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TV "flag" not going up quietly

As the mainstream news media begins to explain the public implications of the proposed "broadcast flag" designed to limit copying and distribution of television programming, opposition is building.

In recent weeks, dozens of consumer organizations and other critics have slammed a proposal that would place hidden roadblocks in digital programming that would limit its use by viewers. The critics argue, according to the Associated Press: "The flag is the latest attempt to wrest control from consumers, stifle innovation, create inconvenience, turn tinkerers into criminals and raise prices - all for a technology that won't stop piracy anyway."

The "flag" issue has hit the policy front burner due to the FCC's recent decision to consider setting rules after a broadcast-entertainment industry agreement on the technology and how it would be implemented. The FCC has asked for public comments on the issue and is now getting an earful.

Similar to the "trusted computing" initiative to implement hardware-based copy protection in personal computers, the broadcast flag attempts to force viewer compliance with copyright rules by building limitations into consumer-owned equipment.

The flag itself consists of a small bundle of data that's inserted into each broadcast program. The home receiver, which could be a TV, PC, set-top box or other viewing device, must recognize and follow the flag's instructions. Those instructions can vary.

If the flag permits it or is absent, for example:

  • A program can be freely copied and distributed
  • The flag could allow copying, but restrict redistribution
  • The flag can be programmed to prevent any copying whatsoever

The copyright holder, not the end user, decides total control over the use of the program.

In order for the flag to be recognized, the FCC must require compatibility among devices that receive digital TV signals, from set-top TV boxes to components of general-purpose PCs. That's the issue before the FCC and its importance to the future of television is now making its way into the public consciousness.

"This has to do with controlling the customary, expected uses of law-abiding consumers in their homes," said Cory Doctorow of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). "When they say 'This keeps honest people honest,' they mean, 'This keeps honest people in chains.'"

Critics of the flag worry that a government-mandated anti-copy system, which would be a federal crime to subvert, will make criminals of tinkers, hobbyists and open-source programmers who share computer code to build software such as Linux.

Not to mention the fact, say the critics, that the flag won't work and won't stop piracy. It can be bypassed simply by converting digital signals to analog.

"It addresses a nonexistent problem with an insufficient technical measure at great expense to liberty and innovation," the EFF's Doctorow said.

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