March 23, 2023

Archives for May 2007

If It's Not Snake Oil, It's Pretty Awesome (Part 2)

Four years ago I wrote about a company called Music Public Broadcasting:

In today’s Los Angeles Times, Jon Healey writes about a new DRM proposal from a company called Music Public Broadcasting. The company’s claims, which are not substantiated in the story, give off a distinct aroma of snake oil.

I went on to document the snake oil indicators: (1) the flamboyant, self-promoting entrepreneur, newly arrived from another field; (2) the vaguely articulated theoretical breakthrough, described in mystical terms unintelligible to experts in the field; (3) the evidence that the product hadn’t been demonstrated or explained to its customers; (4) the claims to invalidate an accepted, fundamental principle in the field — but without really explaining how it is done. As one potential customer said, “If it’s not snake oil, it’s pretty awesome.”

Now the same company, having adopted a new name, is floating an equally improbable legal theory: that Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, Real, and anybody else making music download tools is legally required to license the company’s technology. Their theory is that these target companies are “avoiding” the use of their anti-copying technology – avoiding it in the sense of not buying it – and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act prohibits avoidance of copy protection. In other words, the target companies have a legal obligation to buy the company’s technology and, on the same theory, any other technology that claims to stop infringement. Snake oil purchases are now mandatory.

If you believe this company’s legal claim is any more solid than its technical claim, I have a bridge to sell you – and let me assure you that you’re legally compelled to buy it.

HBO Exec Wants to Rename DRM

People have had lots of objections to Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology – centering mainly on its clumsiness and the futility of its anti-infringement rationale – but until recently nobody had complained that the term “Digital Rights Management” was insufficiently Orwellian.

That changed on Tuesday, when HBO’s Chief Technology Officer, Bob Zitter, suggested at an industry conference that DRM needs a name change. Zitter’s suggested name: Digital Consumer Enablement, or DCE.

The irony here is that “rights management” is itself an industry-sponsored euphemism for what would more straightforwardly be
called “restrictions”. But somehow the public got the idea that DRM is restrictive, hence the need for a name change.

Zitter went on to discuss HBO’s strategy. HBO wants to sell shows in HighDef, but the problem is that many consumers are watching HD content using the analog outputs on their set-top boxes – often because their fancy new HD televisions don’t implement HBO’s favorite form of DRM. So what HBO wants is to disable the analog outputs on the set-top box, so consumers have no choice but to adopt HBO’s favored DRM.

Which makes the nature of the “enablement” clear. By enabling your set-top box to be incompatible with your TV, HBO will enable you to buy an expensive new TV. I understand why HBO might want this. But they ought to be honest and admit what they are doing.

I can think of several names for their strategy. “Consumer Enablement” is not one of them.

You Can Own an Integer Too — Get Yours Here

Remember last week’s kerfuffle over whether the movie industry could own random 128-bit numbers? (If not, here’s some background: 1, 2, 3)

Now, thanks to our newly developed VirtualLandGrab technology, you can own a 128-bit integer of your very own.

Here’s how we do it. First, we generate a fresh pseudorandom integer, just for you. Then we use your integer to encrypt a copyrighted haiku, thereby transforming your integer into a circumvention device capable of decrypting the haiku without your permission. We then give you all of our rights to decrypt the haiku using your integer. The DMCA does the rest.

The haiku is copyright 2007 by Edward W. Felten:

We own integers,
You can own one too.

Here is your very own 128-bit integer, which we hereby deed to you:

[can’t display integer]

If you’d like another integer, just hit Shift-Reload, and we’ll make a fresh one for you. Make as many as you want! Did we mention that a shiny new integer would make a perfect Mother’s Day gift?

If you like our service, you can upgrade for a low annual fee to VirtualLandGrab Gold – and claim thousands of integers with a single click!

Why the 09ers Are So Upset

The user revolt at Digg and elsewhere, over attempts to take down the now-famous “09 F9 …” number, is now all over the press. (Background: 1, 2) Many non-techies, including some reporters, wonder why users care so much about this. What is it about “09F9…” that makes people willing to defend it by making T-shirts, writing songs, or subjecting their dotcom startup to lawsuit risk?

The answer has several parts. The first answer is that it’s a reaction against censorship. Net users hate censorship and often respond by replicating the threatened content. When Web companies take down user-submitted content at the behest of big media companies, that looks like censorship. But censorship by itself is not the whole story.

The second part of the answer, and the one most often missed by non-techies, is the fact that the content in question is an integer – an ordinary number, in other words. The number is often written in geeky alphanumeric format, but it can be written equivalently in a more user-friendly form like 790,815,794,162,126,871,771,506,399,625. Giving a private party ownership of a number seems deeply wrong to people versed in mathematics and computer science. Letting a private group pick out many millions of numbers (like the AACS secret keys), and then simply declare ownership of them, seems even worse.

