Digital rights management workshop: The deck stacked against consumers?

By Grant Gross

Free Software and consumer-rights activists are asking for their positions to be heard during a digital rights management workshop sponsored by the Technology Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. Critics say the panel as of now — with bigwig representatives from the Motion Picture Association of America, Recording Industry Association of America, EMI, Disney, Microsoft, and ContentGuard — sounds like a “pep rally for Hollywood.”
Of 17 panelists scheduled to speak at the workshop Wednesday afternoon, only two — and the Home Recording Rights Coalition — appear to be opposed to Big Hollywood’s vision of digital “rights management.” But consumer-rights activists are expected to show up in force, including representatives of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Free Software Foundation and New York’s Linux community.

“These panelists represent the major forces who have prompted
Congress to propose such radical measures as Senator Fritz Holling’s CBDTPA bill, which proposes to require content control to be built into all computers,” says Seth Johnson, of the Information Producers Initiative. “Since the public holds the largest stake in the prospects of digital information and communications technology, it is crucial that a strong showing be made at this meeting.” More of Johnson’s “We are the Stakeholders” message he’s been circulating is at the Information Producers Initiative Web site.

Members of the public are able to comment on digital rights management at the Technology Administration’s Web site. Among the topics the Commerce Department is asking for comments on (our comments follow):

  • “The effectiveness of efforts to pursue technical standards or solutions that are designed to provide a more predictable and secure environment for digital transmission of copyrighted material.” While at the same time taking away the public’s fair-use rights to copyrighted material?

  • “Major obstacles facing an open commercial exchange of digital content.” Could an obstacle to exchanging digital content be the commercial entities themselves?

  • “What a future framework for success might entail.” If it’s up to the RIAA, the MPAA and Microsoft, success is a lock-down on all digital content.

  • “Current consumer attitude towards online entertainment.” Perhaps that fat-cat entertainment companies are trying to get richer by controlling every little detail about how their customers use legally purchased products?

Consumer-rights activists are also encouraging people to contact their congressional representatives to ask about fair representation on this panel and about digital “rights management” issues in general. [See the “What you can do NOW!” comment on the above linkedNewsForge NewsVac item.]

Cheryl Mendonsa, a public affairs officer for the Technology Administration, encourages people to comment on the Web site or to show up at the workshop, from 1 to 4 p.m. While she notes that only two consumer groups are on the panel, she adds, “we’re in no way trying to leave the public out.”

Comments from the Web site will be posted, she says, and members of the audience should have time to ask questions Wednesday. The workshop, a follow-up to one held last December, is a chance to “button-hole” big players in the debate, she adds, although it’s hard for us to imagine someone changing Disney’s opinion during a five-minute discussion

The purpose of the workshops is to get both sides on the issue together and talking, Mendonsa says, but there’s no specific goal of introducing digital “rights management” legislation based on what happens during the workshop. “We’ve got two sides that disagree, and we can’t move forward until we solve the problems,” she says. “Let’s solve the problems and move forward.”

It should be interesting to see if the workshop moves the two sides closer together.