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There is a very interesting and well-done piece on some emerging technology that will affect you far more than Hammer or serial ATA or hyperthreading.

In a phrase, hardware-based digital rights management (for many, read copy protection).

The consortium of tech organizations putting this together is called the Trusted Computing Platform Alliance. Here’s their membership list. Most of the big names are there. Both Intel and AMD are there (though Via and SiS are not, nor are any major CDRW manufacturers, wonder why? :)).

Initially, this hardware-based system is supposed to be built into chipsets; the first ones appear to be Hammer chipsets. (See the June 24 comments at Via Hardware for some more details about that. Via and SiS not being on the list presents a rather big problem.

If this to you bears some resemblance to the old hardware dongles of the past, which could be bypassed, you may well have a point.

Eventually, though, this security/copy-protection system is supposed to be built into the CPU (see Question 15). Like Intel and AMD CPUs. It’s one thing to buy a Via motherboard; quite another to buy a Via CPU.

My best guess on the timing of CPU-incorporation would be probably not earlier than .09 micron CPU, not later than .065 CPUs. I find the latter more likely, so we’re talking roughly 2005.

How This Would Work, Politically

The initial link describes the technical aspects well enough. This is not a technical issue; it’s a political issue.

Politically, this is a major shift of forces. The bulk of the hardware companies will jump from opposing the content providers to siding up with them with their solution to the content providers’ problem.

It also seems to me the consortium views this initiative as something that can be implemented without government’s blessing, though it would be nice to have to get stray sheep with the program and to provide them cover: “The government made us do this, blame them.”

We’ll apparently see the first equipped-mobos become available in 2003. Expect a lot of pressure to be put on Via and SiS to come up with Palladium-compatible mobos. I would also expect to see a big push to have the U.S. Congress bless this in 2003. This time around, it will be serious.

Politically, 2003 is the year to do it. It’s not an election year. Security should still approvingly be in the mind of the average voter. Most of the electorate won’t know about the issue, fewer will care. Of those few that do, the electorate generally has short memories, and young ones even shorter ones. Besides, they don’t vote anyway.

Bet your bottom dollar on a CBDTPA II being introduced early in 2003 and a major effort made to get it enacted (not like the last time). If a CBDTPA II passes, Via and Sis will comply because if they don’t, they won’t be allowed to sell anymore mobos in the U.S..

If they don’t, forget about U.S. government help until after the U.S. presidential elections.

Expect content producers to start making TCPA-compatible and only TCPA-compatible products in a year or so. (Any of this will only work with future product; the horse is out of the barn for past and current product). Fully expect such products to be marketed using the points made in this article, which will obscure the primary purpose of this change.

(Here’s where things get a little vague. Will TCPA-compatible products, say a CD-ROM, be playable in a non-TCPA, but read-only environment? If so, that may give crackers an opportunity.)

That’s what would look to be Plan A, which means the core elements would be in place by the end of 2003, and people would now have an incentive to update their machines, with most not knowing the real reason for it.

If that doesn’t work out, you have Plan B, and 2005 would be the target date. Again, a government blessing would help, but the make-or-break players here would be Intel and AMD. If they hold firm and put the circuits in the CPUs, it’s hard to see how this isn’t a done deal, government or not.

Can This Happen?

Sure. If I had to bet, I’d bet that either Plan A or (more likely) Plan B will eventually get implemented.

I’m not going to pretend to assess how technically robust this would be and secure against cracking activities, though I suspect at least phase 2 will be good enough to make cracking difficult enough to preclude most current copiers.

For the purposes of this article, I’m more concerned about political robustness.

This strategy is very clever, because it essentially pits Joe Sixpack (and Suit) against Gabriel Geek.

The Joes buy the computers. The Joes aren’t too likely to ask geeky type questions about what chips are or aren’t on the motherboard to the Dell or HP or CompUSA or BestBuy salesperson.

To the extent he knows about it, he’ll probably know about the features being marketed, not the ones that aren’t, and the ones that are will look good to Sixpack and Suit.

So if left to his own devices, the Joes, probably unknowingly, will vote for TCPA, and like an elephant stepping on ants, unknowingly crush the Gabriels and their efforts.

Gabriel won’t have too many allies this time. Last time, with CBDTPA, Intel spoke against this. Next time, what will be on the table will be Intel’s plan and answer to the problem.

In the past, the hardware companies have sided with Gabriel. No more. This essentially is their plan. Look at that membership list. This is bound to sell them more machines when they aren’t selling too many. The hardware guys won’t be blowing Gabriel’s horn this time around.

(Well, the CDRW folks will stay with Gabriel, but this is like having the rolling paper people with you for the legalization of marijuana. :))

We’ve already mentioned the “keep government out of everything” people. They may oppose legislation, but this is basically what they asked for: a private sector initiative.

So to win against the big special interests, Gabriel is going to somehow get the Joes on his side big time, either by not buying machines with TCPA, or by supporting him in his efforts to get the government to stop this. He has a steep road ahead of him.

First, he has to convince himself than he needs Joe. Then he has to get Joe’s attention. Third, he has to explain to Joe why he should care. Finally, he has to get Joe to actually do something. I see problems every step of the way.

Joe is probably not too much into copying (though his kid is). Joe likely doesn’t know about his kid’s copying. Joe might not even know copying is possible, outside of “borrowing” somebody’s CD-ROM.

It’s hard to see how you’re going to get the average Joe too riled up about this, primarily because you won’t be able to get his attention long enough to do so. The only thing likely to get Joe’s full attention is having to buy a new machine so he can play the latest and greatest. Whether that will be enough to turn Joe into a political activist is very debatable.

He may like what he gains more than what he loses. Even if he doesn’t, it’s more likely he’ll follow the path that gives him the least hassle: buy the kid a portable CD player that will play the new stuff, maybe keep the old machine a bit longer, then finally cave-in.

Gabriel is part of the problem, too.

For one thing, he’s likely to be a kid, or not far from it, which diminishes his credibility in the eyes of those who view him that way. He tends to be very self-centered, and still tends to think the world will do whatever he wants once he tells it so.

He tends to be very lazy and uncommitted when it comes to political matters. He tends to lack social graces and tact. He tends to look down on Joe when it comes to computer matters. Not exactly prime lobbyist material, on any level.

Gabriel is going to have a rough time getting Joe’s attention for the time required to explain this. Remember, Gabriel isn’t doing Joe a favor by telling him what to buy, he now wants Joe to do something like write a letter to his Congressman.

If he manages to, and if Joe isn’t a few short of a six-pack and has any kind of moral standards (or at least pretends to in public), he’s likely to ask some pretty awkward questions, like, “Isn’t this stealing?”

Joe may not know computers, but he can smell BS, and when the kid hands him the amateur stuff I normally see on this subject, Joe’s going to blow him off. He’s certainly not going to put himself on what he thinks is a public record by writing his Congressman and advocate something that looks like stealing. Joe’s not going to stick his neck out.

That’s Gabriel’s core problem, whether it be persuading Joe Sixpack or Suit or Congressman. He doesn’t dare be honest about this. “I want to keep stealing” is political suicide.

Instead, he has to blow smoke about his “rights” being violated.

The lobbyists on the other side will deploy very high speed and noisy fans to blow away the smoke and simply say what Gabriel won’t. They’ll do everything possible to turn this into a “Is there a right to steal?” debate.

Gabriel will make this very easy to do because the last thing he wants is an answer to the problem of digital stealing, and he’ll reject anything from anyone else that threatens to be one. When he gets asked, “Well, do you have a better idea on how to stop the stealing?” he has no answer that will satisfy anybody who really does want to stop it. All he’ll say is, “There is no problem,” or “Just arrest them” or babble about his “rights” being more important than the intellectual properties of others. And he’ll do that this time around without reputable allies like the hardware companies in his corner.

This is bad enough to try to stop legislation. If the hardware companies implement this and present the world a fait accompli, imagine how hard it will be to try to persuade Congress to pass legislation that will certainly be portrayed by the other side as the “Digital Stealing Act.”

Because Gabriel has no concept of compromise or fallback, because he won’t acknowledge that some form of protection is politically inevitable, he’ll leave the field open to the real danger. As the author in the first link put it, “The fundamental issue is that whoever controls the Fritz chips will acquire a huge amount of power. There are many ways in which this power could be abused . . . .”

This is an area that will cry out for significant governmental regulation to say what can and cannot be done with this technology, but that’s not going to happen when the only ones opposing it take a “kill or be killed” attitude.

If they get killed, the corporations are going to have a field day protecting anything and everything, and it will take a long, long time to restrain them.



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