net.wars: The 4 conspiracy

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 01 April 2005

This week, the Supreme Court heard arguments in MGM v. Grokster. Everyone involved, from the entertainment industry to Grokster supporters such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology believes this case to be crucial: SCOTUS' decision may be the most important since 1984's Sony v. Universal Studios

Wendy M Grossman

That 5-4 decision case laid the legal foundation for the video industry, now a bigger source of revenues for film studios than theatrical showings.

What only a few industry insiders know is that a secret plan is already in place to extend the broadcast flag to the Web using a new protocol known as PHTTP (for "protected HTTP").

The reaction of Hollywood producer Max Bialystock is probably typical. "It's time the theft of our content stopped," he says. "And if this will work, even if it's disruptive, it can only be a good thing."

PHTTP has been defined by a group of previously secret organisations, primarily the W4 Consortium and the I4E, which recently staged hostile takeovers of their predecessors, the W3C and the IEEE giving them complete control over the Web's development (W4C) and technical standards that define computer components and the Internet itself (the I4E). In parallel moves, the most extreme copyright maximalists within the MPAA, RIAA , and SIIA have staged coups to form the MP4A, RI4A, and S4IA respectively. These five groups together are known as the "4G".

Otis B. Driftwood, a music industry consultant, says that rewriting browsers to recognize PHTTP is "relatively easy"; he expects the first PHTTP-compatible browser, code-named Trovatore, to be released within weeks. "Why do you think Microsoft is suddenly in such a hurry to get out IE7?" he asks.

One of the controversies over PHTTP is that it uses port 143, currently assigned to IMAP - a popular email standard, which will be reallocated to the little-used port 105.

"Users should long since have updated their systems to IMAP3 or IMAP4 in any case," says W4C spokesman Jefferson Smith. "One of the reasons the W4C and I4E are taking over is that previous standards bodies have failed to force users to reconfigure their software when upgrades are available."

The technology behind PHTTP, which is patented jointly by the 4G and Microsoft, is known as single-bit technology and represents a major technical advance in its own right. Most electronic bits are binary - either 1 or 0. But it has been known for some time that approximately one in a quadrillion bits is metastable - neither zero nor one. Arithmetically, this is decoded as a 4. The original idea behind single-bit technology was to collect these 4s and use them as markers. However, the industry was concerned that using naturally occurring 4s would leave them vulnerable technology could be developed to prevent metastable bits - or if counterfeiters were able to generate 4s themselves.

Progress on the project stalled until last year, when the Kyrgyzstan-based start-up, 4force, discovered how to make synthetic 4s that cannot be confused with naturally occurring 4s. The 4G promptly bought up the 4force technology. The recent fall of the government in Kyrgyzstan is believed to have been engineered by the 4G as part of ensuring that the inner workings of SBT remains secret; the original researchers themselves have disappeared.

"I must officially deny that allegation," says Sir Humphrey ap Pleby, a senior civil servant who recently left the Cabinet Office for a small branch office in his native Wales. He can say, however, that his expulsion from the corridors of power came shortly after he mentioned Kyrgyzstan in a meeting with 4G representatives.

Known as ice-4s after Kurt Vonnegut's ice-9, which would instantly freeze any water that came in contact with it, the SBT 4s have an additional characteristic that the 4G particularly likes: the technology spreads virally. Once a user has accessed any SBT-encoded content, the ice-4 bit "infects" all the software on that user's machine and broadcast flag-enables it. Machines cannot be converted back. Even if the hard drive is wiped and everything reinstalled, an ice-4 bit remains planted in the CPU, from where it spreads again.

Once a device has been PHTTP-enabled, it will refuse to access any file that does not include the flag. Users who cannot prove ownership of the software and content on their systems when it's checked against the central copyright register the 4G has built will be forced to purchase new copies. Content that does not appear on the register will be reviewed individually by specially selected staff; if it can be validated as personal or public domain content it will be tagged for access. Illegal content found in the manual review will be forwarded to 4Justice, a new US government department set up to prosecute copyright violators.

Microsoft holds significant patents on both SBT generally and ice-4 in particular, meaning that it may be able to lock out all content and software the company does not specifically approve.

"The EU needs to think about this," says Ford Prefect, an intellectual property specialist with the legal firm Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel.

In addition, the 4G has trademarked the number 4, which will require all mathematics textbooks to be rewritten so as to eliminate all references to it. The I4E has proposed that in future two plus two will equal 13, but the EU is thought to favour instead a return to Roman numerals.

metastable? Yes, it is a problem - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).