But what I do believe in is freedom -- freedom that includes privacy, and the expectation thereof whenever I decide to use the Web. That's why I became alarmed recently when I learned of something called the Trusted Computing Platform and an organization with the mission to legislate its implementation, the Trusted Computing Group.
If this organization, aided by several supportive U.S. senators, has its way, the quaint notion of computer freedom -- already under assault as a result of the PATRIOT Act and other self-styled anti-terrorism measures -- will become a thing of the past.
At first blush the website for the Trusted Computing Group appears innocuous, even benevolent (as do most freedom-diminishing organizations and government proposals). In fact, the only thing on the group's site that might shock the viewer is the membership dues, which run as high as $50,000 annually. The objectives and goals of the group are "simply" to create more "trusted computing specifications" for personal computers.
"Trusted" computers. Who could be against a "trusted" computer? We all want honesty and trustworthiness in all that we do, right?
The impression that the group and its Trusted Computing Platform is not only benign but preferable to the presumably current situation in which computers are untrustworthy, is reinforced in reading the rest of the outfit's website. It speaks glowingly of opening up the computer industry to make computers more secure even while respecting "privacy" and "individual rights." Its work will benefit not only the computer industry, but "consumers" as well.
What's the reality? What, if anything, do those of us who support computer/Internet privacy have to fear from the group and Trusted Computing Platforms?
First of all, the companies that constitute the Trusted Computing Group include many of the heavyweights of the personal computer industry -- Microsoft, IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Sony, Nokia and Intel, among others -- all of which are interested in protecting their interests, not yours. Most important, they propose to do this by advocating legislation that would require every computer sold to have a Trusted Platform Module.
What would such a "platform" do? Oh, not much. It would make it impossible for your computer to use any hardware or software that's not approved by the Trusted Computing Group. It would prevent you from using your computer for any purpose that the group hasn't approved of, and would notify them (or the government) if you attempt to do otherwise. And it would be impossible for you (the consumer) to remove, decrypt or disable (just like the lavatory smoke detectors on airplanes).
The presence of a Trusted Platform Module would make your computer a captive of the Trusted Computer Group, which would -- by force of law, if it has its way -- ensure that you use it only for purposes of its liking. It would place the computer not under your control, but under the control of the group, which is controlled by large corporations through direct membership, or through other arrangements.
Think of the possibilities. Disney could have an arrangement that the "trusted" computer would not play any of its DVDs unless a fee had been paid. The music industry could work out an arrangement so the "trusted" computer would only play music CDs a certain number of times, or only at certain times, unless additional fees were paid. According to one group that opposes the trusted computing platform group, with this mechanism in place, you'd only be able to rent software, not buy it, and once your "rent" is up, and unless you pay more "rent," the software you've downloaded would stop working and possibly even erase the files you already created.
Don't stop there. Think of additional "freedoms" made possible by the beneficence of the group, if it gets its way. Remote censorship would be possible. Documents could be remotely erased if they fall into a category deemed by the group to be offensive, inappropriate, politically incorrect, or whatever.
A shorthand name for the "Trusted Computing Platform" is the "Fritz chip." Why the "Fritz chip" you might well ask? Because the primary congressional proponent of all this, is none other than South Carolina Senator Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, who last year introduced legislation in the Senate to mandate the agenda being pushed by the Trusted Computing Group, backed up by the full force and enforcement powers of the federal government!
That Congress has not yet acted on the Hollings Bill, dubbed innocuously, the "Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act," is no cause for relaxation.
The fact that such technology is already of interest to those not only in Congress but in the Executive Branch as well, should worry all of us -- despite admonitions by those nice government folks to "trust us."
Former Congressman Bob Barr writes on civil liberties for Creative Loafing. He can be reached at email@example.com.