The Perils of Palladium

Slap Nutz

Recently, Microsoft outlined plans for their next generation of operating systems, codenamed Longhorn / Palladium. Among the features touted was the "secure networking" functions that OS would offer.

Microsoft plans to implement Palladium DRM (digital rights management) in a hardware chip, initially implanted on the mother board, but later on embedded in the CPU, and employing hardwired encryption throughout. The purpose of this is to flag every file on the computer with a digital signature telling a remote server what it is. If it's an unauthorized file, the remote server will tell your computer not to let you execute it. This is basically an attempt to stop the trading of mp3's and/or warez.

Before an application can run, it too must have a digital signature remotely verified by another server. If the program binary doesn't match with any of the authenticated binaries, your computer won't run it. This, again, is meant to stop your computer running "unauthorized" software - which might be warez, or it might just be a nifty freeware program that the authors can't afford to have certified. Microsoft will be able to control exactly what your computer can and can't run. As most of you know, Microsoft employs a strategy of making their software deliberately obsolete; they make it forward compatible, but not backward compatible. With the laws of the DMCA, it will soon be illegal to try to make a software product that is compatible with another program's file types (for example, take the many Office applications for Linux which have had success in translating their arcane file formats). This has the effect of killing any competition in the water; since you're not allowed to make your new product compatible with any of the others, no one will use it. And eventually people will give up using any of the other options, since no one else will be able to read their documents. So the entire world will be left with only one choice for software: Microsoft.

Palladium will effectively ban free software, not just free stuff for Windows platforms, but free stuff for Linux, Mac, in fact every OS that will run on a Palladium enabled motherboard or processor. Why? In order to get the program to run on a Palladium platform, you will need to pay to have your binary certified as "safe" by Microsoft's software authentication branch. And who in their right mind is going to pay for a piece of software they spent hours working on - just so that they could give it away? It just wouldn't be worth it.

It gets worse when it comes to open source projects, such as Linux and BSD. Those of you who know about these things will know that open source projects are created by freelance coders all over the world who create programs in their spare time and then give them to the rest of the world for free. Many of them also release the source code for free too, so that if you wish you can alter the program (such as to fix bugs, add features etc). Now, it would be bad enough if the owner has to pay a certification fee. But EVERY CHANGE that is made to the source code will require a new, separate certificate to be created. Those of you who use Linux will know that so many things get updated so quickly, that this just isn't practical, and would cost the open source development people millions of dollars. This is money they don't have, and Microsoft knows it.

The "secure network". This is the real clincher for Palladium. At first, they're going to make it so that it is possible to turn Palladium off at the hardware level. But it is created in such a way so that if you try to connect to a Palladium Web server, you won't be allowed to. Palladium machines will only be able to talk to other Palladium machines, and non-Palladium machines won't be able to talk to any Palladium machines. Hence, if Palladium reaches critical mass, there will be thousands of people the world over who won't be able to access the Internet or even work on a network with Palladium machines; so by extension they will be forced to "upgrade" to Palladium machines. ...even Mac users would be effectively locked out; you too would have to adopt a Palladium machine if you wanted your computer to do anything.

At first I thought: what the hell, this is only going to apply to x86 architecture (namely Athlon and Pentium chips, since it's only AMD and Intel who are involved at the moment). So, I could try another hardware architecture: such as the Mac/PPC, or the Sun Sparc, or an ARM, or any other kind of processor. But then I realized that even if I did, I wouldn't then be able to access the "Palladium network" which could encompass the entire Internet if this concept goes far enough. So even Mac users would be effectively locked out; you too would have to adopt a Palladium machine if you wanted your computer to actually do anything.

Palladium will enable all your documents to be controlled remotely. No, this is not a joke. If Microsoft finds that you are using an outdated version of Office, all they need to do is send a message to your computer and it will no longer let you read any of your own documents that were created with that application. Even more sinister is that if Microsoft takes offense at any of the documents on your machine (this could be porn, or it could just be a simple document containing DeCSS information or anti-Palladium information) then they can easily delete or alter it — not just from your PC but from every other Palladium PC on the network. This has a remarkable similarity to the "Ministry of Truth" in George Orwell's novel "1984" — where the government continually faked information, new and old, to make themselves appear "correct" all the time.

If Palladium ever becomes widespread enough, the Internet as we know it today will be dead. Instead of being controlled by us, it will be controlled by Microsoft, and you will have no choice but to do exactly what they say. Hence why I want to tell people about this atrocious idea before it really becomes popular, and M$ administers their miraculous spin to it to make it sound like the best thing since sliced bread: