Pirating the people's game

I first met Justin Kan and his trademark webcam in May 2007 at Los Angeles’ landmark Roosevelt hotel on Hollywood Boulevard.  Back then, Justin Kan had his own personal Internet show: an always-on video streaming act, a digital version of Peter Weir’s 1998 movie The Truman Show, which involved Kan attaching a webcam contraption to his head and broadcasting himself, 24-hours a day, on the Internet.

Kan and I were both appearing at the appropriately named Always-On conference, an event put on by Tony Perkins, the founder of Red Herring magazine and a noted Silicon Valley impresario. As we sat in the lobby of the Roosevelt hotel, once the haunt of old media icons like Gable, Lombard and Monroe and now packed with brash new media stars like Kan, the 24 year-old Yale graduate told me that he planned to transform Justin.tv from a site that just broadcasting himself into a Web 2.0 style portal that enabled everyone to stream themselves on the Internet.

A portal, I thought to myself, dismissively -- how quaint, how antiquated, how very 1998. 

How wrong I was. Kan’s Justin.tv, financed by Paul Graham’s Y Combinator early stage venture fund, has proved to be one of the most viral hits of today’s Internet. According to the authoritative TechCrunch news service, in the first year of Justin.tv’s existence, the social-network portal has created 650,000 new broadcasters on 90,000 channels who collectively have produced a mindboggling 119 years worth of archived video material.

But now Justin.tv, which continues to experience meteoric growth of both broadcasters and viewers, is in the news for two quite different reasons: one inspiring, the other tragic.  The tragedy involved a 19-year old community college student from Florida called Abraham Biggs who broadcast himself on Justin.tv under the screen name of CandyJunkie. On November 20, Biggs, who had a long history of mental illness, committed suicide live on Justin.tv after taking an overdose of antidepressants. What is particularly sad is that some members of the 185 person audience who watched the live suicide on Justin.tv not only failed to alert the authorities for hours but actually egged on Biggs to kill himself and others callously accused the dying young man of a stunt to gain attention.

While Bigg’s suicide is not a first on the Internet, it does reveal the anomie, cruelty and narcissism that characterizes much of the web. With or without the Internet, Biggs was clearly a troubled young man fixated with taking his own life. But the existence of Justin Kan’s always-on platform provided an ideally soulless environment for him to publicly act out his final moments. That Justin.tv viewers proved to be so heartless about such an awful tragedy speaks, I think, to the emptiness of much of the much vaunted conversation, community and collaboration on the supposedly “social” web.

Fortunately, the news about Justin.tv is not only tragic. One of the more inspiring consequences of Justin Kan’s democratic broadcasting portal is its attempt, implicit or otherwise, to democratize that most archaic of old media businesses -- English Premier League football. Justin.tv members are going to games with their webcams and streaming the action directly over the portal.  While the Premier League clubs – who pay their overpriced stars with the revenue from their television deals -- have yet to formally sue Justin.tv, their lawyers have claimed that these broadcasts are illegal and that the Silicon Valley company should desist from allowing its members to post this supposedly pirated content.

Justin.tv’s current CEO, Michael Siebel, has fallen back on the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to claim that the site is not knowingly allowing the reproduction of copyrighted materials. But I think he should respond more aggressively to bullying, greedy Premier League executives intent on maintaining an unnatural broadcasting monopoly on their product. The truth is that streaming the games live on amateurish, grainy videos is neither a threat to the high priced live ticket sales nor to glossy mainstream broadcasts. Justin.tv is actually democratizing the “people’s game” by giving Internet users around the world an intimate taste of English football. In fact, as a former Spurs season ticket holder exiled to the wasteland of Silicon Valley, Justin.tv’s live feeds from White Hart Lane appears to me to be almost as much of a godsend as Harry Redknapp.