Today I want to return to the Sensenbrenner-Conyers analog hole bill, which would impose a secret law – a requirement that all devices that accept analog video inputs must implement a secret technical specification for something called a VEIL detector. If you want to see this specification, you have to pay a $10,000 fee to a private company and you have to promise not to tell anyone about the technology. It’s pretty disturbing that our representatives would propose this kind of secret law.
But what is really odd about the secret technology is that the bill itself seems to assume that it is not secret. Consider, for example, Section 105:
If, upon the petition of any interested party, the Director of the Patent and Trademark Office determines that [VEIL] has become materially ineffective in a way that cannot be adequately remedied by existing technical flexibility in the embedding functions of [VEIL], then the Director may by rule adopt commercially reasonable improvements to the detection function of [VEIL] in order to maintain the functionality of the rights signaling system under this Act. Any such improvements shall be limited to adjustments or upgrades solely to the same underlying VEIL technology …
In [the above-described rulemaking], the Director … shall encourage representatives of the film industry, the broadcast, cable, and satellite industry, the information technology industry, and the consumer electronics industry to negotiate in good faith in an effort to reach agreement on the … improvements to [VEIL] to be adopted in the rule. The Director shall ensure that such negotiation process is open and public and that all potentially affected parties are invited to participate in the process through public notice. The Director shall cause any agreement for which there is substantial consensus of the parties on all material points to be published and shall take such agreement into account in any final rule adopted.
This process cannot be “open and public”, and an agreement on how the VEIL technology should be changed cannot be published, if the VEIL technology is secret. You can’t have a negotiation about how VEIL might be fixed, if the parties to that negotiation have promised not to disclose how VEIL works. And you can’t meaningfully invite members of the public to participate in the negotiation if they aren’t allowed to know about the subject being negotiated.
But that’s not all. The rulemaking will happen if somebody files a petition that convinces the Patent Office that VEIL “has become materially ineffective in a way that cannot be adequately remedied by existing technical flexibility in the embedding function” of VEIL.
The embedding function of VEIL is the gizmo that puts VEIL watermarks into video that is going to be distributed. It is separate from the detection function, which detects the presence or absence of a VEIL watermark in video content. The bill mandates that all analog video devices must include the detection function, so it is the detection function that one could learn about by paying the fee and taking the secrecy pledge.
But the embedding function of VEIL is entirely secret, and is not being revealed even to people who pay the fee and take the pledge. As far as I know, there is no way at all for anyone other than the VEIL company to find out how the embedding function works, or what kind of “existing technical flexibility” it might have. How anyone could petition the Patent Office on that subject is a mystery.
In short, the rulemaking procedure in Section 105 is entirely inconsistent with the secrecy of VEIL. How it got into the bill is therefore a pretty interesting question. Reading the bill, one gets the impression that it was assembled from prefab parts, rather than reflecting a self-consistent vision of how a technology mandate might actually work.