While it’s obvious why the creator of a movie or a song might deserve some special claim over the use of their creation, it’s hard to see why anyone should be able to pick a number at random and unilaterally declare ownership of it. There is nothing creative about this number – indeed, it was chosen by a method designed to ensure that the resulting number was in no way special. It’s just a number they picked out of a hat. And now they own it?

As if that’s not weird enough, there are actually millions of other numbers (other keys used in AACS) that AACS LA claims to own, and we don’t know what they are. When I wrote the thirty-digit number that appears above, I carefully avoided writing the real 09F9 number, so as to avoid the possibility of mind-bending lawsuits over integer ownership. But there is still a nonzero probability that AACS LA thinks it owns the number I wrote.

When the great mathematician Leopold Kronecker wrote his famous dictum, “God created the integers; all else is the work of man”, he meant that the basic structure of mathematics is part of the design of the universe. What God created, AACS LA now wants to take away.

The third part of the answer is that the link between the 09F9 number and the potential harm of copyright infringement is pretty tenuous. AACS LA tells everyone who will listen that the discovery and distribution of the 09F9 number is no real threat to the viability of AACS or the HD-DVD/Blu-ray formats. A person getting the 09F9 number could, if he or she is technically skillful, invest a lot of work to get access to movies. But there are easier, less tech-intensive ways to get the same movies. Publishing the number has approximately zero impact on copyright infringement.

Which brings us to the civil disobedience angle. It’s no secret that many in the tech community despise the DMCA’s anticircumvention provisions. If you’re going to defy a law to show your disagreement with it, you’ll look for a situation where (1) the application of the law is especially inappropriate, (2) your violation does no actual harm, and (3) many others are doing the same thing so the breadth of opposition to the law is evident. That’s what we see here.

It will be interesting to see what AACS LA does next. My guess is that they’ll cut their losses, refrain from sending demand letters and filing lawsuits, and let the 09F9 meme run its course.

Digg Users Revolt Over AACS Key

I wrote yesterday about efforts by AACS LA, the entity that controls the AACS copy protection system used in HD-DVD and Blu-ray discs, to stop people from republishing a sixteen-byte cryptographic key that can unlock most existing discs. Much of the action took place at Digg, a site that aggregates Web page recommendations from many people. (At Digg, you can recommend pages on the Web that you find interesting, and Digg will show you the most-recommended pages in various categories.

Digg had received a demand letter from AACS LA, asking Digg to take down links to sites containing the key. After consulting with lawyers, Digg complied, and Digg’s administrators started canceling entries on the site.

Then Digg’s users revolted. As word got around about what Digg was doing, users launched a deluge of submissions to Digg, all mentioning or linking to the key. Digg’s administrators tried to keep up, but submissions showed up faster than the administrators could cancel them. For a while yesterday, the entire front page of Digg – the “hottest” pages according to Digg’s algorithms – consisted of links to the AACS key.

Last night, Digg capitulated to its users. Digg promised to stop removing links to the key, and Digg founder Kevin Rose even posted the key to the site himself. Rose wrote on Digg’s official blog,

In building and shaping the site I’ve always tried to stay as hands on as possible. We’ve always given site moderation (digging/burying) power to the community. Occasionally we step in to remove stories that violate our terms of use (eg. linking to pornography, illegal downloads, racial hate sites, etc.). So today was a difficult day for us. We had to decide whether to remove stories containing a single code based on a cease and desist declaration. We had to make a call, and in our desire to avoid a scenario where Digg would be interrupted or shut down, we decided to comply and remove the stories with the code.

But now, after seeing hundreds of stories and reading thousands of comments, you’ve made it clear. You’d rather see Digg go down fighting than bow down to a bigger company. We hear you, and effective immediately we won’t delete stories or comments containing the code and will deal with whatever the consequences might be.

If we lose, then what the hell, at least we died trying.

This is a remarkable event. Critics of Web 2.0 technologies like Digg often say that users are being exploited, that the “communities” on these sites are shams and the company running the site is really in control. Here, the Digg company found that it doesn’t entirely control the Digg site – if users want something on the site badly enough, they can put it there. If Digg wasn’t going to shut down entirely (or become clogged with postings of the key), it had no choice but to acquiesce and allow links to the key. But Digg went beyond acquiescence, siding with its users against AACS LA, by posting the key itself and practically inviting a lawsuit from AACS LA.

Digg’s motive here probably has more to do with profit and market share than with truth, justice, and the American way. It’s not a coincidence that Digg’s newly discovered values coincide with the desires of its users. Still, the important fact is that users could bend Digg to their will. It turns out that the “government” of Digg’s community gets its power from the consent of the governed. Users of other Web 2.0 sites will surely take note.