Microcops' in your living room

Ethics replaced by a slice of silicon?
Hollywood leads the way!

Ed Flixman

(aka, R. Martin, editor of Sci-Fi Entertainment)

"We need to apply technological security measures to protect our property against unauthorized copying and distribution. These self-help measures will be our first line of defense against cyber-pirates. The copyright law can only provide sanctions when and if we are able to identify infringers. Technological security measures can stop the piracy before it happens.

"But all security measures, no matter how sophisticated, can be circumvented by clever hackers. Therefore, the law must provide clear and effective sanctions against those who would violate the security of the NII. This requires more than mere civil remedies. Criminal sanctions are essential." --Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, and Hollywood's chief lobbyist, speaking before Congress on the need for more restrictive copyright law.

The "V-Chip" seems to be one of the most popular government intrusions ever made into the home-life of America. Morality watchdog groups love it, of course. People who are fed up with the mediocrity of television programming applaud it as well. A small handful will say, as I do, that there is no adequate replacement for parental concern and supervision. But even a great many of these people, at the end of the day, will allow that perhaps it's not such a bad idea. The enemy. after all, is violence, something it's hard to champion in this world without seeming insane. And we must protect the children.

But I've seen little said or written about what affect this chip, and the ratings system that comes with it, will actually have on television programming.

As just one example of the absurdities to come, consider this: under the scheme now being considered, a movie like Raging Bull could be locked out on the basis of its realistic boxing scenes, as well as for its language. But actual boxing--with real men beating the bloody pulp out of one another--won't be rated, as sports in general, like news, will be exempt from the ratings. Certain sports, however, "aren't really sports," such as wrestling, where the violence is clearly staged. These will be rated. In other words, fake mayhem will be filterable, but the real thing won't. Be prepared for more absurdity, as we off-load a share of the moral responsibility toward our children to a bureaucratic committee and a slice of silicon.

You might ask why I should care, when the V-chip will be entirely under the control of viewers. With the parental code, you could turn it off and not even know that it's there.

Even if you never turn on the little television "microcop," you will know that it's there by its profound effect on all television programming. Consider, for instance, the same-sex kisses featured in recent episodes of Babylon-5 and Deep Space 9. These caused barely a ripple among fans, and all the reactions I heard were positive (except for those who accused one show of ripping the other off, of course). But suppose you are a TV producer; your series is syndicated, and therefore has a much tougher time racking up ratings than the network shows. Then suppose you receive a script just a shade bolder than the usual episode.

It might squeak by the ratings board with approval for a general audience; but it also might get a rating that results in automatic tune-out by anywhere up to 30% of your target audience.

Of course, if you have any regard at all for your own job, and for the livelihood of everyone that you work with, you will be blue-penciling that scene the second that you read it. You won't be making it better--you'll be making it safer, and blander, and pretty much like everything else on television. And, if you are in the business for any reason other than money, you will soon find some other way to make a living.

For years, independent film makers have accused the industry-administered film ratings system of favoring the major studios that provide the majority of its funding. The television rating game is going to be cram-packed with subtle "judgment calls," which will allow industry insiders in closed-door sessions to shape our television schedules without leaving so much as a fingerprint.

And the greatest irony is that the V-chip could ultimately create license for the very kind of programming that it was meant to counter. Locking children out of certain programs creates an "adults only" category, faced with the prospect of a reduced audience and therefore reduced budgets. Naked bodies and fake blood come a lot cheaper than literate scripts and high production values; programmers specializing in this adult audience could be forced into a contest of sensationalism and shock to win an audience. With our friend the V-Chip in place, "protecting the children," programmers may find the opening they need to go far beyond present limits--as happened when the film industry devised the "R" and "X" ratings.

The Sci-Fi Channel, because of its unique programming niche, won't be as profoundly affected as most points on the dial will be, at least not at first. But television creates a national environment that affects all of us--even those members of Congress and the White House executives who claim little time for television in their lives, but nevertheless found the time for this ill-considered scheme to be imposed on television viewers.

These people have given very little thought to how television works, or to the broader affects of the V-chip. This well-meaning attempt to give parents control over the TV environment could wind up polarizing programming into a kid-oriented puddle of pabulum on one hand, and an adults-only cesspool on the other.

And this may just be a start. This little policeman that the government has already mandated into our televisions will soon be followed by a second, as another chip, one that will enforce copyright law, is in the works, with proposed legislation that may include fines of up to $1 million for bypassing the chip. Though this legislation can be viewed as "political horse-trading" for Hollywood's toleration of the V-chip, it's a whole other issue, with many negative implications of its own--the new copyright chip could potentially ensure that you pay a fee every time that you watch a recorded program; educators are already up in arms about its potential effect on the traditional free library system.

