Technology Giveth, Technology Taketh Away

Tester's Choice: If the proposed Security Systems Standards and Certification Act came to be, it would be Britney Spears video outtakes on demand, all the Bruce Willis we could ever ask for, and all it'd cost us would be our computers (as we know t

Theres very little legal, high-quality digital content available over the Internet today, and according to Sen. Fritz Hollings, its the failure of entertainment and technology industries to come up with a rigorous anti-copying scheme thats to blame.

Hes right. While the popularity of peer-to-peer file sharing software and of the MP3 music format has demonstrated the strong public demand for electronic content distribution, the film and music industries have approached this area with reticence, and the MPA and the RIAA have worked to hobble the development of products such as MP3 players and DVD-R drives.

Their fear is that the lack of widespread, mandatory DRM (digital rights management) systems will stop content conglomerates from making money each time a new copy of a song or movie springs into existence.

But if the technology and content landscape envisioned in Hollings proposed Security Systems Standards and Certification Act came to be, corporate film and music titans would control the sorts of computer gear that consumers are allowed to own, and wed be awash in digital entertainment options. It would be Britney Spears video outtakes on demand, all the Bruce Willis we could ever ask for, and all itd cost us would be our computers (as we know them) and our fair use rights.

The SSSCA is supposed to make the digital world safe for entertainment companies by outlawing interactive digital devices that do not support a yet-undefined DRM scheme to be proposed by the industry and approved by the government. As defined by the bill, interactive digital devices include every imaginable sort of computer system, each of which would eventually have to be replaced with new and probably yet-to-be invented equipment.

Interactive digital devices, ranging from servers and desktops to a rapidly growing corps of handheld devices, owe their virtues and vices to a flexible, multifunction design. The regulations provided for in the SSSCA threaten this flexibility by restricting how users handle their data, whether its a copy of "The Lion King" that someones converted for viewing on a handheld device or of ones home movies that have been burned to CD.

Putting aside for a moment the likelihood that the blanket DRM system described in the SSSCA would be impossible to build and implement, the costs of such a system, measured in restricted computer flexibility and demolished fair use rights, are much too high. The benefits revolve solely around enabling entertainment companies to take advantage of computers and the Internet without adapting to the new realities that those technologies bring to the content business.

It wasnt always possible to generate millions of dollars recording, packaging and distributing content, so why should we expect that this sort of business will always be possible? Mass media technologies once emerged that enabled entertainment companies to exist as they now do, and were watching as a new wave of technologies come in to render those business models impossible and irrelevant.

Or are the business models that bring us NSync so excellently evolved that we should focus our efforts not on new business models, but on flailing attempts toward maintaining them?

Internet and computer-focused businesses drove our economys last boom, and theyre gearing up to drive a new one. Lets not saddle ourselves with ridiculous and shortsighted legislation that can only serve to limit information openness and frustrate the efforts of artists and developers to take content and technology in new, sustainably profitable directions.

Technical Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at [email protected]