Last week, the greatest threat that Americas technology infrastructure has ever faced reared its head. It isnt a deadly new worm or a fast-spawning virus. Its a bill introduced to Congress by Sen. Fritz Hollings called the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act.
Some of you may have heard of this bill and not paid much attention, assuming it was yet another one of those Napster-ish battles between file-sharing college kids and the movie and music industries. But the CBDTPA will have a much greater effect than that. In fact, it has the potential to completely cripple the already weak tech economy.
Ostensibly, the main goal of the bill, which is backed by (and is a major priority of) the movie and recording industries, is to fight piracy. The bill aims to do this by requiring that every piece of software or hardware that can handle, store or display files that could contain copyrighted materials must include embedded copyright enforcement programs. Distributing software or hardware that didnt include this would be a criminal offense, as would any attempt to circumvent this protection.
The way the bill is written (the entire text of the CBDTPA can be found at www.politechbot.com/docs/cbdtpa/hollings.s2048.032102.html) means that it will affect every piece of hardware and software out there, from MP3 players to routers, from streaming media clients to giant edge services such as Akamai.
By the broad way that the CBDTPA defines any hardware or software, it will affect every piece of code. Word processors that display written works, software programs that cache content, disks, digital cameras--you name it, it will have to include this.
The potential effects of this are mind-boggling. Distribution and development of free open-source software could come to a standstill. Since it would become essentially impossible to give away content without this protection, small independent creators of software, music, written works, images, etc., would no longer be able to distribute their works.
Any stored media that exists today will probably not display on the modern protected software and hardware, which wont be able to tell the difference between an MPEG video of your kids and a pirated movie.
Also, history has shown—with, for example, the poorly thought out Divx movie players—that consumers wont buy a product that limits their use options. That means consumers will hang on to their old equipment rather than buy the crippled new equipment that the vendors will be forced to sell. The result of this will be the demise of many already shaky computer, software and peripheral vendors.
The long arm of bad laws
If you think the law wont be applied in this way and that these effects are unlikely, think again. This past week gave us a perfect example of a how a badly written and overreaching law can have effects no one anticipated.
Last week, the popular search engine Google quietly removed all links that pointed to a Web site, xenu.net, which criticized Scientology. Google officials did this after receiving a letter from Scientology lawyers about the site. The reason they removed the content was due to a small, overlooked part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which states that ISPs and other digital intermediaries can protect themselves from prosecution if they immediately remove links to sites that are potentially violating copyrights.
In the letter Google officials sent to xenu.net, they said that they had to remove the links to protect themselves, regardless of the merit of the claim of copyright infringement. Upon hearing of this, I was tempted to send Google a spurious notice saying that Microsoft was violating my copyright, just to see what they would do.
After this became public and Google received a lot of outraged correspondence, Google did the right thing and restored the links. But how many other instances of this have happened that we dont know about? This is pretty good proof that many companies will be completely frozen by the potential criminal liabilities possible under the CBDTPA, even if they arent sure the measures even apply to what they do.
The tech community has responded in force to stop poorly thought out bills in the past, halting, for example, the Communications Decency Act of 1996. But the tech community cant wait until the CBDTPA becomes law: We have to act now.
While bad legislation such as the CDA, the DMCA or UCITA have the potential to shackle the tech industry, the effect of the CBDTPA will be much more like a bullet between the eyes. Osama Bin Laden himself couldnt come up with a better way to strike at Americas tech economy.
In order to save our own livelihoods, tech companies and workers need to respond aggressively to this bill. Contact your representatives in Congress. People like California Senator Diane Feinstein, a co-sponsor of this bill, need to realize the damage it will cause, and she should know that the tech industry puts more money in California coffers in a month than Hollywood does in a year.
Remember, this is about a lot more than file sharing and piracy. The worst irony is that this bill, which could destroy the tech economy, would probably have very little effect on the true pirates, anyway.
East Coast Technical Director Jim Rapoza can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.