Advocates campaign against copy-protection plans

Free-speech advocates are calling on the public to join an obscure technical standards body, in hopes of stalling a proposal that could help efforts to add antipiracy protections to computer hardware.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
Free-speech advocates are calling on the public to join an obscure technical standards body, in hopes of stalling a proposal that could help efforts to add antipiracy protections to computer hardware.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of several public critics of a copy-protection technology jointly created by Intel, IBM, Matsushita Electric and Toshiba (known as the "4C Entity"), issued the call this week in response to a delay in the standards committee's vote last week.

"We think the committee is there to serve the public interest," said John Marttila, director of a free-speech program for the EFF. "If outside interests are trying to have their own way...we think it's important that the public get involved."

Without public involvement, computer users might find themselves severely limited in the way they can use their own machines, the EFF and other critics say. The 4C technology, dubbed Content Protection for Recordable Media (CPRM), is designed to block transfers of protected copyrighted material such as songs or videos between computer storage devices such as disk drives or MP3 players' Flash memory cards.

The call to arms marks the latest and perhaps one of the most complicated clashes between technology companies, free-speech advocates and the copyright industry.

Hollywood, the record industry and other copyright holders are desperately looking for ways to stop their works from being widely copied and distributed online though services such as Napster or Gnutella. Despite significant and consistent victories in the courts, these companies are still watching their products flow freely online and are looking for technological ways to prevent what they see as revenue bleeding out of their pockets.

Technology companies have begun offering ways to protect content, hoping that will prod content companies to release more music, videos and other products online and in digital form. That in turn would drive more consumers to buy high-end computers, software and other devices, the tech companies hope.

The CPRM technology is just one link in a copy-protection chain that includes technology being built into the Windows operating system by Microsoft, and other offers from the likes of IBM and InterTrust. But partly because it is a hardware-based system--making it more difficult for average computer users to understand or do anything about--it has attracted more intense criticism than some of the others.

Some critics have charged that the technology could be used to block downloads onto computer hard drives. But the creators of the technology say it is focused specifically on portable devices, such as microdrives or MP3 players, and is "neither licensed nor applicable for generic fixed hard disks."

The focus of the controversy is a subcommittee of the National Committee for Information Technology Standards, the group that creates the rules allowing devices such as disk drives or printers to talk to each other. Like most technical committees, it does most of its work far outside the public spotlight and at a technical level far above the average computer users' sophistication.

For much of the last half-year, the subcommittee has been reviewing a standards proposal from the 4C group that would allow the copy-protection technology to be plugged into any manufacturers' computer hardware in a standard way. The proposal before the group was not the antipiracy technology itself, but it would have allowed 4C to license it to other storage-device manufacturers more easily.

Last week the proposal finally came to a vote, but only after a storm of criticism erupted among free-speech advocates and even some technologists on the committee. Ultimately, the proposal was withdrawn and another, less specific one put in its place. That new proposal, submitted by Phoenix Technologies, is not targeted at copy protection but would still help CPRM and other similar technologies be implemented.

A first vote on that alternative proposal failed at the committee's meeting last week on procedural grounds, but letters went out Tuesday asking all committee members for a vote. Votes will be tallied by April 2.

Call to arms
The EFF's call for public scrutiny of the proposal has the potential to spark the kind of culture clash that rarely erupts in technical committees.

Anyone can join the standards body. All it takes is payment of an $800 membership fee, and then members must attend at least one meeting before joining. That means that new members wouldn't be able to vote until the committee's June meeting.

A spokeswoman for the committee warned that the meetings were not traditionally political forums.

"All interested parties are definitely welcome," Maryann Karinch, a committee spokeswoman, said in an e-mail. But the meetings "are highly technical, not political, and they talk tech at the meetings. They have to because the precision of the standard is what makes consumers happy later on when things work properly."

In an online posting, John Gilmore, one of the founders of the EFF and chief critics of the CPRM technology, countered that the public needed a voice in proposals that affect them.

"Because standards meetings include the public, and procedural safeguards to protect the public interest, such meetings are exempt from the antitrust laws," Gilmore wrote. "But the public needs to show up in order to make those safeguards work, or the only people at the table end up being the foxes we should be guarding against."