Section 1201 and Automotive DRM: The Future is Locked
This is the Renault Zoe. It’s like most EVs on the road, with its limited range, limited power, and limited usability.
Unlike the other EVs, however, the Zoe comes with DRM attached to its battery pack. In short: If you value your ability to drive the Zoe at all, then you will submit to a rental contract with the pack’s manufacturer. Should you fail to pay the rent or your lease term expires, Renault can and will turn your Zoe into an expensive, useless paperweight by preventing the pack’s ability to be recharged, consequences be damned.
Ever since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act came into force in 1998, one particular section has managed to do more damage to innovation than to protect the innovators: Section 1201:
No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.
The application of Section 1201 in the past has led to actions such as: The delay in disclosing copy-protection vulnerability found in Sony’s CDs; takedown notices issued by Hewlitt-Packard to researchers for publishing a security flaw in the former’s Tru64 UNIX OS; Lexmark suing anyone who sells aftermarket refilled toner cartridges; and even displacing laws meant to deal with hacking and electronic intrusion, such as the Wiretap and Electronic Communications Privacy acts.
Regarding DRM, many a gamer has experienced their favorite games rendered unplayable because the online component — having reached its end-of-life phase and, thus, the creator no longer supports the software — can no longer be authenticated. So, imagine Zoe owners one day going to work or to visit their grandmother on her death bed when, because Renault decided to no longer support the battery pack nor verify new packs, not being able to start their car. They can’t resell the EV on the used car market, and thus, can’t make some of their $23,000 back on their purchase.
Or worse, imagine if a Zoe driver and their friends were going to a major protest — like the one that led to the Battle of Seattle, for example — only to find their government told Renault to “block” charging of the pack to hinder either their progress to the action or allow the police to “say hello,” as it were.
And of course, let’s say a Zoe owner is the target of a sociopath. They bribe a Renault employee for access to the DRM through social engineering, find “the bitch” who left them, shutdown the battery at home… you can see where this is going.
Now, imagine it happening here with the theorhetical (for now) autonomous commuter pod of 2025 your sons and daughters may end up “piloting.”
At present, Representative Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., is leading a bipartisan charge to bring about the Unlocking Technology Act, designed to limit the overzealous use of the DMCA and Section 1201 to cases where real intellectual property infringement has occurred. Should this bill become law, it would go a long way to preventing the abuses that have hindered progress elsewhere from infecting the automotive industry any further.
Photo credit: werner hillebrand-hansen/ Flickr/ CC BY-SA 2.0
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