiting from unearned lad value windfalls, Jerry Jones argued that an LVT system would deliver the following benefits:

  • Discourage land speculation. Under an LVT system, landowners would be taxed on the land they hold, irrespective of whether they are using it. This would create a cost to landowners who choose to hold on to land for years on end, waiting for the price to rise, making land banking a less attractive prospect.
  • Encourage capital investment in land. Because sites would be rated according to their optimum permitted planning use, whether or not they are currently being used in this way, landowners would have an incentive to develop sites to their full potential.
  • Curb house price rises. According to Jones, land value has played a significant role in the steady rise of house prices over the past 30 years. It is argued that LVT would serve to dampen the rise in land value, thus stabilising house prices.

My thoughts on the Land Value Tax

I went into the talk on Wednesday wanting to like the Land Value Tax (if you can ever truly like a tax). Unfortunately, however, I came away unconvinced about whether it is a policy whose time has come.

I am not down on LVT because I disagree with what its proponents think about land and how it is valued. I still struggle with the concept of private ownership of natural resources such as land and can see all too clearly the negative social consequences of rising land and property prices.

Probably the main reason I am feeling down about the LVT because I felt its proponents, or at least the ones I met on Wednesday, appear to place so much faith in one tax to address complex socioeconomic problems. This was most apparent when Jerry was talking about how LVT would have substantially curbed house price rises. I would love to believe that an LVT would have achieved this and other socially worthwhile objectives but it doesn’t seem credible to me.

The other reason I am feeling less optimistic about the LVT is because I feel it will be extremely difficult to persuade the public to support the tax. While I am ambivalent about land ownership and am concerned about the effect of rising land values on social cohesion, I am not so naive to believe everyone else shares my outlook. Rightly or wrongly, property and home ownership arouse strong feelings in the UK. Introducing an LVT would be a challenge to the status quo and, as such, be subject to fierce resistance. When the less than watertight arguments made by proponents  of LVT meet with this natural in-built resistance to change, I fear the tax will not find its way onto the statute book.

Welcome to Your New Job

I am writing this post at the end of an eventful week in my life.

On Tuesday, the first day of autumn, I got up early and caught a train to London to start a new job working as a Product Lead for Helpful Technology, a company which specialises in digital communications and engagement. The company was set up by former civil servant Steph Gray, who I first met back in 2010-11, when I was working for FutureGov. As well as helping Whitehall departments become more confident with digital, Helpful Technology also works with charity and not-for-profit organisations.

Like anyone starting a new job, I was filled with a mixture of nerves and excitement. To make matters worse, I couldn’t get The Futureheads’ First Day out of my head.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X9XSMF1ymBk]

Fortunately, I somehow managed to shake-off The Futureheads by the time I arrived at Helpful’s offices in Clerkenwell to meet my new manager. And even if I didn’t quite manage to project an image of calm, easygoing intelligence I think I did okay. I’m pleased to report everyone at Helpful has been very friendly and, yes, helpful. As the week has moved on I have found myself becoming more relaxed and settling into life at Helpful.

At the moment I am working for Helpful as a contractor for three days a week, combining a day commuting to London with working from home on the other two days. As someone who first started his career in local government, I still find it a bit strange to be working in such a flexible way. For now, though, I am going with the flow and trying to enjoy the benefits that come with the flexibility, such as being able to organise last night’s great Open Rights Group Birmingham meetup.

It’s been a great first week and I feel I am learning a lot from working alongside the team at Helpful, which I will aim to share in future posts. But for now, I am heading off to relax and recover. Enjoy your weekend.