Regulation begets Regulation

by on August 6, 2008 · 17 comments

Ryan does a great job of laying out the issues with the MPAA’s SOC waiver request. He makes two key points—that the FCC shouldn’t be telling cable companies what to do with their networks, and copyright law shouldn’t give the MPAA veto power over the design of technological devices. Ryan spends most of his time arguing the first point, but I think the second point is the really important one.

The thing to understand about DRM is that it’s less a encryption technology than (as Ed Felten puts it) a hook on which to hang lawsuits. Every DRM standard of any significance has been broken within months of its release. Without the DMCA on the books, many consumer electronics manufacturers would simply ignore DRM, reverse-engineering the relevant standards and producing devices that accept DRMed content and convert it to open formats. Knowing that this would happen, Hollywood would long since have given up trying to produce the kind of end-to-end DRM that’s at issue in these proceedings.

Which means that the existence of the cable industry’s Selectable Output Control powers is almost entirely a consequence of bad government policy. In a free market, I’d be able to go down to my local Best Buy and purchase $50 box that would take an HDCP input and output the content in a variety of non-encrypted formats. Such a box is unavailable only because Congress—at the behest of the MPAA—made producing it a felony. That, not anything the FCC has done, is the fundamental issue in this controversy.

Now, it makes me uncomfortable to have the FCC dictate how the cable industry runs its network. But I think the fundamental point that needs to be emphasized is that regulation begets regulation. That is, given that the DMCA has screwed up the consumer electronics industry, it’s not surprising that a lot of people want the FCC to step in to minimize the damage. The solution is to repeal the DMCA and let the free market work. But until that happens, I’m not going to get too outraged at Public Knowledge for asking the FCC to prevent the MPAA from abusing its government-granted veto power over the design of consumer electronics devices. I don’t agree with their solution, but I think their heart is in the right place.

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