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A Russian Meteor, Press Freedom, and the "New Westphalian Web"

BY Miranda Neubauer | Tuesday, February 26 2013

Supported by MyVideo. Made by OpenDataCity. This App is under CC-BY 3.0.

When a meteor appeared over the Chelyabinsk region of Russia, it did more than shatter windows and turn heads. The blast — and videos of the meteor taken by the many Russians who carry cameras as protection against more pedestrian hazards like car accidents or corrupt public officials — also rained shrapnel over the debate around music, TV and movie intellectual property in the digital age, linking it once again with questions about what press freedom means in what many think is, or should be, a borderless Internet.

Ars Technica has already outlined the problem. Thanks to an ongoing dispute between YouTube and GEMA, the main German performing rights organization, many videos of the explosion were inaccessible to German readers. In this instance, Ars Technica explains, YouTube blocked videos because of background music playing on Russian car radios rather than risk offering GEMA any grounds for legal action.

As a result, Germans lacked a first-person window into a major news event enjoyed by many in the rest of the world, and one group representing journalists in Germany sees a connection between the copyright dispute over music and a threat to press freedom.

"The dispute between GEMA and YouTube about music rights is no longer just leading to many blocked music videos on the German Internet, but is now also leading to limitations on freedom of the press and opinion," the Berlin Brandenburg chapter of the German journalists' association DJV said in a statement.

A visualization recently created by German journalistic interactive design team Open Data City, and also cited by Ars Technica, illustrates how more than 60 percent of the 1,000 most popular YouTube videos are not accessible in Germany because YouTube assumes that the music rights might be owned by GEMA. The visualization also notes that almost 19 percent of the top 1,000 videos are blocked in one or more countries outside Germany.

Germany does not have an equivalent to the American "fair use" exemption to copyright law, Ars Technica notes.

Google told the journalists' association that YouTube uses an algorithm to block all videos containing music. Only videos that content owners have explicitly identified as being exempt from GEMA rights are not blocked. Since YouTube has not received a list of affected videos, it says it feels obligated to preemptively block all of them to avoid financial and legal risks. Google notes that it has signed agreements with collecting societies in over 40 countries.

GEMA says that it's only interested in making sure that content owners are appropriately compensated for use of their repertoire. YouTube, it suggests, has in effect decided to use content that is subject to GEMA rights without proper compensation, thereby violating intellectual property law. Both entities have been involved in on-and-off negotiations, legal and otherwise, since March 2009, when a previous agreement with YouTube expired. After ongoing out-of-court negotiations fell apart in January following a separate court ruling, GEMA says, it has turned to the arbitration body of the German Patent and Trademark Office. There, it's asking for a rate of $0.05 cents per YouTube stream.

In the meantime, YouTube informs users who try to view blocked videos that they can't because of a dispute with GEMA. GEMA is threatening further legal action against YouTube for even implying that they're at fault, explaining that it's willing to license content for a fee.

For the journalists' association, this back-and-forth comes down to "one monopolist with excessive demands reproaching another monopolist for not paying its demanded price."

With no solution in sight, the journalists' association says viewers should use proxy servers to view the videos — just as someone in China might use to access material the government there has deemed politically objectionable.

"Going around these blocks with proxy servers or VPN-servers is a technique that is unfortunately necessary in dictatorships and is unworthy of a democracy," the association writes. "As a journalist association we demand that both parties come to a quick agreement, since it is not acceptable that news items in the public interest are not accessible in Germany because of this dispute."

But the dispute is not just a German issue, and it's not just about music videos and meteors.

In a recent Foreign Policy piece, "The New Westphalian Web," Katherine Maher notes that the ideal of a borderless Internet is coming under increasing fire from nations looking to reassert control over online affairs within their geographic boundaries.

In many respects, however, as the GEMA example shows, copyright regulations and disputes promoted by business interests are already imposing old national borders on the Internet.

Last summer, many Internet users turned to the VPN service Tunnelbear to view the Olympics through the BBC. NBC, which had the exclusive U.S. rights to the Olympics, was time-delaying some broadcasts into prime time and packaging them in ways that some viewers didn't like. BBC was offering more open-ended viewing online — but only in the U.K. Canada-based Tunnelbear, which includes "experience the Internet as if you were living in another country" in its tagline, allowed users to appear to the BBC's web servers as if they were connecting from within the U.K. It is now asking its users to vote on which countries it should add next.

In a recent New York Times interview about the season finale of Downton Abbey, series creator Julian Fellowes addressed the growing issue of American fans finding it hard to avoid spoilers between when the show first airs in England in the fall and on PBS in the winter and demands that the broadcast officially be simultaneous.

Some media companies are attempting to adjust. HBO announced Monday that it would make new HBO shows available on their Hong Kong service 12 hours after their U.S. telecast in order to combat piracy.

But as the meteor incident shows, issues around access to content aren't just about intellectual property rights. They also affect how much people in any country can know about the broader world and how many different perspectives are available to them to do so.