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MobiTV tries (and fails) to censor Internet

A Silicon Valley startup MobiTV is currently engaged in an almost comedic yet futile effort to scrub a 31 character "secret" URL from the Internet. Who will win? The Digg/Slashdot crowd or MobiTV?

Update 2: MobiTV has backed down, and appears to have kissed and made up with HowardForums. See below.

Updated to include a statement from MobiTV (see below)

In a fantastic demonstration of the Streisand Effect, Silicon Valley startup MobiTV is currently engaged in an almost comedic yet futile effort to scrub a 31 character "secret" URL from the Internet.

MobiTV sells a streaming TV subscription service to mobile phone users. For $9.99 a month, Sprint, AT&T and Alltel customers can view low bandwidth streams of a number of TV channels right on their handsets. The licensed content is transmitted to the customer via a "secret" Internet address -- that is, anyone who knows the URL can view the company's mobile channels with or without a subscription.

In late February, a user on the popular HowardForums discussion site posted the ultra secret link on MobiTV's website, and included instructions for obtaining the individual URLs for each TV channel that the company provides its customers.

By following the extremely easy instructions, a user on a non-authorized mobile network (such as T-Mobile or Verizon), or even a home PC user, can watch Animal Planet or CSPAN without paying MobiTV's monthly subscription fee.

On March 4, lawyers from MobiTV sent a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown letter to Howard Chui, the owner of the popular mobile-phone web forum. MobiTV's lawyers claim that by posting the URL, the HowardForum users have violated the company's copyright, trademark and trade secret rights.

In an email posted on the forum, one of MobiTV lawyers writes that "these are not publicly available links. Nowhere on are any of these available. It takes a hacker and debugging by your users to get this information."

In addition to threatening Mr. Chui with legal action, the lawyers also contacted Howard's hosting provider, and stated that they would contact ICANN - the organization in charge of Internet domain names in order to have suspended.

A Moot Point

So, before jumping into the analysis of the issues. Let us clarify the situation.

Customers who pay MobiTV a monthly fee get to install a piece of sotware on their phone, which merely visits a "secret" URL on to stream the TV content.

The only security mechanism the company has put in place is its weak attempt to keep the URL secret - this is the dictionary definition of security through obscurity.

At the very least, the company could have created individual urls for each of the major licensed wireless carriers, and then only permitted customers to access those urls from the IP addresses owned by Sprint and AT&T. It didn't do this.

Instead, the company has decided to sic its lawyers on an extremely active and vocal Internet community. Furthermore, HowardForums is the largest collection of early adopters and phone geeks in the US. These should be MobiTV's target market, not their enemy.

While the issue of deep linking is certainly a legal grey area, the moment the company sends a DMCA takedown, it becomes a moot point, due to the Streisand effect.

Just as the efforts to wipe DVD and HD-DVD decryption codes from the Internet flopped, and the absurd effort to take the entire Wikileaks website offline resulted in far more publicity for the confidentiality seeking Swiss Bank that filed the lawsuit -- this effort by MoviTV is similarly doomed to failure.

Lawyers do a horrible job at PR, and they do an even worse job when it comes to dealing with Internet mobs. DMCA takedowns onlyinvite the attention of Digg and Slashdot.

When will these companies learn?

As of press time, a message left with MobiTV's legal counsel had not been returned.

Update: MobiTV has issued the following comment to describe its actions:

"MobiTV takes the issue of security very seriously and we're actively implementing additional security measures to address this unauthorized access as well as the isolated issue of certain content feeds posted on and on other websites. It is our responsibility to ensure that our service and the programming entrusted to us by our content providers is protected at all times."

"MobiTV took standard legal steps to request that the information which facilitates the unauthorized access to our paid, subscription service be removed, but our intent was only to remove the specific information and NOT to interrupt or shutdown the valuable service the entire site provides to mobile users around the world."

Update 2: Howard posted a message to his site, and said that the President of MobiTV had spoken to him on the phone and sorted everything out. It looks like they've realized the PR damage of releasing their legal hounds on the HowardForums community.