Last night, before nodding off to sleep, a stray memory flitted across (or through?) my synapses; a posting I made to the Left Business Observer Listserv, titled “Windows Vista as Neoliberal Instrument”. This was, I think, my first attempt to merge my work in information technology with my (always in formation and never complete) Marxian approach to ways of thinking about that industry.

At the time of writing, over a decade ago, February of 2007, the release of Microsoft’s Windows Vista operating system was the source of a lot of debate and frustration. The OS wasn’t performing as hoped and techies were wondering why. It turned out that one of the key reasons was Microsoft’s attempt to enforce copyright via software. This proved to be a rich target for analysis and David Harvey’s ‘A Brief History of Neoliberalism’ provided a powerful analytical framework.  Also, this was a total flex.


[content originally posted to LBOTalk February, 2007 some new formatting added]

In his most recent book, “A Brief History of Neoliberalism”, David Harvey analyzes the neoliberal turn that first Western, and later, practically every economy on Earth took to varying degrees of depth over the past 30 or so years. 

Several key features of neoliberalism are dissected:

1.) neoliberalism as a power restoration technique (i.e., restoring to capitalists the margin of power lost during the postwar years of high growth and detente with labor)

2.) neoliberalism as imperfect tool against stagnation and the problems of overproduction


3.) neoliberalism as a method for monetizing practices and spaces previously excluded from market concerns and controls

To properly understand the strategic concessions Microsoft made to the entertainment industry — concessions that led MSFT to deploy a software-based version of the Advanced Access Content System (AACS) in Windows Vista — you need to carefully consider that third aspect of neoliberalism.

What is AACS?

Briefly, the Advanced Access Content System is a platform, created at the behest of the entertainment industry, whose sole purpose is to enforce a (it is vainly hoped) completely uncrackable environment for “premium content” to flow through from player — device or software-based — to a display and/or audio output. Of course, the phrase “premium content” is a term of art inasmuch as the actual content might be anything from a slapdash teen sex comedy to the most subtle examples of musical or filmed art.

The motion picture and recording cartels have long been disturbed by the fact that people could record, remix and redistribute “content” at will. Over the years, many copy protection schemes have been tried; all have failed. Advances in computing power and storage capacity — moving in parallel with advances in cryptology — have finally made the old dream of an automated copyright enforcement system achievable.

Achievable, because under the AACS system, ‘intelligent’ hardware is constantly on the lookout for security breaches (for example, interceptions of the content data stream from player to output) and empowered, so to speak, to take action. What action? Well, action like actively preventing component outs from working if the HD-DVD or Blu ray disk you’re trying to view has been flagged as being compromised (or more specifically, if the cryptological “key” associated with the disk has been compromised, leading to your play privileges being ‘revoked’ by the key issuing authority).

All high definition hardware — players, digital sets, audio units — are designed to enforce this automated copyright infrastructure. Your HD-DVD or Blu Ray player will talk to your high def display over what are called High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection compliant outputs. Together, they’ll ensure that RIAA and MPAA copyright concerns are being addressed wherever and whenever “premium content” is being viewed.

Rent Seeking via Operating System

Microsoft wanted Vista to be marketable as a media platform (and MSFT also wanted to create the de facto standard for software based AACS implementation) so they crafted a complex encryption/decryption methodology within the operating system that obeys — and then some — AACS rules. Doing so gave them negotiating space with the entertainment industry.

As any user of consumer electronics and Microsoft software knows, shit happens. The copyright enforcement, content monitoring and encryption/decryption technologies in next gen players and Vista are always on. This exacts a performance price from the devices (because our CPUs and memory are good, but not so good that they can effortlessly do both content presentation and advanced cryptological functions without exhibiting some problems at least some of the time) and especially from the software, which is very brittle and prone to malfunction.

But beyond the false piracy alarms, stuttering playbacks and other technical annoyances that are already being seen in the wild, there’s an overriding fact to keep in mind: AACS gives the entertainment industry the ability to treat the products you buy as leased objects, which can be (say, in a case of revocation resolution) the source for ever renewable revenue long after they were originally purchased.

It also creates a method for modularizing in unprecedented ways — and therefore monetizing — functions that were previously considered more or less all of a piece, such as playing and therefore viewing the disks you buy.

In order for this system to work as planned, all devices must comply with the AACS standard. The idea is to close all potential areas of escape. Eventually, perhaps after 5 to 15 years, the full magnitude of the lock-in will be in effect as older DVD and audio players are retired.

It’s been rumored that Hollywood and the RIAA are fully aware AACS is, despite all their efforts, eminently hackable, and that the true target of these new constraints are ordinary people who don’t have easy access to workarounds. 

The goal then, is to have a lever that can be pulled at any time to extract more income from “consumers”.

Links —-

A Brief History of Neoliberalism

High-Bandwidth Digital Content Protection

Advanced Access Content System

A Cost Analysis of Windows Vista Content Protection