Will Bueché

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Next generation of DVD has Orwellian capacity

Posted in Personal by Will on Monday, July 25th, 2005 ~ 9pm

A recent article at CDFreaks mentions that the next generation of DVDs (BlueRayDiscs or HD-DVD) will have a capacity that could usher in an Orwellian future… an era where within a matter of hours, a film deemed unworthy could be rendered unplayable.

How can a DVD player suddenly decide not to play back a particular film? Easy. The next generation of DVD players maintain a blacklist. The blacklist is continually updated, in two complementary ways. The first way is via an internet connection; the blacklist most rapidly affects those players that are connected to the internet, such as home computers. But it also reaches players that aren’t on the net: The second way takes advantage of the immense amount of storage space available on the discs themselves: each new movie that is released is required to have a new, up-to-date blacklist.

Mind you, it isn’t being called a “blacklist.” It is being called an “imprimatur.” The article at CDFreaks explains that the specs for the new formats set forth the instruction that “It is forbidden to publish any work without an imprimatur, and player devices are forbidden to play any work that lacks an imprimatur.” All discs, all machines.

An interesting footnote explains the history of the word:

“The imprimatur — the term is Latin for ‘let it be printed’ — was an early technology of censorship. The original imprimatur was a stamp of approval granted by a Catholic bishop to certify that a work was free from doctrinal or moral error. In some times and places, it was illegal to print a work that didn’t have an imprimatur. Today, the term refers to any system in which a central entity must approve works before they can be published.”

So what is the purpose of this? The imprimatur – the blacklist – is meant to be used legitimately to prevent the playback of bootleg movies. Say the FBI discovers that a Chinese company has been selling millions of bootleg DVDs of Walt Disney’s Dumbo. The FBI would add that particular film – the Chinese version of Dumbo – to the blacklist. Within a matter of hours, no one would be able to play it back anymore, thus rendering the illegal film inert. It is an effective solution, because no warehouse would need to be raided.

But the blacklist need not be limited to bootlegs — any title could be added. And therein lies the potential for abuse on an Orwellian scale.

Imagine, if you will, a DVD that was critical of the current political administration, a film like Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11. Imagine such a film was starting to have an impact on voters around the time of an election. Imagine a politician takes to the Senate floor and asks, humbly at first but then growing ever more rhetorical, if it is proper for such a film to be seen at such a sensitive time, when people are about to vote. Maybe some of the allegations in the film haven’t been discussed thoroughly enough, the politician might say, as justification for the suggestion he’d make next: That until after the election, or perhaps until further notice, the film should have it’s imprimatur revoked. He makes his case, and a few hours later millions of copies of the DVD suddenly become inert, worldwide.

How far fetched is this scenario? Not far fetched enough. There is no protection against this other than one’s belief that no politician would take the risk of doing something iffy. Sure it would take some gall for a politician to do this, but in a time of heightened sensitivities like now, a time when politicians could expect that maybe 50% of the population might support some censorship in the name of the Right (the right wing, that is), it could be done.

If you do not believe that a politician would dare silence a documentary, what about fiction? You are no doubt aware that for decades an uneasy truce has held between film studios and the government, wherein the studios regulate themselves by giving films certain ratings voluntarily (PG, R, G and so forth), and in return the government backs off. And truth be told, until now the government would not have had an easy way to exert censorship even if they wanted to. Even if our government wanted to force the studios to recut Basic Instinct so that Sharon Stone did not flash her kittie to the audience, there was no effective way for them to retreive millions of discs from millions of people’s homes.

Soon they will have an effective way – effective because there is no need to set foot in anyone’s home. And once they have this power, then that truce will likely topple.

Imagine every NC17 film, or every unrated film, being declared to be unacceptable through some piece of legislation, and then within hours they are all unplayable. Maybe even some films that are rated R, or some that are declared “sensitive”.

Naturally porn would not be safe either – and porn is a good example of how this sort of blacklist could be introduced subtly, without ever explicitly passing an outright ban. Short of banning porn outright, legislation could be passed raising the age requirement of actors from 18 to 21, and then they could deactivate all existing porn DVDs.

Orwell said that he who controls the past controls the future. This technology can effectively erase the past and the present.

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