— Field Notes

The Digital Panopticon & The RIAA


I am a long time user of Last.FM, the music database and social network site. Most people who use the service know they were purchased some time ago by CBS Records, for around a $100 million US Dollars. That didn’t surprise me since Last.FM was successful and major corporations love to buy success. What has surprised me is the story in the news over the last week that Last.FM, via their parent CBS, handed over their users listening habits (i.e. the database of the songs played on their computer) to the RIAA.

The facts in this story are somewhat in dispute, Last.FM pleads innocence, and CBS is stonewalling. There was no court order or legal case that warranted the transfer of data, these are two friendly parties sharing corporate intelligence. TechCrunch claims inside knowledge and was one of the first to break the story; these are some of Michael Arrington’s conclusions:

We believe Last.fm and CBS violated their own privacy policy in the transmission of this data. We also believe CBS and Last.fm may have violated EU privacy laws, including the Data Protection Directive, and should be investigated by the appropriate authorities.
And to the CBS employee who was fired and threatened based on this story – we believe certain U.S. Whistle Blower laws may protect you from retaliation from CBS in this matter. We’d like to provide you with legal counsel at our cost.

There has been a lot of tweeter about how the data is useless to the RIAA; I don’t know about that. What this story has made me think about is the theory of the Panopticon and how the threat of surveillance mediates the surveiled’s actions. If you think someone is watching, you are going to change your behavior. So just having the story circulated in the press is going to impact some Last.FM users behavior, they may be less likely to play music obtained through pirate networks.

Users of Social Networking sites offer them selves up to surveillance, Facebook, Twitter, Last.FM and many more sites are designed to keep track of their users. All that data about our personal lives is accumulating in the data bases of private corporations. Who knows where it will end up and what might be done with it; what can you do about it anyway, not much at this point.

The “Commons” or the places for community use, have been privatized, be it Shopping Malls or Virtual worlds, ala Second Life or social networking sites. Our traditional freedoms don’t apply in privatized spaces. That includes corporate databases like those of CBS Records. It is time to get serious about Privacy in the 21st Century and the laws that may be needed to protect that privacy. Why are no politicians talking about this, maybe because there is a terrorist or a drug dealer under every bed.

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