Saturday, February 10, 2007

Father of MPEG Replies To Jobs On DRM

Father of MPEG Replies To Jobs On DRM:marco_marcelli writes with a link to the founder and chairman of MPEG, Leonardo Chiariglione, replying to Steve Jobs on DRM and TPM. After laying the groundwork by distinguishing DRM from digital rights protection, Chiariglione suggests we look to GSM as a model of how a fully open and standardized DRM stack enabled rapid worldwide adoption.

I cannot imagine that Leonardo Chiariglione is clueless, so I must conclude that he is being disingenuous. There's a huge difference between mobile phones and computers. GSM mobile phones are specialized devices with secrets stored in a (somewhat) tamper resistant hardware module, the SIM. The networks that connect them are centralized and closed. GSM is open only in the sense that it is available to all phone manufacturers and wireless providers. It is not open to me or you, because the connection between the phone and the network is tightly controlled by the provider.

We know that certain self-interested and powerful parties are trying to move computers and data networks in that direction: trusted cores in computers, with DRM software layers (as in Vista), and "walled garden" networks instead of the open internet. The only problem is that those directions are incompatible with the general-purpose nature of computers, and the end-to-end principle in networking. General purpose and end-to-end have been the keys for the explosive growth of computing and networking, which as businesses now dwarf the media business. Not to mention all the other businesses that depend on the ability of end users to determine how they store, process, and transmit information without requiring anyone's permission. Tim Berners-Lee argument for net neutrality can be paralleled by an argument for computing neutrality. Attempts to control the use of bits in everyone's computer necessarily get in the way of the freedom to write and run code and make our computers do our bidding rather than sneakily obey secret orders from remote parties. If the freedom to run the code of our choice and communicate is taken from us, we can expect significant erosion of the economic and social benefits of the information economy. I remember well the disastrous efforts of telecom companies to control their customers' access to information and services in the name of "security" and "predictability." While they wasted uncounted millions in building impoverished walled gardens, search and commerce took off on the open Internet. Openness allowed varied investment and experimentation. Many efforts failed, but those that succeeded could continue to build and innovate without asking anyone for permission. As we know from biology, evolution requires diversity.

A subtly related story is going around: wringing of hands about the lower number of students interested and computer science, and the supposed need of academic computer science to refocus on applications and the management of technology, away from the design and analysis of programs that is supposedly no longer much needed. If computers and networks are closed, most will be reduced to managing and using services controlled by others; only a small priesthood will be allowed inside the DRM sanctum, maybe wearing white coats like the mainframe operators of yore.

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