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Tech firms gather to fight Hollings copy controls

Just what Washington needs: more lobbyists

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A new lobbying outfit called the Alliance for Digital Progress is preparing to fight against legislation calling for government-designed and mandated technology to prevent digital piracy, such as that being peddled by US Senator Fritz "Hollywood" Hollings (Democrat, South Carolina).

The organization brings together some fairly disparate participants, for example the Business Software Alliance on one hand and DigitalConsumer.org on the other. A number of heavyweight industry players like Microsoft, HP and Cisco are also involved.

The new Alliance pitches its mission as defending the rights of consumers, always a bit of a red-flag slogan. During a Washington press conference Thursday, Alliance President Fred McClure kept to a fairly tight and not terribly informative script, delivered with a fine voice and characteristics pleasantly reminiscent of a southern Baptist preacher.

The Alliance promises to oppose all legislation that might put Uncle Sam in a position to choose anti-piracy schemes for consumers. It's not clear that the Alliance is prepared to fight government mandates or government enforcement of industry-sponsored anti-piracy schemes, however. We tried twice, unsuccessfully, to pin McClure down on a commitment to exclusively market-driven solutions, but he only reiterated his bullet points. It was a pleasure listening to him speak, nevertheless.

El Reg: "When you assure me that you're opposed to government-designed and mandated control features, you leave me wondering how you would respond to government-mandated schemes that originate by consensus in the private sector."

McClure: "We are supportive of private-sector industry-to-industry collaborative efforts to find solutions that work in the marketplace, to deal with what we've seen is a big problem: digital privacy. Assuming that at the end of the day, those sorts of solutions are found, then that may be a different situation; and I'm not sure that it would be one that government would be mandating. We doubt the ability of government to design and mandate the kind of technology that is not going to result in us sort of stopping dead our tracks the progress that we're beginning to experience in this digital age. It would hurt consumers, hurt the economy, it would create a new environment where we'd have a stationary target for hackers to just [inaudible] right in and completely destroy the efforts that have taken place. The quick-fix, legislative/regulatory mandate in a mode of replacing marketplace solutions is what we worry about."

There's another two paragraphs of worry about how the consumer is never going to get the content they want via the distribution models they prefer if the government gets into the business of deciding how to protect digital content. But we didn't get an answer to our question.

El Reg: "Can I follow up? ... Are you prepared to say that you would always resist a government-mandated protection scheme regardless of where it has originated, and keep it strictly market driven?

We got another long and creative reply, but no clear assurance of a strict commitment to market solutions. We have to assume that for now, the group is at least open to government mandates and government enforcement of anti-piracy technology so long as Uncle Sam isn't the one designing it. If Hollywood and Silicon Valley ever manage to agree on a standard or a group of standards, presumably these could be mandated and enforced with the Alliance's blessing.

We also wondered if the Alliance would use its judgment in opposing legislation, and indeed, copy-protection schemes, that might infringe on a consumer's right to fair use. McClure repeatedly insisted that he "would not comment on the scope of copyright law," which fairly well shut down any discussion of the nuanced but crucial distinction between copying, which is a privilege affirmed by the 1984 Sony decision, and piracy, which is a crime.

Meanwhile, Motion Picture Ass. of America (MPAA) President Jack Valenti continues to call for the Hollings solution, most likely as a worst-case-scenario threat to the tech sector, with which he hopes to bully them into seeing more things his way. While we were unable to get an adequate sense of that the Alliance is really about during the press conference, we remain confident that it can't be half as bad as what the MPAA is about.

And considering its politically multicultural membership, if this new coalition holds together long term, it will be a rather good sign. ®

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