Hugo Rifkind

Don’t blame the Guardian if criminals are getting better at hiding online. Blame iTunes and Netflix

Plus: Sympathy for Jean-Claude Juncker

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

14 June 2014

8:00 AM

I wouldn’t wish to deny that all drug dealers and crime lords read the Guardian. Indeed, check the circulation figures, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that only drug dealers and crime lords read the Guardian. So, when I read last week about the trouble that GCHQ is now having tracking online criminality, and the way that GCHQ considers recent revelations about state surveillance via the Guardian to be the cause, I did not for a moment think that GCHQ was entirely wrong.

I genuinely wonder, though, if the rogue National Security Agency IT boffin Edward Snowden, whom we hear so much about, has damaged national security as much as Apple has. Or Netflix or BT or TalkTalk, or the entirety of the global industries of music, television and film.

No, I’m wholly serious. On our screens and smartphones, something quite alarming is happening. Probably it would have eventually happened anyway, but it’s not this fast. And everything anybody does to slow it down makes it happen all the faster.

It clicked for me a month ago, when a bunch of newspapers (including my own) reported a massive surge in encrypted internet traffic. To explain — and forgive me if no explanation is necessary — encrypted traffic is traffic disguised or hidden, or behaving in some way as though it doesn’t want anybody to be noticing it. This surge was small in the US, but far larger in Europe and South America. According to most reports, this was all about a heightened desire for online privacy in the face of a sudden realisation that online privacy was quite hard to have.

‘Gosh,’ I thought to myself. And then I went home, fired up Netflix, and made it think I was in America so that I could catch up on Mad Men. And then I thought, ‘Hang on.’

For copyright reasons, Netflix America gives you different shows from Netflix UK. Apple’s film and music store, iTunes, does the same, to the extent that I once had to tell my wife’s iPad we were in America so I could re-download a copy of Finding Nemo we’d bought while over there on holiday. For this reason, all over the world, digitally, people are pretending to be in America when they aren’t. Others pretend to be in the UK so they can watch the BBC’s iPlayer. It’s not hard to do this. Once you know what to do, setting up a web proxy — effectively re-routing your data so that it doesn’t go where your internet provider intends it to — is the work of a moment.

Possibly your home internet provider blocks porn. David Cameron, remember, wants ISPs to block it by default, unless you ask for it. If you don’t fancy asking for it, though, it’s the work of a moment to pretend you’re accessing it from, say, Idaho instead. Lots of ISPs, similarly, block access to piracy sites, or torrent sites which they assume to be piracy sites. Likewise.

The thing is that three years ago, hardly anybody knew how to do this stuff. Now lots of people do. And it is not fierce state oppression that has taught them; not the Great Firewall of China, nor, probably, the fear that a man in Cheltenham is keeping a file. It is silly, prosaic stuff; wanting to watch the TV you’ve paid for while abroad, wanting to hear a song today rather than tomorrow, wanting a wank. And in wanting these things, and in a spirit of mild annoyance at a host of clodhopping measures imposed by people who don’t really understand what they are doing, we find ourselves learning the tricks and techniques that terrorists, criminals and child pornographers need to survive.

Do you see what I’m driving at here? In seeking to impose law, we are actively making the internet more lawless. We are making it far harder, rather than easier, to police. With bitcoin, piracy, pornography and all the rest of it, I have long believed that the electronic world is heading towards an event horizon, after which states will effectively lose the power to prevent almost anything. I knew it would happen, but I didn’t think it would happen so soon. Two years ago, some dumb kid in Bradford probably wouldn’t have known how to hide his footprints before downloading a bomb manual, because it was a niche skill. Now it’s commonplace, because you need to do the same thing to beat off a day early to Game of Thrones. Whoops.

A bigger pond

I feel a bit sorry for Jean-Claude Juncker. Poor chap. What else are you supposed to do after being Prime Minister of Luxembourg? You hit that dizzy height — comparable, pretty much, with being Lord Provost of Edinburgh — and then what? Move sideways into one of the great Luxembourgish national industries? Become a talkshow host? Tour the world addressing your expat compatriots around the world in a series of exceedingly small venues? Nah. It’s the EU or nowt.

Seen from the perspective of small states, Europe suddenly looks like a very different business. It’s not really a secret German plan to take over the continent, is it? Or a great co-operation designed to prevent war. Rather, it’s a self-interested plot by people from places where almost nobody lives to have influence, relevance and clout. No wonder he’s a federalist too. It’s that or not leaving the house.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.

