Technology Enemy #1: The Consumer

Posted: March 16, 2002

THE TOP executives of two powerful media companies traveled to Washington last month to tell Congress about the most dangerous threat they face: the American consumer.

Michael Eisner, chief executive of Disney, complained that the technology industry made it too easy for "people wanting to get anything for free on their television or computer or hand-held device."

Peter Chernin, head of News Corp., worried that the Internet's "ability to empower the general public" would lead to the online theft of some of the media companies' digital treasuries.

Both want the next generation of personal computers to be unable to deliver unauthorized movies, music and other content, and they asked that Congress stand ready to intervene if industry failed to deliver the necessary technology to safeguard its products. A lone executive, from Intel, objected. The market, he said, not Congress, should dictate how technology works.

The debate on Capitol Hill between content providers like Disney and those who make the products to deliver that content, like Intel, was really a proxy for a much larger debate: What do we want our technology to do? How do we want it to work? And do we have any say in the matter?

For most forms of current technology, these questions have long been settled. No executives are worried about illegal uses of televisions or coffee makers, for instance, and no consumers need to worry that these appliances will crash or become infected with viruses.

Our televisions and VCRs don't take ill when we watch infected programs, and our refrigerators never require rebooting.

Yet we have come to tolerate such problems from our personal computers. The PC's fundamental and unique unreliability flows from its construction as a so-called flexible platform - a mere staging area for many kinds of software.

Can technologists figure out how to replicate the reliability of airplanes, telephones and televisions, so that a mischievous 12-year-old half a world away can't erase a thousand far-flung hard drives?

Absolutely. In January Bill Gates declared a new, overarching, even revolutionary mandate: Software must be reliable and "trustworthy."

Gates and the co-captains of his industry are producing blueprints for so-called "trusted" PCs. They will employ digital gatekeepers that act like the bouncers outside a nightclub, ensuring that only software that looks or behaves a certain way is allowed in.

And as soon as there are limits on the software a PC can run, there will be limits on what PC users can do. That's exactly what executives like Eisner and Chernin want. They'd like software and hardware companies to build PCs to allow a publisher an exquisite level of control over a book or a song or a movie in the hands of a consumer.

Apart from manufacturers' desire not to define the uses of a PC too narrowly, the public interest in flexible computer platforms and open data exchange remains almost entirely absent from this debate. *

Jonathan L. Zittrain is a director of Harvard law school's Berkman Center for Internet & Society. This first appeared in the New York Times.

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