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Who?s In Control?

Inside every gadget lover is a control freak. And guess what? My inner control freak is getting freaked out. Every daily brings a new headline that heightens his alarm. He started out whispering and now he?s working up to a scream. Here are just a few of the things that have set him off recently. For the sake of brevity I?ll assume you?re acquainted with the relevant acronyms. Otherwise, Google them?at least while you?re still allowed to use Google:

  • In a federal rulemaking powwow connected with the DMCA, the RIAA says that ripping CDs to an iPod is no longer ?fair use.?
  • The Audio Broadcast Flag Licensing Act of 2006 is introduced in the House of Representatives, seeking to enshrine in law a DRM Trojan horse that was struck down in federal court last year.
  • The Senate holds hearings on the Digital Transition Content Security Act of 2005, also known as the Analog Hole Bill, which would prevent analog copying using a dodgy technology originally devised for sending signals to TV-activated kiddie toys.
  • The Blu-ray and HD DVD format warriors, who agree on so few other things, agree to incorporate an Image Constraint Token into their formats, effectively reducing high-def images to standard-def through the analog component video output used in millions of early HDTVs.
  • Millions of Sony CDs are recalled after XCP and MediaMax DRM schemes install themselves on PCs as rootkits, compromising the security of those PCs.
  • German-language DVDs are discovered to have Alpha-DVD DRM technology from Settec, which interferes with DVD writers whether a protected disc is in the drive or not.

I could go on and on. Those are just the first few things that come to mind. I didn?t exactly have to rack my brain to assemble them. This is the stuff I write about day in, day out as a news reporter and reviewer covering the electronics industry.

You tell me: Am being I paranoid? Or is there a pattern here?

Call me crazy but I think there is a pattern here. And here?s what it adds up to: The hodgepodge of law, custom, and consensus that has regulated our behavior until now is being replaced by a straitjacket that will cause deep frustration among consumers and hamstring innovation by manufacturers.

There. I?ve said it. Somehow, though, I don?t feel better. This new landscape is a place where I am profoundly uncomfortable. Just what am I supposed to tell my readers?

That you can?t buy a CD and rip it to your iPod?

That if you want to rent high-def discs from Netflix, you?ll first have to send your first- (or third-) generation HDTV to the scrapheap?

That it?s no longer safe to put a major-label CD or DVD into your PC?

OK, time for a reality check. It?s wrong to steal. I spend a large portion of my income on purchased CDs and rented DVDs, and if you aren?t willing to pay anything to artists and the companies who market them, you just suck. Mass-scale pirates deserve to hear the slam of the jailhouse door. As a small-time book publisher and author, I?m in favor of companies protecting their intellectual property?within reasonable limits. Those limits are defined by the phrase fair use.

What worries me is that the rules are literally being rewritten as you read this. Dolly back, as they say in the film industry, and three patterns become clear: What was once legal and ?fair use? of existing gear is being redefined, criminalized, and copy-protected out of existence under new laws and regulations. Your existing gear, including your HDTV and your PC, is also being directly sabotaged by software. And gear you buy in the future may not have the functionality you?ve always taken for granted.

Here?s another threesome for you: The forces responsible for this tectonic shift in consumer electronics are partly private, partly public, and partly a combination of the two. That combination is a particularly deadly one. When government colludes with business, to whom can you turn?

The sheer omnipresence of this trend has me shaken up. And not just for the reasons you?d assume. Sure, I?m like you?I love my iPod as much as the next nerd. But I?m also looking ahead to a future where the stuff I write about for a living becomes a whole lot less attractive.

If the new and brutal relandscaping of consumer electronics bugs you too,  please don?t let the RIAA and MPAA lobbyists dominate the conversation with your elected officials without putting a word in. Write to your lawmakers at least once a year about issues like the broadcast flag and analog hole bills (and anything else that interests you). Keep it civil, short, and to the point. But let them know how you feel.

That goes double if some steaming legislative cowpie gets to the floor of the House or Senate. And triple if your representative actually has a vote on the committees that write the laws and participate in the preliminary votes that bring them to the House and Senate floors. It was the House Judiciary Committee that gave birth to the broadcast flag bill. And the analog hole bill was hatched in the Senate Commerce Committee.

Will your elected representatives listen? Don?t underestimate them. The Senate hearings on the analog hole bill took an interesting turn when 80-year-old Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) announced that his daughters had given him an iPod. Stevens and Sen. John Sununu (R-NH) then subjected the entertainment industry?s lobbyists to some pertinent questions.

To get a good fix on the issues that interest you, consult the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

This being America, you have no less than four votes on what happens to the electronic landscape. You get to vote for two senators, a congressman?and, at the retail level, with your dollars. But you will need to use your right to vote at the polls first if you want to keep your right to vote at Best Buy.

Mark Fleischmann is the audio editor of Home Theater and the author of Practical Home Theater (http://www.quietriverpress.com/).

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.