Princeton Professor Ed Felten has an entry on his blog about how the new law Congress is considering to try and plug the analog hole to prevent digital piracy involves technology that is effectively kept secret. It has to do with the content protection technology known as VEIL that the bill would make mandatory requirement of all analog video devices produced after it’s enacted. Being that it would be mandated by the law Ed figured he’d be able to get a copy of the spec to see how it does the things it does, but when he contacted the company that came up with VEIL to ask to see the spec he was told he would have to pay $10,000 and sign a non-disclosure agreement that would prevent him from discussing the spec with anyone else:
In other words, I can know the contents of the bill Congress is debating, but only if I pay $10k to a private party, and only if I promise not to tell anybody what is in the bill or engage in public debate about it.
Worse yet, this license covers only half of the technology: the VEIL decoder, which detects VEIL signals. There is no way you or I can find out about the encoder technology that puts VEIL signals into video.
The details of this technology are important for evaluating this bill. How much would the proposed law increase the cost of televisions? How much would it limit the future development of TV technology? How likely is the technology to mistakenly block authorized copying? How adaptable is the technology to the future? All of these questions are important in debating the bill. And none of them can be answered if the technology part of the bill is secret.
Which brings us to the most interesting question of all: Are the members of Congress themselves, and their staffers, allowed to see the spec and talk about it openly? Are they allowed to consult experts for advice? Or are the full contents of this bill secret even from the lawmakers who are considering it?
If Professor Felton’s name is familiar it’s probably because you’ve read about his past adventures with the RIAA and the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) back in 2001. Professor Felton teaches Computer Science at Princeton University and he’s involved in researching security-related computer programming and back in 2001 he and his research team took up a public challenge issued by SDMI to hack the new content protection scheme SDMI developed for music CDs. The folks at SDMI believed their technology was unhackable, but they were proven wrong by Felton’s team. The team then went on to author a paper on the subject titled Reading Between the Lines: Lessons from the SDMI Challenge that was due to be published at the 4th International Information Hiding Workshop Conference, but just prior to publication they were threatened with a lawsuit from the RIAA and SDMI. Eventually the RIAA and SDMI agreed to allow Felton’s team to publish their findings, but you can see now why the folks behind VEIL may not want to make it easy for Felton to look at their technology.
Or anyone else, for that matter. The assumption seems to be that by keeping the spec secret it won’t be broken, but that’s a pipe dream at best as the folks at Microsoft, Sony, or any of several other companies can tell you. Just look at all the mod chips available for the video game consoles that allow for non-approved content (commonly pirated games) to be used on those machines and hackers are hard at work developing one for the new Xbox 360. The justification, of course, is piracy, but the reality is control over what you do with the content you buy so they can charge you repeatedly for it. The really scary part of all this is not only are they trying to force themselves onto all currently existing technology, but they’re even trying to ban new technology no one has invented yet:
So, if you were planning to launch a startup and make millions off the coming digital broadcast media revolution by inventing the next iPod or by combining digital radio with Web 2.0 and VoIP and Skype and RSS and WiFi mesh networks, then forget about it. When digital broadcast nirvana finally arrives, the only people who’ll be legally authorized to make money off of music and movies are the middlemen at the RIAA and the MPAA.
The Big Media folks are already trying different ways to get you to spend more money for content. The folks at CBS, for example, are trying all sorts of things from downloads of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on Google Video for $1.99 to Andy Rooney Podcasts to “a soap opera in three-minute chunks exclusively for use on cell phones.” There isn’t anything particularly wrong with this at the moment, but that could change considerably if they manage to get legislation passed that puts all the control into their hands.