A-Hole bill would make a secret technology into the law of the land

If the controversial Analog Hole bill makes it into law, US technologists will have to obey a law whose most important details are a trade-secret.

The entertainment industry, always a bastion of media savvy, has proposed its "A-Hole" bill as a legal means of limiting the conversion of analog music and video to digital files. Under the bill, every maker of a device that can convert analog signals to digital ones (like iPods, camcorders, and PCs) would be required by law to be built with a detector for a proprietary watermarking technology called VEIL (the use of free/open source in these technologies would be outlawed to prevent the removal of VEIL detectors).

The idea is that any time you attempted to make a digital recording, your device would seek out the VEIL watermark and respond to any special instructions (e.g., "No recording allowed") it discovered there.

But what the hell is VEIL? No one really knows. The sole commercial deployment of this technology to date has been in a Batman toy (why this makes it fit to be included by law into every American recording device is beyond me).

Copyfighting Princeton Prof Ed Felten called the company that makes VEIL to find out how the technology works. Their answer? They'll tell Ed how VEIL works only if he pays them $10,000 and signs a non-disclosure agreement. And they'll only tell him how the decoder works — there's no price you can pay to find out how VEIL encoding works.

As Ed points out, this should be a deal-breaker for even considering the A-Hole bill (of course, there are lots of other deal-breakers in that bill, but this is a big one). How can the American public and its lawmakers determine whether this is a fit technology to mandate if its workings are a secret?

The details of this technology are important for evaluating this bill. How much would the proposed law increase the cost of televisions? How much would it limit the future development of TV technology? How likely is the technology to mistakenly block authorized copying? How adaptable is the technology to the future? All of these questions are important in debating the bill. And none of them can be answered if the technology part of the bill is secret.

Which brings us to the most interesting question of all: Are the members of Congress themselves, and their staffers, allowed to see the spec and talk about it openly? Are they allowed to consult experts for advice? Or are the full contents of this bill secret even from the lawmakers who are considering it?

The A-Hole bill is making the rounds of the House, EFF has an easy way to write to your Congresscritter about this.