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Not So Trusted Computing

Recently, I was asked to participate in still another panel on the future of television. This one was focused on interactivity and the living room of the future, circa 2010. It was all I could do not to yawn.

After so many years of the same old, same old, it's starting to look as if the living room of the future might be very much like the living room of the past. All those glowing scenarios of the interactive, networked, cyber-connected entertainment-on-demand living "environments" have not materialized.

Sadly, the new media that has actually reached the consumer's living room is often boring, frivolous, too complex or simply doesn't work at all. It's stuff that most consumers don't want, much less want to pay for.

Harsh reality has done little to quell the glowing promises of what's to come. Here I was - clearly not onboard with the industry message - painfully listening to the same pitches of a decade ago from the same characters who see television only in the narrow terms of technology and marketing.


Programming, the elixir that has always lured audiences to the magic box, is usually denigrated to the subcategory of "content," as if it's just another component that can be purchased in bulk from an Asian parts house. The mantra, in these tough economic times, is "we must monetize the content."

The late great showmen that made television popular with mass audiences must roll over in their graves when they hear words like "monetize content." Of course TV is a business and it must make money. But, first, you must have content that audiences care about in order to drive technology. Compelling programming is not made on assembly lines. It comes from creating art. The money then follows it - not the other way around.

Unfortunately, entertainment production for television and the Internet is now mostly controlled by a few corporations ruled by bean counters who prioritize "repurposing content" over creating risky, daring new entertainment to inspire and build audiences.

Rather than fault themselves for a failure of imagination after bleeding gazillions of their investors' dollars on faulty premises, the high-tech entrepreneurs selling interactive entertainment are back with a new storyline. Earlier success was partially thwarted by a lack of control over the technology, they contend. This can be cured - you guessed it - with a technical fix.

As consumers - those who foot the bill but are never consulted on such matters - this should warn us to be afraid, very afraid.

The industry "fix" makes the assumption that we as TV viewers are thieves out to steal the "valuable" content of the studios. It's those "uncontrolled" consumer electronics products - digital television receivers and personal computers - that lure us as audience members into becoming content criminals. We must be stopped in order for the industry to survive.

To create the proper transactional environment for interactive television and on-demand premium entertainment, industry gatekeepers now think they must secure and severely limit the rights of home users to share and manipulate entertainment programming.

The laughable term publicists have created for this abolition of consumer rights is "trusted computing." Essentially, it means hardwiring security and copyright protection into the silicon chips of the PC. While this industrial strength "digital rights management" security is busy protecting the next James Bond film from illegal viewing in the wrong room of the house, it also severely limits how you or I can use our personal computer for other routine tasks.

Microsoft calls this PC lockdown "Palladium." Intel brands it "LaGrande." PC owners, when they finally discover that "trusted computing" means they ultimately lose control of the data on their own machines, are going to be fuming.

"It's not security for me. It's security for them," said Ross Anderson, a security researcher at Cambridge University, in an interview with the Associated Press (AP).


Trusted computing creates a realm where each type of communication - e-mail, a view of a database, the reading of a document, the use or purchase of software or entertainment media - can be executed only by interacting with secured, uniquely identified hardware through "trusted agents." Each agent would enforce policies set by senders, recipients, copyright holders or a combination that would decide how the content can be used.

The Hollywood studios think this is the only way they can release premium entertainment to computers or interactive digital television systems. It all comes under the umbrella of digital rights management, or DRM, one of the hottest - and least understood - policy areas of the moment.

Under the scheme, computer users would be given a choice of trusted or untrusted operation of their PC. Trusted operation would place data and memory in a virtual vault. Keys would be held by a chip that lets in only trusted software, that is software approved by the copyright holders. Those who prefer not to "trust" the corporate overseers can be prohibited from accessing unapproved documents, files or applications.

The copyright holders argue that nothing changes with trusted computing. Only with it, they contend, they'll have the power to enforce the rules.

Such a change would result in a huge power shift. Computer industry pioneer David P. Reed, formerly the chief scientist at Lotus Development Corp., told the AP that the trusted computing initiatives are "booby traps."

Reed said, "I'm personally angry and disgusted that...companies that grew up because of the personal computer revolution, which empowered users, are now acting to harm the users."

Those who opt out of the "trusted" mode will face a computing experience with vastly limited choices, critics contend, especially since Microsoft controls Windows, the monopoly operating system. Computer users who refuse to buy the "trusted" Windows operating system could be essentially closed out of the mainstream computing world dominated by Microsoft, critics said.

"What they can do is create an incompatibility or refuse to deal with you unless you meet a particular condition," said Seth Schoen, staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

A generation raised on open computing is likely to balk at the very idea of "trusted computing," an initiative backed by IBM, Hewlett-Packard and about 170 others. It will probably not only generate greater distrust between media companies and their customers, but it will probably slow new computer sales and deal another serious blow to the new entertainment possibilities the Internet has to offer.

Frank Beacham
Frank Beacham

Frank Beacham is an independent writer based in New York.