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Microsoft's smell of desperation

If Palladium is successful, it may present two unpleasant choices

(LinuxWorld) -- It seems like the world is turning upside down and inside out. Few things ever seem to make sense in worldly terms, but the events of recent days have truly threatened to turn what's left of our freedom in the U.S. into a surreal nightmare.

First, some VarLinux.org readers noted that Congress is considering a bill that would allow recording companies and other content providers to crack into P2P networks to protect their content from piracy. As one reader pointed out, this would give content providers more power than the FBI to not only invade your privacy, but to sabotage your network and software.

To quote the Yahoo news story on this topic, "The proposal would lift civil and criminal penalties against entertainment companies "disabling, interfering with, blocking, diverting or otherwise impairing" the online trading of pirated songs and movies. Wholesale attacks knocking an Internet user off-line would not be permitted "except as may be reasonably necessary" to prevent a copyright violation. Copyright owners would be required to explain in advance to the Justice Department (news -- Web sites) the methods they intend to use against pirates."

In other words, Megalorecords, Inc. will have to tell the D.O.J. it's going to use a lead pipe as the murder weapon before it knocks off Colonel Mustard in the study. How reassuring.

Allow me to be clear on one point. I don't use any P2P software, so I can't comment on any of it. I have stated I believe many if not most people using Napster were stealing copyrighted music, and I believe people should not have been using Napster for that purpose. I am not on the side of those who think fair-use covers making your music available to anyone who happens to have Internet access. Nor do I think it is a valid argument to have defended Napster on the grounds of free speech. Again, I don't know how much of this applies to P2P, but I don't want anyone to get the idea that I'm in favor of violating existing copyrights.

Palladium

I do happen to think that the answer to the problem of piracy is not to enforce copyrights (especially through the use of digital rights management) or even entirely eliminate copyrights (I don't think that would be necessary), but to overhaul copyrights and the way companies make money on things like music. That's a topic too complex to tackle in this column, but the latest digital rights management connection deserves some attention.

Microsoft recently announced its Palladium initiative. The Palladium is a warmed-over Clipper chip. Microsoft is selling the idea as a hardware-enabled way to make your PC software secure, but all it really amounts to is a digital cop that arrests any software that tries to use copyrighted content in an unapproved manner. In plain language, your computer will only play songs or movies if you've paid for them. That's right. It's chip-enforced digital rights management.

It seems natural for Microsoft to be interested in digital rights management because Gates and company are perhaps the most paranoid creatures on earth when it comes to piracy. However, I believe there is an even more ulterior motive here. Microsoft has a patent on the concept of a digital rights management operating system. If Microsoft can make the Palladium successful, it can present the open source community with two choices. PCs running Linux or any other non-Microsoft OS may not use the chip, in which case these PCs will not be able to play any copyrighted DVDs or music CDs. If the open source OS uses the chip, someone has to pay Microsoft for the right to do so, since it owns the patent.

Some people are dismissing the Palladium chip because they equate it with Intel's plans for the CPU ID, plans that were thwarted by the massive public reaction against the ID. Nevertheless, Palladium is likely to get the backing of huge content providers. If these content providers have the power to sway Congress on issues as outrageous as cracking P2P networks, then they have the power to get Palladium installed on every motherboard by default. That's what makes Palladium scary.

Much ADO.NET about nothing

Speaking of Microsoft, there is a wonderful story from the Register (see resources for link). Microsoft launched enhanced Oracle database support for .NET. To quote the story, "Until now, the .NET Framework used Microsoft's ADO.NET general databases access architecture to extract data from competitors' databases, such as DB2 and Oracle's 9i."

Obviously, when you support the extraction of data from Oracle but don't support Oracle itself, your goal is to get people to stop using the Oracle database. Is this new support for Oracle a sign of repentance from Redmond? I don't see how anyone could come to that conclusion. Microsoft simply can't afford to exclude Oracle if it really wants people to adopt .NET. Microsoft can always use .NET to eliminate Oracle later. As unexpected as it may be, Microsoft is threatened enough by competing technologies like Sun ONE that it feels it must compromise its desire to exclude competition in order to crush that competition.

Tying it together

What does this have to do with Linux, open source, and free software? Everything. While I was looking over this potpourri of news stories, something jumped out at me. It was an odor. The smell of desperation. It reeks everywhere, not only from these stories but also from things like Microsoft Licensing 6.0 and the fact that Microsoft gets early warnings for its security holes but Apache was ambushed recently before it had a chance to respond.

All of these companies have at least two things in common -- greed and the desire to control the behavior their customers. Things like free software and open source subvert both their greed and their ability to control their customers, so these companies are becoming both enraged and desperate.

It would be a mistake to derive satisfaction from their discomfort. Don't forget that a beast is most dangerous when it becomes desperate, which is why I find things like Palladium no laughing matter.

Consider this a call to arms. Those of us who relish our freedom need to defend it. Here are some warnings about mistakes we could make easily that would undermine any effort to prevent the worst of all fates:

  1. Companies don't have the right to violate our freedoms just to preserve an old system of making money after it has become obsolete, but they do have the right to make money. There's no reason why you should feel inclined to do their thinking for them and come up with alternative means of collecting revenues, but at least acknowledge that there's nothing wrong with charging for content. What's wrong is how they want to charge for content, and how they want to control your use of that content.
  2. While I'm happy that open source and free software often subvert the greed and control, sometimes the subversion leads to illegal piracy. That's when open source and free software deservedly get a bad reputation, and that's the ammunition companies and congress use to push unfair legislation. Don't give the enemy that ammunition or they'll use it to put our freedoms into an early grave.

    It doesn't matter if companies get more than their fair share for the sales of commercial CDs and DVDs, and it doesn't matter whether you are outraged that the artists don't get the slice of income they deserve. You may be right beyond all argument. Nevertheless, civil disobedience against a company's greed is not effective when it is expressed through your own greed. The people of the Boston tea party dumped the tea so that nobody could use it. That made a much more powerful statement than if they had stolen the tea. Similarly, if you express your civil disobedience by stealing music, you are simply making it more likely that the system we'll end up with is worse than the one you're complaining about now.

More Stories By Nicholas Petreley

Nicholas Petreley is a computer consultant and author in Asheville, NC.

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