About a dozen vocal tech activists in the audience challenged speakers, including Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), who equated piracy with theft and applauded digital rights management.
"I'm going to accord you the utmost respect," Valenti said. "I'm going to listen to you, but let me finish...The first thing we ought to exhibit is good manners."
The activists, mostly from New Yorkers for Fair Use, interrupted Valenti with hoots and jeers from the back of the room until the former presidential aide offered them the chance to reply.
"I'm going to give you the opportunity to do that out of deference to Jack Valenti," said Phillip Bond, Undersecretary of Commerce for Technology. The Commerce Department organized the roundtable as a way for about 20 industry representatives to discuss plans for wrapping Internet content in encrypted layers of anti-copying technology.
Earlier, Brett Wynkoop of LXNY.org managed to sneak up to the end of the table, squat next to one of the invited panelists, and be called on during the discussion. LXNY.org is a grassroots group in New York City that supports free software.
Besides Valenti's MPAA, the groups represented included Walt Disney, the Recording Industry Association of America, Microsoft, Intel, News Corp., the Home Recording Rights Coalition, and digitalconsumer.org.
Absent from the panel were representatives of the free software community, which irked the tech activists so much that they rented a van, left at 1 a.m. PDT for Washington, D.C., and made their presence known at Wednesday's panel. Joining them was hacker-hero Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation, who was already in town.
After the roundtable was over, a Commerce Department spokeswoman said that she could not recall such public outcry during a government roundtable. Security guards were called during the meeting, but stayed outside the room.
"That was not planned," Vincenzo said afterward, describing his impromptu presentation. "That was in response to some statements that (Valenti) made. I was at the boiling point and had to respond. The end user is the true stakeholder on this issue, and the end user is not being represented on that panel."
After a brief statement, Vincenzo tried to turn the floor over to Stallman, but the Commerce Department's Bond vetoed that idea, saying that the rest of the audience could submit comments via the Web instead. "We have a structure here," Bond said.
The assembled band of free software devotees said later that they believed they had won a commitment from the Commerce Department to include a representative in a future roundtable. But Bond did not seem to agree. "I'm not going to be dictated to," he said.
Valenti predicted the U.S. government would need to intervene in the debate over digital content and set security standards. The MPAA has welcomed a bill, written by Senate Commerce Chairman Fritz Hollings, D-S.C., that restricts technology not adhering to government-approved "standard security technologies."
"I think the word injunction was mentioned in the lawsuit," replied Bob Schwartz, an attorney with the Home Recording Rights Coalition. "In the legislative context, the modest royalty fee was $25 to $50" per blank videotape.
Preston Padden, the top lobbyist for Walt Disney, joined Valenti in endorsing legislation.
"I don't believe we're going to solve the problem until we have the transparency and discipline of a government" solution, Padden said.
Elizabeth Frazee, a vice president at AOL Time Warner, agreed. "The content industry is going to be looking to the government for help."
Lobbyists for Intel, Microsoft and the Digital Media Association urged restraint. A representative of Philips Electronics said, "We're at the cusp of a discussion," and a resolution is far away.
Also during the roundtable, the RIAAthat it has begun pressing for anti-copying technology in future digital radio standards.