Digital rights management is being sold as a way of protecting vital data, but it could damage the net, argues analyst Bill Thompson.
My daughter has an Apple iBook, a far better laptop than mine, and she loves it.
Changing a virtual document could become a lot harder
She can use our wireless network to surf the web or meet her friends online. She can research school projects and write her essays. And she can transfer documents to and from the desktop PC if she needs to use programs that only run on Windows to make changes.
Apart from occasional problems with fonts, which are managed differently by Windows and MacOS, the stuff she writes in Word on her Mac can be edited on a PC or even by StarOffice on Linux.
Unfortunately this may not be true for much longer.
When Microsoft releases Office 2003 in October, it will include a digital rights management system that allows documents to be locked and viewed only by those with permission.
It could quickly lead to a situation in which those who do not use Microsoft programs are unable to exchange files with those who do, and lock even more people into Microsoft's way of doing things. It could also seriously damage our ability to share information freely over the internet.
The new feature, Information Rights Management, is being presented as a way for organisations to keep their internal files safe and secure, and as an anti-piracy measure.
However once it is in widespread use it will make non-Microsoft programs that read and write Office files unusable, and give Microsoft an even larger share of the market for word processors, spreadsheets and presentation software.
This will happen because the new Office file formats will be incompatible with earlier ones, and because they incorporate features to protect copyright.
Keeping documents secure
The US Digital Millennium Copyright Act makes it illegal to produce programs which break this protection, while over here the EU Copyright Directive will have the same effect when it is written into UK law.
As a result programs which currently read or write Word files will not be able to work with the new format unless Microsoft gives them permission.
For the moment the rights management system only works with the professional version of Office, designed for businesses that have their own internal network.
They will run Windows Rights Management Services on their server, so that anyone creating a Word document or Excel spreadsheet - or any other Office document - can specify who can read, print, edit or even cut and paste from it.
However it will only be a matter of time before a consumer version is available, probably hosted on Microsoft's servers and accessible over the net. This will allow anyone who signs up for the service to lock any documents they create or edit.
Apart from the way it could limit users to Microsoft software, there are many worrying things about this.
In general, I am in favour of a better managed internet, and the ability to keep my documents secure is important. I already use PGP encryption software to do this, and I like the sense of safety it gives me.
But we must have a balance between freedom and regulation, and we must ensure that systems of control are both accountable and democratically managed.
Checks and balances
I do not believe this is something we can or should leave to the free market, and I definitely do not want to see a monopoly supplier in charge of it.
Yet that is just what we are getting.
Microsoft would control the rights management system
Microsoft's rights management system is owned and controlled by them. It is not subject to any external checks, audit or guarantees.
Because they control it, they can change it at will. Because they control it, we cannot be sure that they have not provided secret ways or 'trapdoors' for the police or secret services to read any document, even protected ones.
Because they control it they can use it as a way of excluding competition. If Microsoft refuses to give full details of how the rights management software works then StarOffice and other office-compatible systems will simply not be able to read or write these documents.
The new system also requires us to trust Microsoft to make the system secure, bug-free and reliable.
At the moment if I am sent a damaged Word .doc file I can at least try to read it using a text editor or some other program. A protected file will be absolutely useless unless the whole rights management system works properly.
There are also serious implications for our online rights and liberties.
The system proposed by Microsoft keeps the access rights for a document on a central server, so the permissions can be changed at a later date.
At the moment, if a source inside a large organisation sends me a document with some interesting information, if I can read that document then I can also read it tomorrow.
With the new system the organisation could turn off access to that document for every user, and I would be unable to open it. Since I may not be able to print or even cut and paste from the document, I would have lost the information unless I copied it by hand.
It is not too late for government action. There is no realistic prospect that the US administration will do anything which might upset or oppose Microsoft, but here in Europe we have a more robust attitude to the company and its activities.
If Microsoft is going to roll out digital rights management in software that will be used by many European companies, surely the European Commission or our MEPs should be taking an interest - before we find that we have given up any possibility of asserting proper democratic control over this important technology?
Bill Thompson is a regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Go Digital.