PC storage committee dumps content protection proposal

The latest in a line of controversial standard proposals aimed at preventing the copying and unauthorized distribution of protected data stored on removable media devices, such as flash memory, Zip drives and DVDs, has been narrowly voted down by the technical committee that's working on the issue.

The members of Technical Committee T13, which is operating under the aegis of the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS), voted 8-7 against a surprise proposal submitted in February by Phoenix Technologies.The last-minute proposal was an unexpected alternative to an encryption standard previously put forward by IBM.

IBM and fellow proponents Intel, Matsushita and Toshiba . withdrew their proposal in favor of the one from Phoenix Technologies after critics contended that their submission would lead to content protection on hard drives and even create difficulties for users who simply wanted to create backup copies of their data.

The replacement proposal was said to include a more generic approach to incorporating copy-protection mechanisms into the Advanced Technology Attachment (ATA) standard, which dictates the way PCs communicate with hard drives and other peripherals. The approach suggested by Phoenix Technologies would have let manufacturers program up to eight commands into a disk drive, such as privacy or audio/video streaming commands.

But through a mail-in balloting process that ended yesterday, the T13 committee opted not to include the "generic functionality" scheme in one of the ATA standards it's developing. The 8-7 vote, with four abstentions and four no-shows, fell far short of the two-thirds required to pass a proposed standard, according to committee spokeswoman Maryann Karinch.

The T13 panel is responsible for all the ATA-related interface standards used on PCs and mobile computers. Kate McMillan, director of the secretariat at the NCITS, said the proposed standard generated "a lot of interest among committee members" because of its versatility.

"A company with a better approach to [audio/video] streaming, for example, could take advantage of such a scheme as easily as a company that wanted to implement content protection," McMillan said in a statement. "Ultimately, though, the committee decides the merits of all proposals through voting, and the votes for this proposal were not there."

Critics of the proposals submitted by both IBM and Phoenix Technologies, such as John Gilmore at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called them a threat to the civil liberties of users and charged that the two approaches would have allowed technology vendors to control what computers could read or copy.

Despite the outcome of the balloting, McMillan said the remainder of the ATA standards that the T13 committee is developing remain on a "steady track toward completion" this summer. It's still possible for other proposals related to the copy protection issue to be brought before the committee, she added.

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