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What really happened with Google Premium Video — Part Two: Why Google Video story should scare you

In Part One we examined how Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies and proprietary software allowed Google to make it impossible for users to watch videos that they had bought from Google even though they had downloaded the video files onto their own computers. In this part we examine why this story is important for government information specialists and Federal Depository Library Program (FDLP) librarians.

There are two connections between this story about commercial content — like TV shows being sold for profit — and non-copyrighted government information that is supposed to be freely available:

First, the government may want to restrict access to information and may welcome tools that make this easier. Certainly with the removal of government information from the web, the re-classification of previously declassified information, and the removal of information that was once available in the National Archives, government agencies have demonstrated an increasing willingness to control access to information — even after its release to the public. (See "More Information" below for links to stories about these events.)

We are seeing the evolution of this most publicly with the Foreign Relations of the United States series. In 2001, the CIA wanted to cease distribution of a volume that was already printed and sent to depository libraries but, in the end, the volumes were distributed because "Destroying them would be a huge public relations disaster for the U.S. government…. Book burning is definitely not a politically correct thing to do." (State Dept Mulls "Book Burning", Secrecy News, September 21, 2001). By 2006, we saw an example of the next stage in this evolutionary process of control of public information: long delays in the release of documents as an attempt to avoid the embarrassing situation of recalling documents. A volume had been nearly ready for publication for over seven years, but intelligence screeners would not permit the release because of a handful of documents (Controversial FRUS volume release — with a caveat…). This leads us to ask how long it will be before the government starts "releasing" documents that they can "recall" technologically without the embarrassing problem of gathering books and burning them — without even having to notify FDLP librarians and asking them to withdraw something. And, in the Google Video premium service story, we can see a real-life example of existing technology that allows this to be done.

Second, whether the government intends to restrict access to its information or not, policies change, budgets constrict, and intentions evolve. As Daniel pointed out "…Google didn’t start up the service with the intention of shutting it down…" Nevertheless, in the end, they did shut it down. In addition, when the government relies on commercial tools for digital information distribution, those tools can impose the rules for distribution and use of information that the government cannot change. We have seen how government cannot always afford to do things in an open way and is forced by costs to do things that restrict access (e.g., FEMA requires Internet Explorer and What the Copyright Office / Internet Explorer rule tells us about government information and GPO’s Budget and Priorities). Lawrence Lessig has documented the process of how technology can all too easily supersede good intentions and even the law in Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

How hypothetical is this? So far, we have been pretty lucky that the government has not explicitly implemented these kinds of technological information control. But we have seen precursors. In 2004, The Government Printing Office (GPO) released its own annual report using a proprietary reader that requires registration, includes DRM, and has built in "audit controls" (Annual Report 2004 Zinio Interactive Version (Registration Required) -> Get the GPO 2004 Annual Report in digital form now!). Most recently, we have seen GPO use proprietary software with the "call home" feature to authenticate documents in its Authenticated Public and Private Laws, Beta Release. With this system "Users must be connected to the Internet in order to have the ability to validate a digital signature on a PDF document." While the document is still readable if a user is not connected to the Internet, the user cannot validate the document. While the document is readable using software other than Adobe Acrobat or Reader version 7 or later, validation does not work without this proprietary software.

In summary, Google video used proprietary software with phone-home DRM to deny access to files that users had legally paid for and downloaded. GPO has used and is using proprietary software for distribution of government information and it is using DRM "phone home" features in its attempt to technologically "authenticate" government documents. While GPO certainly is not claiming that it wants to withdraw access to distributed publications, the technology is there for it to do so and it is experimenting with it.

Think of the Google Video premium service story as a useful cautionary tale — a warning of how information can be withdrawn even if digital files were deposited with FDLP libraries or downloaded by conscientious librarians and digital preservation projects. This is something that government information specialists, FDLP librarians, and citizens should be watching closely. I urge you to write your Congressional delegation and the copyright office and suggest an explicit government document exemption to the DMCA. And write GPO and ask for an explicit, written policy rejecting the use of DRM and proprietary software and proprietary formats.

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