Ballots sent out on controversial NCITS proposal

Paper ballots were sent out yesterday to all 24 members of the National Committee for Information Technology Standards (NCITS) T13 technical committee, which is working on a controversial standard for preventing the copying and unauthorized distribution of protected content on removable media devices.

The ballots give all members of the committee an opportunity to vote on whether to adopt a proposed standard submitted by Phoenix Technologies Ltd. at a committee meeting last week in Austin. Phoenix Technologies surprised the committee with its proposal, which was presented as an alternative to one previously submitted by IBM Corp.

The IBM-backed Copy Protection Feature Proposal was withdrawn without any discussion after Curtis Stevens of Phoenix Technologies formally recommended the alternative to the 14 members present at the Austin meeting, Maryann Karinch, spokeswoman for NCITS, said Wednesday. A majority of the members present voted for the proposal, but under NCITS rules a two-thirds majority is required.

Using paper ballots to poll all the committee members is a procedural step spelled out by NCITS (pronounced en-sites) to find out if there's enough support for the proposal, Karinch said. The result will be released April 2.

IBM, along with Intel Corp., Matsushita Electronic Components Co. Ltd. and Toshiba Corp., touched off the controversy when they formed a group called 4C Entity to persuade the T13 technology committee to incorporate its new code into the next ATA (Advanced Technology Attachment) standard, which dictates the way a PC communicates with its hard drive and other drives.

4C Entity wanted to introduce base-level instructions in ATA that would let device manufacturers implement a technology called Content Protection for Recordable Media (CPRM), an algorithm that is also compliant with a secure digital music initiative supported by the big music companies. The original proposal submitted by IBM referenced the CPRM, but it was rejected in October, Karinch said. However, subsequent versions of IBM's proposal, including the one withdrawn last week during the Austin meeting, were derived from the CPRM.

Proponents said the changes that 4C Entity wanted to make were generic and would allow vendors to incorporate any type of content protections, not just CPRM, and CPRM would apply only to ATA-driven removable devices, such as Zip drives and flash memory, not hard drives. But opponents claimed CPRM would lead to content protection on hard drives and even difficulties in creating a backup.

Karinch said the committee backed the alternative proposal because it incorporated a generic functionality approach.

"There was a sense that what Curtis (of Phoenix Technologies) was proposing made a lot of sense," Karinch said. "If you were going to do something with open commands you would want to do it with generic functionality."

But John Gilmore, co-founder and board member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, called Phoenix Technology's proposal a "smoke screen."

"If they really wanted to support arbitrary 'generic' functionality, they should design something that would handle more than a single custom function per disk drive," Gilmore wrote in an e-mail response to questions. The e-mail went on to compare the T13 meeting as the equivalent of 4C Entity gathering in a smoke-filled room to define their own set of exclusionary copy-protection specifications.

"They need to pretend they're meeting to define a standard in an accredited standards organization like T13," Gilmore wrote.

The Phoenix Technology representative who submitted the proposal did not return calls. Karinch said the EFF, which sent a representative to the Austin meeting, is welcome to participate in the T13 committee.

"It doesn't do any good to play it out in the media," she said. "That is not going to influence anyone on this committee."

The T13 technology committee can be found on the Web at http://www.t13.org.

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