Geeks, Meet Society

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The days of the Internet being the Geek Magic Kingdom are beginning to come to an end. – Ed

The SSSCA (Security Systems Standards and Certification Act ) has been modified a bit and reintroduced as the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act (CBDTPA). If you want to read it yourself, here it is.

It’s basically the same thing, with a few more nods towards consumers and the concept of fair use, though it’s still too vague for our liking. In any case, this bill isn’t going anywhere this year.

However, this bill is generating intense hysteria, with statements and comments that play fast and loose with the truth.

Let’s see what it really says:

What It Would Mandate

A group composed of digital media device manufacturers, consumer groups, and copyright owners are supposed to come up with copy protection standards, hopefully within a year. If they do, the FCC will issue regulations which will take effect about a year and a half after that.

If they don’t (or the time isn’t extended), the FCC has to come up with regulations within a year that will go into effect a year after that, or a minimum three years.

What It Covers

These copy-protection standards are supposed to cover anything that can copy digital copyrighted material (or equipment used to convert analog or digital audio or video into another digital format.

This covers both hardware and software.

Two Legitimate Problems

Let’s say I take somebody else’s CD and make a copy of it. What parts of my computer get involved in that?

My CD/CD-RW plays a role. My memory helps out. The CPU does the work. The motherboard sends all this good stuff around. The hard drive probably gets to play some role. My copying program and OS get involved.

That’s seven separate items. Does that mean seven separate security checks? Would seem to be the case at this point, that needs to be clarified. Otherwise, we won’t be asking, “Why do I need high-speed equipment?” This could be a “killer app.” 🙂

The second problem is the imprecise definitions of “copy” and “copyrighted material.” As it stands now, any program that can copy anything would seem to be covered by this (including I suppose copying itself from a CD to a hard drive). This is rather too inclusive.

It has in mind that all copyrighted material belongs to people who want it copy protected, which some are going ape over, but look more closely at the legislation, and that’s not quite the case.

Neither of these is that big a deal.

In the first case, the advisory committee would sort out what items in a particular unit needed the protection.

For the second, while it does appear as a practical matter that all software that can copy will have to have these mechanisms (which BTW have to be open-source), it is also clear from the legislation that these mechanisms have to implement the directions of copyright owners for copyrighted works. A freeware distributor can simply direct “copy the program all you like.” Somebody writing something on a word processor will be able to protect or unprotect his or her work while saving.

So if you read that this will kill freeware, or Linux, or game mods, or make any of the above illegal, this is complete nonsense. What it will mean is that programmers may or may not have to check a couple extra boxes in their compilers, or throw in a few extra routines. From all indications so far, we’re looking at some lots-of-bits encryption, an SSL on steroids.

The Real Agenda: “I Don’t Want To Grow Up”

So now that we know that this bill is not going to destroy Linux, or freeware, or game mods (unless the game owners decide that), but just means a minor addition to the programmer’s task, what’s the problem?

Obviously, any attempt to end the gravy train isn’t going to sit too well in some circles, but I think there’s a much deeper-seated reason than that.

Geeks, meet Society. Believe it or not, you belong to it. It’s bigger and stronger than you, and it’s going to start telling you what you can and cannot do.

The Internet has been the Wild, Wild West? Here comes the marshall to bring law and order. It’s not going to be your little Magic Kingdom much longer.

Society will start to say, “You don’t want to respect rules of society like intellectual property rights? OK, we’ll make you, and if you don’t play by our rules, there’s a word for people like that. Criminals.”

The Internet has gotten too big and too important for Society to continue tolerating these practices and let Peter Pans play in Never Never Land and thumb their noses at society’s rules. The grownups are moving in, and they’re bound to eventually win.

These are just the opening acts of a struggle, and it will probably be a long one. Wouldn’t surprise me given the fractured political nature of our world for it to take decades and decades to finally play out in some corners of the world.

But, inevitably, it will play out, and Society is going to win, simply because the stakes are becoming too high for it to lose. Not tomorrow, not next month, not next year. But someday.

Just a matter of history repeating itself.

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