Like the Corey Delaney episode only last month, the Supreme Court of Victoria’s attempt to prevent that state’s citizens watching Underbelly was doomed to fail before it had begun. In the brave new age of the internet, a TV program is just another bucket of digital data, ready to be poured from computer to computer across state and national boundaries. And boy did it flow!

Within two hours of broadcast, Underbelly was available globally (including Victoria) on internet file-sharing networks. By mid-morning today, broadcast-quality copies were available too, with all the adverts removed. Just one of those networks (Mininova) had already seen 6500+ downloads.

I’m guessing that by the end of today the total downloads will number in the tens of thousands. I’d be surprised if the total reaches 100,000, but that’s still a significant proportion of the estimated 800,000 viewers the program would have received had it been screened on Channel Nine.

The technology used by the file-sharing networks presents a problem for enforcing the law as it stands.

Software using the BitTorrent protocol can be set up on any computer, anywhere, and you just advertise the existence of your new sharing network. Anyone can then join the network and start uploading and downloading files — all of them sharing the burden. The whole process takes just minutes.

A futurist Mark Pesce says:

BitTorrent allows anyone, anywhere, to distribute any large media file at essentially no cost. It is estimated that upwards of 60% of all traffic on the Internet is composed of BitTorrent transfers.

The law is hopelessly out of date in this environment. It was flawed enough once broadcast signals reached across borders and we all bought VCRs. But the new internet-native generation expect to be able to watch any TV, any time, and simply won’t respect archaic concepts like state borders. There’s no invisible digital barrier across the Hume Highway.

This is really a problem in epidemiology. For a fair trial, you need jury members whose minds haven’t been infected with the dramatised version of events.

With Underbelly-infected citizens numbering in “only” the tens of thousands, there’s still a decent chance of finding enough uninfected Victorians to fill the jury seats. But as more people use the internet to distribute media — legally or otherwise — this won’t last.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey