While the federal government delayed the official announcement of its cybersecurity recommendations – originally scheduled to take place Wednesday – a draft release of the report suggests that lawmakers want to maintain a measure of control over what people do online.
Congress is getting help from technology developers in its quest to lock down and monitor the Internet.
More and more, companies are offering products that are easier to set up but come with restrictive technology. The trade-off has raised concern that a small number of businesses will ultimately control the flow of digital media on the Internet.
Last week, Microsoft announced that set-top box chip manufacturers would soon add support for the Windows Media Video 9 Series. On the surface, placing operations at the hardware level helps lower prices and moves the industry closer to its goal of easy interoperability of devices.
“This impacts set-top boxes,” said Michael Aldridge, Microsoft lead product manager for Windows digital media. “One of the chipmakers is making a Pioneer digital library which can pull your content from your PC and play it on your home theater. This will enable you to move content from your PC to play on other devices and it will allow you to play back and store content directly from the Internet.”
Once those functions are embedded at the hardware level, however, consumers no longer control their machines. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) makes it illegal to break encryption technology that comes with digital media. Essentially, Hollywood studios could limit how consumers watch a video streamed via Windows Media Video 9.
Microsoft is by no means the only company integrating its software into hardware devices. Sony, for example, allows open-source developers some access to its Playstation 2 home console.
Congress amended the copyright law so that all DVD players must include Macrovision, a technology that keeps people from copying movies on VHS tapes. The Audio Home Recording Act requires DAT tapes to degrade sound quality after a certain number of copies have been made. Also, MP3 files can only be uploaded to portable music players.
But selling devices with built-in restrictions does even more to limit the control consumers have over their home entertainment systems and computer networks.
“Consumers may not realize that there is this pre-existing prohibition on modifying (devices) in a way that defeats the security protections without breaking the law,” said Professor Jessica Litman of Detroit’s Wayne State University Law School.
That doesn’t mean that there is no place for proprietary systems like Microsoft’s, Litman said, as long as there are open alternatives.
A similar debate rages over digital television. Cable companies continue to push for a closed delivery system, while satellite businesses have opened their networks. The mix allows consumers to choose which system they want.
All-inclusive products could make it difficult for consumers to opt for more open devices, however. The Hewlett-Packard Windows Media Center PC, expected to sell for less than $2,000, comes with a DVD player, a television card and a built-in personal video recorder with its own electronic programming guide.
While the rights-management system built into the system can be turned off, according to a Microsoft spokesman, doing so limits its functionality. Movies, music and other files with digital protection wouldn’t run with rights management disabled.
Cookies store information about users in digital files. When they visit a website, cookies verify who users are. Cookies can be turned off, but two things happen: Users are denied entry to some parts of the Web and they must introduce themselves anew to any website that requires a password to log in.
Open-source advocates fear that lawmakers will soon turn this experience into law before consumers realize they can weigh in. A handful of Linux developers are hoping to persuade PC retail outlets that open-source software is a good way to make money.
“Linux is a very good alternative to Microsoft, but retailers aren’t just going to put up Linux boxes if they think those are going to collect dust,” said Blake Couch, webmaster at WeWantLinux.org. “People think it is hard to install and very difficult to configure, but if they had the opportunity to buy a computer with Linux preloaded, that would negate that argument.”