The late Isaac Asimov's stories of robots often concerned how the simple rules that a robot must follow have unforeseen results when the robot is confronted with a morally complex world. The current attempt to automate the morality of television producers and consumers may soon teach us all a similar lesson.

At least I hope that lesson will be learned, and soon. Because in a world where all morality is automated, where a sentient environment makes every possible wrong impossible, ethics and morality serve no reasonable human purpose. They will simply fall away.

The above is a more strongly worded version of an editorial that appeared in the July, 1996 issue of Sci-Fi Entertainment.

The pending copyright legislation which I refer to above is of particular interest to all on the net, as it contains provisions that may require ISPs and on-line services to scan e-mail in order to detect the tell-tale digital signature that will be attached to copyrighted data. The embedded digisig will make it impossible to quote from such an electronic work, as the signature will be integral within any sizable part of the work--therefore "fair use" will no longer be applicable (though Valenti and his allies pay lip service to fair use polices, they don't explain how such policies can co-exist with their scheme.) One possible result of this legislation, in the long term, is a movement away from purchase, rental, and library lending of works, all replaced by "pay-per-view" system, governed by an upgrade of the copyright chip--each time a work's digital signature is read, an electronic payment could be deducted and sent upstream to the small handful of powerful non-creatives who own the copyrights to other people's works. All in the name of "creative incentive."

The proposed law also provides severe penalties for altering or removing a work's digital signature, as well as for knowingly selling works with false copyright info in the digisig. Some argue that this will make outlaws of every seller of used CDs, CD-ROMs and DVDs, as copyrights frequently change hands as businesses and their media libraries change ownership. This does not seem to be the direct intent of the law, but the music industry has previously tried to label the sale of used CDs as an unfair trade practice, and this law may give that argument leverage.

Where normally we might expect support of educational and cultural needs from a Democratic White House, the fact is that Clinton is making a horse-trade, after having abandoned Hollywood during trade talks with the European market. Subsequently, when the "V-Chip" came down the pike, Hollywood was so listless in their opposition to the thing that I have to wonder to whether this is all part of a spelled-out, literal "deal" with Hollywood power brokers.

What exactly is it that Hollywood is getting from this deal? They won't tell us, so we have to look at the laws they are pushing and make our best guess.

The next time you open your "private" e-mail, consider Jack Valenti's words:

"My recommendation is to resist those who are clamoring for a copyright exemption for on-line service providers. On-line service providers and others have a key role to play in freeing cyberspace of the taint of copyright lawlessness. Accountability for copyright violations committed by users is as essential for advancing this indispensable goal.

"Who is responsible if a valuable copyrighted work is downloaded from a provider, and then copied on a digital video machine from which thousands of copies can be made, the last copy as pure and pristine as the first? And if no one can be held responsible, then who and what is to prevent the flood that will surely follow?"

UPDATE: As of 5/28/96, Hollywood and its allies have yet to convince the computer industry to go along with their scheme. And our old buddy, Jack Valenti, seems to think its time to cut the computer guys in on the deal. He told Electronic Engineering Times, "The next 20 days are critical. We must include the PC industry in discussions at the same level Hollywood has spoken with consumer-electronics makers."

What is it Valenti's gang hasn't told the PC makers yet? And when do you suppose public citizens will be let in on these high-level talks, eh?

It's been suggested to me that one way to monitor the progress of industry talks concerning DVD is to monitor a stock performance; NASDAQ:ZRAN is Zoran Corporation, the only manufacturer of chips that can decode the ac-3 sound of DVDs.

The British magazine Home Entertainment reported on the DVD Alliance "Open" Forum in Santa Clara as follows:

"As the time drew close some of the participants such as Time Warner, started to worry about the questions journalist would ask. Hardly surprising when one of the first questions that comes to mind is 'How can you possibly be ready for a US launch this summer or autumn when the standard is not yet finalized and the issues of copy protection and regional control (to stop discs from the USA playing in Britain) are still not sorted out?'

"So they panicked and tried to bar the press. Some journalists, including those from Variety magazine, tried to gatecrash and there was a public slinging match. Toshiba then invited the press for the 2nd day but by then it was too late for them to get there. The outcome, of course, was that DVD was further discredited."

You may think you're going to stick with your VCR or laser disc forever, but sooner or later they'll have you on the chip.

Author Disclaimer: I work for, but do not speak for, Sci-Fi Entertainment.
The author licenses this article's free distribution, and prohibits its sale


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