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Show comments
  • If men want a wank, why don’t they just do it? And why do the johns of prostitutes-on-film have no shame? I want to be rich, but I don’t mug people or rob banks….

    • jbasil

      Redownload – so it was deleted and now he wants it back again, the thing he paid for, fair enough most. Would agree.
      BBC iPlayer is in fact free to access, even without the license fee, the license fee allows you to watch live television.
      The point on Netflix, clearly he has a Netflix account, and is paying for the shows instead of torrenting which would be free (and illegal). In fact region incompatibility for your DVDs is partly due to copyright issues in the country, just like Netflix.

      • Yes I know he paid for it. My point is that he is clearly saying that dash it, people have to do workarounds, and I’m saying dash it — only because they haven’t paid up properly. As for copyright, the main issue is people using work without compensating the creator for it, and I’ve paid for my DVDs for home watching like anyone else, so I don’t see how ‘copyright’ comes into it.

        • rob232

          I really do not have any interest or sympathy with the entertainment industry over their copyright problems. I am old enough to remember the enormous sums of money they demanded for access to music and cinema when they had a virtual monopoly of these. Over the years many of us have watched as technology has rendered so many of our businesses obsolete. Many people who earned their livings easily have lost everything because of the internet or technological advances. All I can say to the BBC or Warner Brothers when they start whining and present themselves as a special case is ‘Welcome to the 21st century and learn to live in it like the rest of us.’

        • Kennybhoy

          “The attitude behind Rifkind’s stance is an infantile sense of entitlement, based on nothing but his own desires…”

          Spot on. Alas, this applies to majority of the population under a certain age…

          “…and is hard to credit in a man that writes for The Spectator.”

          Genuinely rotflol! There is a reason that we regulars call them Speccie teenagers Puss!

          • Grin!

          • girondas

            Hi Puss, long time no speak – I’ve been walkabout
            Hope you’re keeping well

          • Hi G, nice to see you : ) Having a great time in the Smoky Mountains (here for eight wonderful weeks). I guess you’re well past exams and enjoying summer, too.

        • Hugo Rifkind

          Jeez. Where to start? First, sorry I said “wank”. It seems to have affected you deeply.

          Second, you’ve comprehensively misunderstood my point. I’m not an advocate of free stuff. Far from it. I’m a strong defender of subscriptions and paywalls, in every form. I pay for Netflix, for Spotify, for Sky. And I work for two paywalled publications. I think people should pay for the media they consume. No exception. I certainly pay for mine.

          However, you need to be a bit savvy and realistic about how you MAKE them pay for the media they consume. In their own ways, both Spotify and Netflix have been gloriously successful, largely because they’re easier to use than piracy methods. Similarly, with Youtube, the music industry has stopped trying to prevent everything from appearing online, but instead started slapping advertising on it. This works.

          The needless problems come when a person has paid to access something but, through licencing technicalities, still cannot. For example, why shouldn’t I be able to watch Mad Men on Netflix? I’ve paid for it twice over already, first with my licence fee when it was on BBC4, then again with my Sky sub when it was on Sky Atlantic. Using my subscription, moreover, I’d be able to watch it if I was sitting in the US. So why not here? Where’s the unreasonable sense of entitlement there?

          Similarly, there’s no good reason for copyright to mean that a show broadcast in the US on one day isn’t broadcast here until days or weeks later. Yes, the owners of the copyright have every right to try to make this happen. But for what? Take whatever moral stance you like (and I’d agree with it) but if you can’t enforce it, then it’s all a bit pointless. The lesson of Spotify and Youtube alike is that you defeat piracy by offering a legitimate, reasonable means of obtaining the same stuff.

          • Peter L

            No, you shouldn’t haven’t have said “wank”, if only because
            it’s distracted from your main point.

            You might however have made an exception for the log-floggers at the BBC. Millions of British citizens pay £145 pa for the service. As you say, why shouldn’t they watch the content they’ve paid for anywhere they choose?

            In the meantime, millions of others free ride on the BBC
            licence fee. They include: (1) Those in the UK who watch the iplayer without paying; (2) Citizens of the Irish Republic, whose TV aerials are pointed towards the UK; (3) Any one of the world’s ~9 billion population who can use a proxy server.

