title: The end of the free world?


by: Scott Bradner


Last week I ranted about the DMCA.  But, leave it to Congress, something far worse may be in the works.  Senator Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) is on the verge of introducing legislation that would in effect outlaw computer innovation and might just make it a crime to compete with Microsoft.


Senator Hollings is reported to be about to introduce the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA), a copy of which was leaked to Wired magazine.  (See the draft bill at http://www.politechbot.com/docs/hollings.090701.html.) This bill would cover any new "interactive digital device" and would require that all such devices "include and utilize" copyright protection technology certified by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.  According to the draft, the term "interactive digital device" means "any machine, device, product, software, or technology, whether or not included with or as part of some other machine, device, product, software, or technology, that is designed, marketed or used for the primary purpose of, and that is capable of, storing, retrieving, processing, performing, transmitting, receiving, or copying information in digital form."


There was a fascinating article in the September issue of the Smithsonian magazine on Dan Foster, who uses sophisticated word usage analysis to figure out who authored various documents.  I do not think one needs to use Dan's techniques to figure out that this bill was written by the copyright industry and not by Fritz or his staff.


As an author I think it is a laudable goal to protect the rights of copyright holders but this is a case where the cure is far worse than the disease.  Dealing with copyrights in the digital age is not easy.  See the National research Council  report titled "The Digital Dilemma."   I was part of the panel that produced this report and we spent a lot of time discussing technical protection systems such as the one that the bill seeks to mandate.  One of the conclusions of the report is that "there is a great diversity in the kinds of digital intellectual property, business models, legal mechanisms, and technical protection services possible, making a one-size-fits-all solution too rigid."


In addition there is the potential for significant collateral damage from a rule of this type.  First the definition of interactive digital device is vague and could cover anything from a microwave oven to a super computer, all of which would be made more expensive and complicated by this law.  But worse, the use of the term "utilize" in the bill would mean that only trusted operating systems could be used on the computers.  Say good-by to Linux and to most flavors of UNIX.  The logical conclusion is that only Microsoft and Apple operating systems would be legal because those companies could produce "secure" systems that could keep people from programming around the protection system.


This rule might be good for Mickey Mouse but it is very harmful to the rest of us.


disclaimer: Whatever Harvard is, it is not Mickey Mouse and the above observation is my own.