In Congressional committee testimony, leaders of various technology and entertainment companies said they are nearly ready to present a plan that will address how to prevent copyrighted digital broadcasts from being illegally redistributed over the Internet.
At the hearing before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, Panasonic chief technology officer Paul Liao said a report would be issued by May 17.
"It is this Congress' burden to help sort out how to rationally protect content in the digital age," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who chairs the subcommittee. But he "truly believe[s] that the best solution is a private-sector solution."
Some Congressional intervention might be necessary though, according to Philips Consumer Electronics president Larry Blanford. "Philips calls upon the Congress to reassert itself in this important area," he said. "In its effort to address Internet retransmission, BPDG (the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group) has been taken over by a small group of companies that are pressing a particular approach that would affect all retransmission of content inside the home. This proposal tramples upon the fair-use rights of the consumer and introduces unnecessary levels of complexity and costs in consumer devices."
Joe Krauss, founder of Excite.com and co-founder of DigitalConsumer.org, a group dedicated to "protecting fair-use rights in the digital world," said consumers' rights were at risk of being weakened. "There's a lot of latent interest in the issue of fair-use rights, and I think people are very concerned about recent trends," he said. "The average consumer understands that piracy is not a good thing, but the average consumer is concerned that the trends are overreaching in the other direction." DigitalConsumer.org has, in its six-week existence, already signed up 35,000 members who are concerned about protecting fair-use rights.
"Our members are not teenagers swapping songs on the Internet. They're ordinary, law-abiding citizens who insist that Congress protect their historical fair-use rights." Krauss pointed out that there has been no consumer participation in the BPDG and that he believes too much control is in industry hands.
Digital rights management expert Ebrahim Keshavarz, executive VP of marketing and sales for Digital World Services, commenting from his office in New York, believes both industry insiders and consumers see this issue in a negative light. "Right now it's a negative challenge: How do you prevent something from happening? How do you prevent illegal use?" he asked.
"But the positive question is 'How do you take advantage of this technology?' " Content that comes with DRM technology comes with the content provider's guarantee of quality. And this goes beyond digital television or even MP3 files crisscrossing the Internet. "If you're publishing a textbook that was originally intended for the non-digital world, you probably didn't intend for it to be sold in pieces. DRM technology ensures that your book stays intact and that readers get a complete, high-quality product."
Keshavarz said this also applies to video games and any type of content that can be transmitted. "DRM also keeps consumer electronics devices flexible," he said. "You can change the functionality of products on the fly as new content, with new capabilities, comes out. Retailers will be able to point to their products and say, 'This is flexible enough to handle whatever content comes. This has room to grow.' And that is appealing to consumers."
But manufacturers have challenges even now, determining what kind of technology to put into their products that would control improper use of content.
Just last week, CEA announced its concern over a federal court order forcing SonicBlue to develop and install software in its personal video recorders that would collect information about what shows users watch, record or send to other people.
"The court's order is highly troubling. It forces SonicBlue to violate the trust of its customers and commit an incredible invasion of privacy," said CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro, in a prepared statement. "SonicBlue would be forced to spy on consumers. The data collection would include monitoring if the user chooses to skip commercials, watch the same program more than once or delete a program."
To this point, Digital World Services' marketing manager Vanessa Erhard said DRM technology can take a middle ground for content providers and consumers. "This can handle the content provider's need for control over the content, but at the same time make it easy for the consumer to use. And, importantly, it protects the consumer's rights," she said.
Shapiro said the CEA is concerned that the courts are imposing an order forcing CE manufacturers to spy on consumers. "If the order stands, it will have a chilling effect on technological innovation and consumers' buying rights," he said. "Our industry continues to seek and fight for an approach to copy protection that balances legitimate concerns about privacy and preserving intellectual property with established home recording and fair-use rights."