Entertainment industry tries for power grab over music CDs, video

A Senate bill, requiring copy protection in interactive digital devices, could put corporations in charge of all users.

November 05, 2001|By Dan Gillmor | Dan Gillmor,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

The entertainment industry has been working for years to establish control over digital content to prevent unauthorized copying.

The latest effort, a proposed bill by Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat, would force makers of interactive digital devices to build copy protection into everything they make.

There hasn't been much publicity about the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA), but this is a real piece of work.

It's a follow-up to the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which grossly altered the balance between users and owners of copyrighted materials in favor of the owners.

The entertainment industry wanted total control in theory, and got it. Now it's going after control in practice.

A hearing on the legislation had been scheduled for last week in Washington, but has been postponed amid the anthrax situation on Capitol Hill. But Disney and other supporters aren't going to quit pushing this bill.

Also on Oct. 25, as you may have heard, a large software company based in Redmond, Wash., held a coming-out party for Windows XP. This is Microsoft's new operating system, and one piece is potentially just what the entertainment moguls ordered.

How so? The Windows Media Player software built into Windows XP contains copy controls for audio and video content using Microsoft's proprietary media format, called WMA. Many companies are planning to use WMA for their distribution, given how ubiquitous it will be once millions of XP-configured PCs have been sold.

That latest version of Media Player comes with a remarkable user license. It says, in part: "You agree that in order to protect the integrity of content and software protected by digital rights management (`Secure Content'), Microsoft may provide security related updates to the OS Components that will be automatically downloaded onto your computer. These security related updates may disable your ability to copy and/or play Secure Content and use other software on your computer. If we provide such a security update, we will use reasonable efforts to post notices on a Web site explaining the update."

In other words, Microsoft asserts the right to remotely change your PC's configuration and otherwise muck with your system.

Now consider that federal authorities have asked for, and Congress is about to hand over, massive new surveillance powers. Personal computers and Internet communications are high on officials' list of targets, for the simple reason that the bad guys have discovered digital technology and see how useful it can be.

But the Internet and personal tech don't lend themselves to easy surveillance, at least not when the bad guys use tools that disguise information or otherwise hinder spying. Law enforcement would love to be able to track virtually all communications.

Put all of this together, and you get the outlines of some control-freakish possibilities, an alliance of interests. Is what's good for Uncle Sam going to be great for a monopolist and cartel?

The government wants to be able to track pretty much everything that moves digitally. It may find allies in the entertainment industry, which would be delighted to have the same capability for songs and movies.

Hollywood and the record companies would like the Internet to be a "read-only" medium, where the only interactivity consists of you and me clicking on a button that says "Buy this." The multi-directional Web is a threat to that online-TV vision. (It may escape entertainment companies' notice that the First Amendment, which could easily take a hit in this new fear-ridden era, protects their industry's very existence.)

What company is in an ideal position to provide the technology to make it possible? It's not Oracle, which wants to provide databases for national ID cards that will be the linchpins to creating minutely detailed dossiers on everyone and tracking our physical movements. No, it's Microsoft, which owns the computing platform on which almost everyone relies for routine digital communications.

I should note that Microsoft has taken stands against some of the more brazen government encroachments against liberty over the years - supporting strong encryption, for example. And according to one news report, it has joined other tech companies in opposing Hollings' SSSCA.

Still, Microsoft is bidding to be the entertainment industry's chief copy protector. Logically so: The more controls are established over digital content, the more Microsoft stands to gain in another way, given the company's equal loathing of unauthorized copying. After all, Microsoft has rigged XP in a way that will force some people to get permission to reinstall the system if they substantially change their PC's configuration.

And Microsoft, despite its continued arrogance in the face of being convicted of serial antitrust law-breaking, remains under some genuine threat from the Justice Department. What back-channel discussions are going on?

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