If you are wondering what the pioneers of the dot-com era are doing now, heres a story about how one is fighting big business and the government for the personal freedoms of technology consumers.
Joe Kraus, co-founder of Excite.com, who left the company in April 2000, is leading DigitalConsumer.org, an organization attempting to stop the passage of the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act, or CBDTPA, a bill introduced last month by Sen. Ernest Hollings, D-S.C., and replace it with its own Consumer Technology Bill of Rights.
A quixotic adventure? Hardly. In its first month, the site has so far collected 24,000 signatures in support. According to Kraus, Hollings bill has little to do with consumers or promotion. "Consumers are being treated like potential criminals, and fair-use rights are being taken away," Kraus said.
The bill, on its face, is supposed to fight illegal music copying systems such as Napster, but it goes way beyond that in attempting to deny consumers fair-use rights in the name of stopping piracy, Kraus said. That means enabling copy-protected CDs; prohibiting DVD backups; or, when digital television catches on, allowing restrictions on taping a show. So far, Washington is buying it.
"Hollywood has been very effective in framing the debate," Kraus said. It is saying, to borrow a phrase, "you are either with us or with the pirates," he said.
Hollings bill rises from the same paranoia that put the VCR on trial in the 1970s. But in the landmark Betamax case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1984 that taping, or "time-shifting" TV content, was considered fair use. You didnt see new black markets spring up selling copies of "I Love Lucy" on street corners.
And I wonder now if Universal Studios et al., which initially sued Sony over Betamax, would have regretted a victory. Rather than creating a pirate industry, the VCR created billions of dollars for Hollywood in the home video market.
What the media companies and the lawmakers have found, Kraus said, is that they cant police behavior, so they will take to policing the technology once again. This presents a dangerous opportunity for media companies to control what people consume as well as how they consume it and when they consume it. With government sanctions, no less. Can we really let this happen?
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