Hollings Bill: Electronic Big Brother?

How likely would you be to buy a computer, TV, or DVD player knowing that it could monitor your activities and automatically report possible copyright violations to the federal government? That's one of the nightmare scenarios that could evolve from the proposed Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA), drafted by Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings and strongly backed by Walt Disney Company and other members of the Motion Picture Association of America.

Scheduled to be introduced for consideration in late October, the bill stipulates that "an interactive computer service shall store and transmit with integrity any security measure associated with certified security technologies that is used in connection with copyrighted material or other protected content such as service transmits or stores." It would also make it unlawful "to manufacture, import, offer to the public, provide or otherwise traffic in any interactive digital device that does not include and utilize certified security technologies that adhere to the security system standards." In other words, if the Hollings bill becomes law, only new electronics devices that would track users' behaviors could be legally sold, and even discussing ways to work around the monitoring would become a criminal offense. Bringing in an SSSCA-free computer or disc player from out of the country would be illegal, too.

Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, and his colleague Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) crafted the bill at the urging of Hollywood film studios eager to avoid a copy-protection debacle similar to the one that engulfed the music industry with the rise of audio file swapping over the Internet. The bill doesn't stipulate exactly what sorts of technology must be built into the new generation of electronics, but leaves the design to a cross-industry coalition, which will be given 12 months to come up with a proposal, with a six-month extension if needed. The senators may be only vaguely aware that the Secure Digital Music Initiative spent two years vainly attempting something similar for the music industry, but the bill is proof that the entertainment industry now recognizes that software solutions don't work. The next step is to build "digital rights management" (DRM) into the hardware, and to back it up with criminal penalties. DRM technology could be mandated not only for computer and video equipment, but for consumer electronics of all types, including audio equipment, digital cameras, and even copiers.

The film industry hopes that the Hollings bill will promote broadband entertainment by instilling fear in potential copyright violators. "This is the best way to protect America's valuable creative works, which in turn will expand broadband access and Internet use," said MPAA president Jack Valenti. "There's a problem and there's going to be a solution," agreed Disney vice president Preston Padden. Disney, it should be noted, is the same company that 20 years ago fought against the video cassette recorder, taking the fight all the way to the US Supreme Court. The perceived threat actually proved to be a boon to the entire film industry, and to the economy as a whole.

The electronics industry is firmly opposed to being forced by law to build devices that will give operating control to media conglomerates. "The regulatory system is not constructed to deal with digital product design. It only adds an extra layer of complication," Washington telecommunications attorney James Burger told Junko Yoshida of Electronics Engineering Times. "We are not in the business of making a video recorder to give Disney the authority to turn it on or off," another electronics executive asserted. The software and hardware industries are gearing up for a long fight, with consumers' rights as the prize.

The Home Recording Rights Coalition has yet to weigh in on the issue, but other civil liberties groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have gone on record as being unalterably opposed to the bill, which could be swept into law with a broader group of security measures introduced in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Movie and music fans who are operating within present "fair use" rights may be lumped in with sworn enemies as threats to national security. In the process, many of the basic freedoms that we have long taken for granted may be permanently eroded. Of course, no compromises to our freedoms will prevent wholesale piracy outside the United States.

So far, the Hollings bill has been little noted in the consumer electronics press or in the mass media, and consumers have yet to voice strong opinions on the matter (see this week's Soapbox for one consumer's voice). That situation will likely change once the bill is actually introduced in Congress. If passed, it could have deeper and more long-lasting effects on home entertainment—and on the electronics industry—than any previous legislation. It is interesting to note that 79-year-old Senator Hollings is no electronics expert, nor is his home state a hotbed of high technology. Curiously, he and Representative Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, are working on Internet privacy legislation, also to be introduced this fall. How it would dovetail with the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act is anybody's guess.

The text of the proposed legislation can be viewed here.