March 21, 2002 4:25 PM PST

Antipiracy bill finally sees Senate

A controversial bill that would ultimately require computer and consumer-electronics companies to build copyright-protection technology into their products was finally introduced in the U.S. Senate on Thursday.

The so-called Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Act--once known as the Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA)--first saw daylight late last year, when a draft of the proposed legislation began making Capital Hill rounds. As one of the most far-reaching proposals yet seen for protecting movies, music and software against digital piracy, it immediately drew a firestorm of debate.

As a result, battle lines were drawn well before its introduction. Many big consumer-electronics and technology companies oppose the idea. Walt Disney is for it, along with sponsor Sen. Fritz Hollings, D-S.C. Most of the major studios and record labels like the idea of stronger copyright protection but are still wary of government mandate.

In his statement introducing the bill, Hollings said that government action is needed to bring all the parties onto the same page.

"I believe the private sector is capable--through marketplace negotiations--of adopting standards that will ensure the secure transmission of copyrighted content on the Internet and over the airwaves," Hollings said. "But given the pace of private talks so far, the private sector needs a nudge."

The bill marks the meeting point of several twisted political strands, each of which has drawn its own political firestorm. Much of Hollings' focus in introducing the bill has been on the telecommunications industry, where he and other legislators are fighting over the best way to spur the development of high-speed Internet.

Hollings has set himself squarely against another high-profile bill, which recently passed the House of Representatives, that would eliminate much of the regulation on the major telephone companies' high-speed Net services. He argues that providing good entertainment content is the only way to spur people to sign up for DSL (digital subscriber line), cable and digital TV, and protecting that content is the only way to convince the big entertainment companies to put it online.

"America's broadband and digital television industries are facing a demand problem in which their high-priced services don't offer enough high-quality content to encourage consumer buying," Hollings said. Producing that content "requires the development of a secure, protected environment to foster the widespread dissemination of digital content in these mediums."

But if many in the technology industry agree with him in theory, they're not happy with his approach. The new bill would require that the content, technology and consumer-electronics industries work with consumer groups for a year to set a standard technological means for protecting against digital piracy. Those technologies would then have to be incorporated into all "digital media devices."

If the industries can't come to agreement on their own in that time, the Federal Communications Commission and the U.S. Copyright Office would step in to mandate a technology, although only after consulting with the private sector.

Technology companies, for the most part, say the idea of having a single means of protecting different kinds of content won't work and that an enforced mandate wouldn't allow them to react quickly enough to changing technologies.

"A broad government technology mandate is not a solution to the piracy problem," said Robert Holleyman, chief executive of the Business Software Alliance. "Unfortunately, no one solution will solve all piracy threats in all circumstances."

Other groups, including the Consumer Electronics Association, the Information Technology Industry Council, and the Computer Systems Policy Project, also expressed their early opposition.

The big copyright trade associations were circumspect. While applauding Hollings and the other co-sponsors' attention to the issue, Hillary Rosen, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, said only that she approved of "voluntary standards," as opposed to a full government mandate.

"We appreciate that (the sponsors) have sent a wake-up call to the information technology and consumer-electronics industries that the time has come to achieve a voluntary marketplace solution to the growing threat of online piracy," Rosen said in a statement. "We have been, and continue to be, eager to work out a voluntary solution, for that is in the best interests of everyone involved, especially the American consumer."

 

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