‘Broadcast Flag’ Prompts Digital TV Debate

As a judicial panel heard arguments this week on a scheme to fight thepiracy of digital television broadcasts, a civil libertarian group in SanFrancisco launched a guerrilla program to undermine the plan.

The scheme is the so-called “broadcast flag,” a digital rights management(DRM) system for controlling what consumers can do with digital television(DTV) content. The approach, already embraced by the satelliteand cable-TV industries, prevents people from copying content and redistributing it on the Internet.

The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has adopted rules requiringconsumer electronic manufacturers to include broadcast flag technology intheir products starting on July 1. A legal challenge to the FCC’s authorityto adopt those rules was heard this week before the District of ColumbiaCircuit for the United States Court of Appeals.

Fear of Hollywood

The FCC has been charged by Congress to move the nation to all-digitalbroadcasting by the end of 2006. To do that, the FCC has argued, thebroadcast flag is needed so the entertainment industry will allow itscontent to be broadcast over the new digital networks.

“One of the reasons that the broadcasters have pushed so hard for this flagis that they felt that Hollywood would not provide them with first-runmovies if they didn’t have some way to protect it from Internetredistribution as it is on closed systems like cable and satellite,” said JeffJoseph, vice president for communications for the Consumer ElectronicsAssociation (CEA) in Arlington, Virginia.

Broadcast flag critics, though, argue that the program may harmconsumers and stifle innovation. “This is a bad thing forconsumers because in the long run, interesting, new things they might liketo do will be barred by the flag and other tech mandates that will follow,”Susan Crawford, an assistant professor at the Cardozo School of Law in NewYork City, told TechNewsWorld.

“The risk is not so much what the broadcast flag regime is today, althoughthat’s pretty bad in my view,” she added. “It’s more that it’s a first steptoward a very limited future for consumers.”

Home Brew Cookbook

Until the rules take effect, consumers can still obtain equipmentthat will allow them to capture and make unrestricted copies of DTVprogramming — a practice the Electronic Frontier Foundation is encouragingwith the release on its Web site of the “HD PVR Cookbook.”

According to a statement from the group, the cookbook “teaches people how tobuild a high-definition digital television (HDTV) recorder unaffected by thetechnological constraints of the broadcast flag.”

The organization is also encouraging people to hold “build-ins” across thecountry to help each other construct flag-free devices.

The cookbook recommends that would-be hardware hackers have aPentium 4 PC running at 3 GHz, an ATSC capture card, a 100 GB hard drive, avideo card with accelerated video support, a sound card, an appropriateantenna, a display with inputs that match your video card’s outputs, a CD-ROM drive and a reliable Internet connection.

“This takes a computer, a TV tuner card and open-source, freely availablesoftware and makes the PC into a TV recorder and home media center,”explained EFF staff attorney Wendy Seltzer.

She told TechNewsWorld that EFF has already received several inquiries for guidance on holding build-ins.

Judges Skeptical

While the EFF is encouraging consumers to build DTV recorders before July 1,it hasn’t lost confidence that broadcast flag opponents can win their courtcase against the FCC. “It seems as though the judges are skeptical of theFCC’s authority,” Seltzer said.

Art Brodsky, communications director for Washington, D.C.-based PublicKnowledge, one of the plaintiffs in the case, explained that in the past,the FCC has imposed hardware requirements through its rules only whenordered to do so by Congress. That was done for building TV sets with UHFreceivers, the V-chip and closed caption capabilities.

“Other than that, this has been, as the judges recognized, farther thananything that the commission has done before in terms of directing howconsumer electronics devices should be designed and engineered,” Brodskytold TechNewsWorld.

FCC Fiddles, Consumers Burned

Given the amount of time it takes to design and manufacturer hardware, it’salmost certain that products with the broadcast flag in them will befiltering into the market regardless of how courts rule.

“If this gets tossed out by the courts, from a functionality perspective, itwon’t matter,” the CEA’s Joseph said.

“It will be disappointing from an investment perspective,” he added. “And consumers will be paying for a feature that may no longer be needed.”

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