Illegal Downloads: Foxtel’s “Moral Disconnect” Disconnect

DownloadLast night’s edition of ABC1’s 7.30 featured a report on illegal downloading. Initially its focus was on the Season 4 finale of Game Of Thrones having become the “most pirated program in history” – an ever so slightly melodramatic statement, given it’s only been possible for significant numbers of people to illegally download anything at all for fifteen years. Nevertheless, the fact remains: it took less than 24 hours for the episode to become the most illegally downloaded program in the history of illegally downloaded programs.

Some hardcore fans shifted the blame onto Game Of Thrones producer HBO’s decision not to make episodes immediately available on iTunes for paid download. These same obsessive geeks (and I can say that because I am one!) obviously couldn’t bear the wait for all of Season 4 to become available for download via Google Play for less than $3 an episode yesterday morning – or, in other words, less than 12 hours after the finale’s US west coast debut.

Sarcasm aside, it does raise questions, not least of which about Foxtel. Anyone able to legitimately watch (or record) the initial Australian broadcast of Thrones at 3:30pm each Monday – less than an hour after it finished in California – needs to a) be connected to Foxtel and b) have the inflexible package of so-called ‘premium’ channels as part of their (already hugely inflexible) subscription. At $50 a month for the entry-level package and with additional packages costing $25 a month each, it rapidly escalates into an expensive habit if all you really wanted was one channel to watch one program.

As an upstanding and law-abiding citizen of the world, of course I elected to do it the right way and duly asked Foxtel to add the (inflexible) package containing the Showcase channel – “the home of HBO”, apparently – to my (already inflexible) existing subscription. You can imagine my delight when I realised that upping my monthly Foxtel bill to a whopping $109 not only allows me the privilege of watching the latest episode of Game Of Thrones in all its HD glory as soon as I get home from work of a Monday night, but it also allows me access to tens of channels and many hundreds, possibly even thousands, of programs which I’d not only never get around to watching in any given month, but which I’ve had zero desire to ever watch at any time in my life up to now. Still, despite how exorbitant the monthly charges are relative to Foxtel’s utterly inflexible approach to channel packaging, it’s probably not such a big deal for those able to afford it. For those who can’t, though, when there are so many other ways to access the material – including ways that don’t require payment – their choice is obvious.

On 7.30 last night, Foxtel’s Director of Corporate Affairs Bruce Meagher noted a “moral disconnect” and likened illegal downloaders to thieves. In one respect I absolutely agree with him: there probably are questionable morals at play when so many people are willing to steal material that they want – material which is otherwise available for legitimate purchase – simply because they either can’t afford it or refuse to wait for it to become available. Certainly, there are few other areas of our day-to-day lives where people en masse take such a position, but illegal downloading has always been one of those odd ‘grey-ish’ areas for consumers, just like video pirating and CD copying before it. In fact it’s also comparable with something that virtually every driver has done and thought almost nothing of: just like not bringing your car to a complete stop at a Stop sign, illegal downloading is also definitely illegal, its illegality is also a known quantity and doing so could also result in significant fines or even imprisonment. But for whatever reason, people just don’t seem to recognise either act as a crime. And besides, it’s not as if it’s break & enter, or murder or anything like that, so if it doesn’t hurt anybody why should it even matter?

Why, indeed. But perhaps the more pertinent question is, what about Foxtel’s own “moral disconnect”? Bruce Meagher and his ilk are comfortable making sweeping statements from their corporate ivory towers, while at the same time never once stopping to think about what they’re stealing from their own customers. They’re quick to jump on customers who don’t pay their full bill by the due date, but do they ever sit back and calculate potential customer usage versus actual customer usage? It’s a fairly safe bet that they never liken themselves or their organisations to thieves, but by forcing customers to subscribe to inflexible packages without the option of choosing specifically what they actually want or need, at a greatly increased monthly cost to the customer as a result, that’s exactly what they’re being. Everyone’s heard of the User Pays system. Foxtel itself already has a pay-per-view “On Demand” service whereby subscribers can elect to watch new release movies as and when they choose, for a one-off charge and without needing to access an entire package of channels they’ll rarely, if ever, watch. But organisations that question the “moral disconnect” rarely reference their own questionable morals when it comes to charging users for services they don’t use.

Attorney-General George Brandis appears to be on the side of Foxtel and like-minded organisations, too – as a Liberal senator, that almost goes without saying – who want the Government to do something about blocking illegal downloads. It could be argued that organisations who imply concern about lost income of artists and copyright holders are no less immoral than those they accuse of being thieves. It’s even less convincing when the name-calling is by a Liberal politician who claims to be Minister for the Arts. In the end it’s all about Foxtel’s perceived lost profit.

Australians already pay through the nose for lots of stuff that’s very much cheaper in other countries. In some cases it’s easy – or at least logical – to explain: import tariffs, transport costs, Government duties and sales taxes, sellers’ mark-up to cover overheads (employees, shop fronts, etc). Several of those reasons are less compelling when it comes to the cost of purely online content. iTunes went under the microscope back in 2011-12 amidst a torrent of accusations that digital content was unjustifiably marked up in Australia compared with the US and UK. There was even a federal parliamentary committee enquiry into the matter in early 2013, at which the likes of Apple and Microsoft defended themselves against charges of gouging, despite incontrovertible evidence that Australian iTunes customers pay around 52% more for the same popular songs as iTunes customers in the US.

Sadly, the solution – as with so many aspects of Australian life these days – is always about new ways to stop stuff from happening. When’s anyone going to ask the Government to do something to force corporate giants to move into the 21st century and treat customers equally and fairly? Decent and timely access to online material combined with flexibly packaged services at reasonable prices… it’s not that much to ask for, is it?