Increasingly technology companies are arrogating to themselves the power to control the machines we buy and “own.” Maybe you’ve got a DVD player that smugly refuses to let you fast-forward through those FBI warnings on the movies you rent, or maybe your mini-disc recorder will let high-quality digital sound in but will play back only low-quality analog sound. For corporate purposes supposedly related to protecting copyright, devices are beginning to prohibit us from doing what we have the legal right to do.

Now, from Microsoft, comes a whole new control regimen called “product activation.” In its current incarnation, this control system seems to have a legitimate function and, according to at least one third-party technical analysis, to collect only “innocuous” data.

Microsoft infused this control system into Office XP and Visio 2002 last spring. But now, the software giant means to put it on the new version of Windows, the operating system that controls most of the world’s PCs. The control system is expected to be part of Windows XP, scheduled for general release in October. Only retail versions of these products require activation. If you buy five or more licenses for your school district, product activation probably will not be required.

But as the Microsoft-required software audit in Philadelphia’s schools suggests (Page 26), retail software has a way of insinuating itself onto school computers. In any case, the concept of product activation has broader implications that technology decision makers like you probably need to begin thinking about.

Here’s how product activation works: When you install the software, you have a specified number of days, or reboots, before you are required to contact Microsoft and activate the product. You can do this by telephone or via the internet. With Windows XP, if you fail to activate in 30 days, the software switches to “reduced functionality mode,” allowing you to do little other than attempt to activate it.

The information required to activate is an “installation ID,” Microsoft explains: “The installation ID is made up of two components: the software’s product ID and a hardware hash value. The product ID is unique to that software installation and is generated from the product key used during installation. The hardware hash value is a non-unique representation of the PC on which the software was installed. It is called a hash value because it has no direct correlation to the PC and cannot be backward-calculated to the original value.”

According to that third-party technical analysis I mentioned, the components that make up the so-called “hardware hash” might include your computer’s hard drive volume serial number, the network card’s MAC address, and the identification string for the CD-ROM drive, the graphics card, and the microprocessor.

Activation allows Microsoft to lock each copy of, say, Windows XP to one specific PC.

Wall Street Journal technology columnist Walter Mossberg explained it this way: “If you attempt to install the same copy of Windows on a different PC, you’ll be asked to activate again–only this time activation will fail, and you’ll be advised that it’s illegal to install one copy of Windows on multiple machines and told to buy another copy. The second installation of Windows will stop working.

“What if your PC malfunctions, and you have to reinstall Windows XP? Well, you’ll have to explain the situation to Microsoft, and beg the company to allow you to activate it again.”

Problems also could arise for users who frequently reconfigure their hard drives. “If the hard drive is reformatted and the software is reinstalled,” says Microsoft, “reactivation will be required.” In response to rising protests, Microsoft announced on July 18 it intends to be more lenient about how many hardware changes would be allowed within a specified period. Details were not available at press time.

Microsoft’s web site says reactivation of software on the same PC can be done as often as necessary. But technology writer John Walkenbach, author of more than 30 books about Microsoft software, reports that an authorization representative for Office XP had a different story. The representative reportedly said up to eight reactivations are allowed. Others put the maximum number at 11.

Microsoft says product activation is necessary to control software piracy. But Walkenbach worries that it is part of a larger plan to exert “control over who uses software, how it is obtained, and how Microsoft is compensated.”

Maclean’s, the Canadian news magazine, reported in its July 9 issue that Microsoft’s long-term business strategy is guided by the belief that as computer “users migrate to the Net, providers like Microsoft will be able to switch from selling software to renting it. ‘That,’ [Microsoft boss Bill] Gates says, ‘is what we’re betting the company on.'”

Product activation might be “innocuous” today. But, as Walkenbach writes, “There is no guarantee that Microsoft will continue to issue activation keys in the future. If, three or four years from now, you replace your existing computer, will Microsoft still be willing to issue a new activation key? Will they charge a fee for this? Or will they say, ‘Sorry, this product is no longer supported. Buy a subscription to the latest version.'”

But more than just fees could be at stake. As essential school operations increasingly are computerized, loss of control over our technology could bring education to a halt. When our ability to control our own computers is eroded, it fundamentally undermines our ability to communicate in this Information Age. Taken to the extreme, this could effectively curtail academic freedom and, ultimately, free speech. Impossible?

So far, the primary erosions of our right to control the technology we own have come marching in under the banner of copyright protection.

Now, as you might imagine, nobody reveres copyrights more than a newspaper publisher. The ability to protect intellectual property is essential in our society, but it must be balanced against the need for free speech and open communication.

Copyright and free speech, one might say, are opposite ends of the same seesaw. If copyright protection becomes the excuse to push down free speech, somebody’s going to get held up. Chances are it won’t be Microsoft.


John Gilmore: What’s Wrong with Copy Protection?

John Walkenbach: What is product activation?

Microsoft’s Product Activation FAQ