Monday January 23, 2006 by Ed Felten
If you've been reading here lately, you know that I'm no fan of the
Sensenbrenner/Conyers analog hole bill. The bill would require almost
all analog video devices to implement two technologies called CGMS-A
and VEIL. CGMS-A is reasonably well known, but the VEIL content
protection technology is relatively new. I wanted to learn more about
So I emailed the company that sells VEIL and asked for a copy of the
specification. I figured I would be able to get it. After all, the
bill would make compliance with the VEIL spec mandatory -- the spec
would in effect be part of the law. Surely, I thought, they're not
proposing passing a secret law. Surely they're not going to say that
the citizenry isn't allowed to know what's in the law that Congress is
considering. We're talking about television here, not national
After some discussion, the company helpfully explained that I could
get the spec, if I first signed their license agreement. The agreement
requires me (a) to pay them $10,000, and (b) to promise not to talk to
anybody about what is in the spec. In other words, I can know the
contents of the bill Congress is debating, but only if I pay $10k to a
private party, and only if I promise not to tell anybody what is in
the bill or engage in public debate about it.
Worse yet, this license covers only half of the technology: the VEIL
decoder, which detects VEIL signals. There is no way you or I can find
out about the encoder technology that puts VEIL signals into video.
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?