July 22, 2002

Commerce Department to invite consumer groups to discuss digital rights management

-By Grant Gross -

Officials in the Technology Administration at the U.S. Department of Commerce are looking for consumer groups to join the debate over digital rights management they're refereeing, dominated until now by Big Hollywood and IT companies.
Commerce officials are working to set up a meeting with interested consumer groups after a combative digital rights management workshop last week in which Free Software and fair use advocates didn't get much of a chance to counter comments by the Hollywood and IT panelists. Chris Israel, deputy assistant secretary for technology policy, says he hopes the consumer-only meeting will happen within a few weeks.

The agency's willingness to expand the DRM debate is being welcomed by consumer groups that saw officials there as the enemy just days ago, although it remains to be seen whether the consumer groups can impact the direction of the DRM debate.

Last Wednesday's public workshop got a little tense when Free Software and fair use advocates showed up expecting to be able to respond to comments by a half dozen record and movie industry representatives. When it became apparent that Commerce officials weren't allowing for comments from the audience, the consumer advocates protested by shouting comments from the back of the room several times during the three-hour workshop.

Commerce officials say they had received little consumer feedback since the agency began planning this second DRM workshop in December. The agency went through the normal government channels, issuing a press release and running a notice of the meeting in the Federal Register July 3. But up until the past couple of weeks, the agency had heard from only three consumer groups, all of which were invited to attend the workshop. One consumer group, Consumers Union, couldn't make it to the last workshop. NY for Fair Use people, however, say they tried to get on the panel during the past couple of weeks.

"Quite frankly, we hadn't really been approached by a lot of consumer groups," Israel says. "We were a little disappointed that things got out of hand a little bit on Wednesday, but we certainly understand the passion and convictions everybody brings to the table."

The consumers have certainly come out of the woodwork in the last few days.
As of late Friday, the Technology Administration had received about 200 comments on DRM at its Web site, and those comments will be part of the official record of the workshop, Israel says.

Israel says the meeting planned with consumer groups won't take the form of the public workshop, which took months to set up. Instead, Technology Administration officials will meet informally with the consumer groups to get a feel for their objections to proposed DRM schemes.

Agency officials also won't hold last Wednesday's loud protests against any consumer groups, Israel adds. Undersecretary for Technology Phillip Bond, who ran the meeting, chatted with a couple of the protesters after the meeting, Israel notes.

Electronic Frontier Foundation lawyer Robin Gross praised the Technology Administration's decision to meet with consumer groups.

"This is great news that the Commerce Department is interested in listening to the voice of the public in this debate," says Gross, who sat quietly at the workshop.
"We are quite pleased that our elected officials will include the concerns of everyday citizens in determining an information policy for the digital age. While Hollywood's concerns are important and should be taken into consideration, this is a good first step in recognizing the important legal principle that the goal of copyright law is to benefit the public at large."

She adds: "I hope the panel will include several civil liberties groups, librarians, computer scientists, educators, academics, and ordinary 'fair users.'"

NewsForge reader Walter Reed, who's been corresponding with a Commerce Department PR person, says he's been asked to nominate some consumer advocates for a meeting. "The nice thing was that this is one of the first government offices which even acknowledged an email, and the fact that they did so several times is in my opinion amazing," Reed says. "My opinion of the government in general these days is quite low, so anything positive at all is quite refreshing."

LXNY corresponding secretary Jay Sulzberger, who was also at the last workshop,
suggested a consumer meeting should include computer owners,
computer designers, programmers, and artists in place of the more generic word, "consumers."

He advocated the Commerce Department have a large public workshop, similar to Wednesday's, and he nominated about 20 people who should be invited, including several of the protesters at the meeting, plus Internet pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, recording artists David Bowie and Chuck D, EFF co-founder John Gilmore, Free Software Foundation lawyer Eben Moglen, the MPAA's Jack Valenti, and PGP creator Phillip Zimmermann.

Israel says the Technology Administration's purpose of the DRM workshops is get the concerned groups together to talk about ways to protect content copyrights on the Web. "We want to be an effective facilitator and a catalyst for progress," he says.

When it's suggested to Israel that some consumer advocates may ask his agency to take a step back and re-examine whether there is a need for some kind of DRM standard to protect Hollywood against "piracy," he says the agency is willing to listen to those concerns.

"If there's a technologically sound argument that can be put on the table that disproves the point that there needs to be a technological fix to the problem presented, we'll certainly listen to that," he adds. "[But] we continue to think it's important to discuss a framework where there's a consistent and reliable mechanism for protecting intellectual property."

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