            If anyone doubts me on the last point, just tap “how to watch the BBC from abroad” into YouTube. Several clips show how to do it in a few minutes.

            Time for the BBC to stop acting as the media equivalent of
            the NHS – free at the point of delivery -and get commercial.

          • mikewaller

            I pity you if you cannot see that the BBC’s current £12 per month per household is the most wonderful media bargain on the planet and something that that only insane ideologues and very, very greedy commercial vultures would seek to destroy. We have finally woken up to the fact that many poor kids – whites in particular – are doing very badly educationally. In the context of a global economy, this is disastrous. The free libraries that might have helped them are already on the way out; putting quality television behind an insuperable pay-wall really would be the coup de grace.

          • Peter L

            I made no comment about the value or otherwise of the
            BBC’s programmes and don’t understand your points about white kids or libraries.

            Law-abiding telly-watchers in the UK already pay the fee –
            millions of others potentially don’t. My point is that that ain’t fair. The BBC likes it that way because it sees itself as a public service, not a commercial entity.

            If the freeriders were made to cough up, the Beeb could spend more on programmes or charge a lower fee and those who don’t want to pay £12 per month can choose to do otherwise. Perhaps the white kids could buy a few more books?

            What’s not to like?

          • mikewaller

            At the root of the problem with white kids are parents who don’t know and/or don’t care what is needed to give their kids a fighting chance an increasingly tough world. Fifty years ago a local library offered a chance for the child whose home environment was unconducive to learning. High quality TV was another. Austerity is taking out the libraries and pay-walls will take out high quality TV. Your remark about letting poor white kids “buy a few more books” has very much the flavour of Marie-Antoinette’s “Let them eat cake”.

            Regarding free loaders, the answer there was to broaden the grounds on which criminal prosecutions could be mounted. Dispensing with them entirely was the act of cultural vandals and/or Murdoch lickspittals. To draw another parallel, I have no interest in opera and ballet and little in classical music. Nor do I often attend the RSC which is about 3 miles from where I live. Yet I have no objection to my some of my taxes being spent on them. This because I think my country would be significantly diminished without these cultural gems. Ditto with the BBC. Indeed, I think Radio 4 on its own is worth £12 per month. What it would cost If you had your way, I dread to think.

          • mikewaller

            In my view, the correct moral stance is that if I cannot look at it legally, I won’t look at it at all. It is all to clear from the your observations why yours is called “the me generation: Diddums wants it so Diddums should have it NOW! And as you have given license to sex-related analogies, consider trying to persuade any sex worker that as you paid to have sex with him or her on a previous occasion you should be perfectly entitled to have it free thereafter. I would not give you much chance of success and quite right too!

          • Hi Hugo. Points taken: but not clear enough in the article, first time round. As stated now, I can’t disagree — I’m all for being reasonable with the customer (and Amazon is Exhibit A of how to treat the consumer, which is why I’m such a long-standing free-spending customer of theirs!). As for wank: it’s not the word or even the idea, it’s the things men defend for the sake of it.

  • rob232

    It isn’t just politicians from small countries who value the EU for the unlimited career possibilities. This has always been the main attraction for our political leaders and it is for this reason that they defend with such loyalty. Especially the politicians who lose elections. The Kinnock family, Javier Solana and so many more have made their fortunes as unelected Euro politicians. What is surprising is that Mr Rifkind has only just noticed.

  • bengeo

    15 years ago, when computer game manufacturers (not music or film) got concerned over pirated copies of their product, a US university student invented a programme to turn a computer game, a cd, a film or a document into a picture, a jpeg of a diamond. This jpeg could be transferred by any means across the internet to someone with the same programme and then turned back into the original file.

    It was never needed. But this stuff is so easy to do, the owners need a new business model to survive. You would never have had Netflicks without Bittorrent.

    But Bittorent only makes available a random selection of material, the real answer is to offer unlimited access to all music ever recorded in the world for five pound a month. The whole world would sign up, forever. Same for film, TV and games.

    • Vehmgericht

      I remember more recently ebooks being coded into JPEG images of their covers; you just saved the image, changed the extension to .ZIP and decompressed them.

  • Andy Chang

    The recent “reset the web” movement was to change how the Internet works by default – use HTTPS instead of HTTP. “S” stands for Secure. Encryption is necessary and should be a build-in feature of any Internet website and application because trust, law, trade and other things we do over the Internet can’t simply relay on good faith but a solid, secure technology.