The chairman of the Senate Commerce committee warned Thursday that the government would step in if the high-tech, movie and music industries cant reach an agreement soon on a standard way to deliver secure digital content over the Internet.
Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) told a hearing on digital content protection that, contrary to popular belief, there is no shortage of access to broadband Internet access in the U.S. The problem, he said, lies in the lack of compelling content to drive demand and the fact that most of the good content available is illegal.
"Those Americans who do access top notch content online are often stealing it," Hollings said. "When Congress sits idly by in the face of these activities, we essentially sanction the Internet as a haven for thievery. Such an atmosphere contributes to the studios and record labels reluctance to place their digital content on the Internet or over the airwaves."
Hollings, along with Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), plans to introduce a bill that would set a firm deadline for industry layers to solve the problem of content protection themselves or face government intervention.
A slew of Hollywood, music industry and high tech industry heavyweights testified at Thursdays hearing, with many of the tech companies calling on the government to resist any temptation to insinuate itself into an already complex situation. However, most of the movie and record companies praised government efforts to protect their content.
Some witnesses, notably Michael Eisner, CEO of the Walt Disney Co., took high tech companies to task for failing to arrive at a workable solution.
The statements of Hollings, Eisner and others showed a remarkable lack of understanding of the complexity of the problem at hand, said Mike Godwin, policy fellow at the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington think tank.
"One of the things thats clear from all of this is that Hollings and the other senators believe theyre not really asking for much," said Godwin, who attended the hearing. "Its a monumental task. The scope of this is so much bigger than anything that Congress has ever asked any sector of any industry to do before."
Andy Bechtolscheim, vice president and general manager of the Gigabit Systems business unit at Cisco Systems Inc., in San Jose, Calif., touted his companys content-protection protocol, OCCAM (open conditional content access management), and asked Hollings to let industry handle the creation of a standard.
"The availability of open systems of content protection like OCCAM, which can be enforced through licensing regimes, leads to the conclusion that legislation prescribing specific content protection technology is not necessary," Bechtolscheim said. "In fact, it would be quite undesirable. The best way to protect content is through technology, not government."
OCCAM uses 128-bit AES encryption and is designed to protect content during both transmission and storage.
Hollings downplayed private-sector efforts up to this point and said that many vendors have little incentive to work toward a single standard that would replace their proprietary solutions.
"The consumer electronics and high tech industries claim they are ready to solve these problems. I want to believe them," said Hollings. "But as I see it, the tech industry has mixed incentives. So when I listen to high techs clarion call to the government…I am reminded of the police chief in Casablanca who feigned surprise and said, I am shocked there is gambling going on here."