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DRM is your fluffy friend – Ballmer stakes out MS' turf

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Sooner or later it had to happen. Microsoft is putting a lot of money into Digital Rights Management, and expects to get a lot more money back out so long as it can persuade consumers that DRM is their fluffy friend, and most certainly not a fiendish plot to allow the music companies to squeeze even more money out of them. This time, the knife was pointing at Steve Ballmer when it stopped spinning, so the prez's name went onto a DRM apologia sent out as Microsoft's regular customer information email.

It's a tough one, but Steve rises to the challenge. Consumers benefit from being stopped from copying stuff through the efforts of "pioneering entertainment companies" (i.e., the ones using Microsoft DRM to stop the consumers copying stuff). "Online distribution offers a convenient way for people to access their favorite content wherever they are, at any time." Hell yes Steve, why bother with portable MP3 players when you can just buy the stuff over and over again? Steve doesn't directly mention MP3 players, but one does suspect they may be covered by the next bit: "But digital piracy is against consumers' long-term interests; it undermines the economic incentives for artists and producers to continue creating and distributing the work we all enjoy. With rights-managed licensing, consumers can help sustain the flow of fresh creative work, confident that they have legitimately acquired rights to content that is authentic, of highest quality, and virus-free."

You begin to warm to the music industry's pitch that piracy is killing creativity, no? Nor us. In further support of this much-needed shot in the arm (surely 'snort up the nose? - Ed) for creative artistry, it is also A Good Thing that content providers be allowed to interfere with your computer as and when they feel like it. "Windows Media," says Steve, "uses one of the strongest encryption systems available. To raise the protection level still further, a content owner can change the media file encryption keys daily, or even every few hours." So if you momentarily forget yourself and somehow fail to legitimately acquire rights, don't worry, because they can vape that inauthentic content instantly, and you'll be clean again.

Having issued the tricky commercial for the pigopolists, Ballmer moves onto slightly safer ground with a series of cuddlier-sounding, more personal scenarios. "Anyone who uses a personal computer for word processing, email, data analysis or other common purposes is creating digital content - content that if unprotected might be misused by others. One of the touchstones of our Trustworthy Computing initiative is responding to customers' demands for technology that protects the confidentiality and privacy of their information."

Over the years Microsoft has gone a fair way to make customer demand supplant patriotism as the last refuge of the scoundrel. Who are these customers, and why are they all demanding protection? Ask yourself how much content you create that you're worried about people stealing. Sure, you've got stuff you want to keep private, but you probably manage this quite successfully already. The people who really want and need DRM are the content suppliers, who will be able to use it to gradually squeeze free stuff (not just 'pirated' stuff) out of the Internet. Ballmer's pitch is therefore particularly dangerous in that it presents this process as good for everybody, not just for the content vendors. It's an added convenience for these vendors and for the DRM supplier if everybody has it, it is most certainly not in everybody's interest.

Here, for example, we have the whistleblower's nemesis, the unreadable or disappearing document: "...our forthcoming Office 2003 productivity software suite will enable users to designate who can open a document or email message, and specify the terms of use - for example, whether they can print, copy or forward the data. A rights management add-on for Internet Explorer will extend these protections to Web content." And you won't be able to do business with people using Microsoft rights management unless you're playing rights management too.

This will not result in a neo-Stalinist world where information flow is tightly circumscribed and where embarrassing/contentious documents disappear from the Web at the drop of an injunction you'd never even heard about. On the contrary: "As these technologies become widespread, their protection will help encourage wider sharing of information within and between organizations, improving communication and productivity by assuring information workers of the confidentiality of their documents and data."

On second thoughts, that neo-Stalinist world we mentioned back there is precisely what Ballmer is describing here, isn't it? ®

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