RealTime IT News

Broadcast Flags Scorned by Silicon Valley

Tech companies are beginning to sound off on their thoughts about the Federal Communication Commission's intentions of becoming a software czar for any new application that deals with digital video transmissions.

A group of tech companies from the Silicon Valley, under direction of Washington, D.C.-based Public Knowledge, is preparing to submit their comments to a proposed rulemaking they say will hinder future development of software applications that work with digital broadcast receivers.

The FCC notice of proposed rulemaking (NPR) issued Nov. 4, 2003, by the communications agency, would require software companies to make allowances for the Motion Picture Association of America's (MPAA) "broadcast flag," a bit-sized file that travels with every packet sent in a digital-quality broadcast. Comments for or against the NPR are due Tuesday.

Software and hardware makers would have to incorporate measures that look for this flag and prevent the illegal copy and subsequent distribution of said broadcast. Only recently becoming an issue for the MPAA because movie and TV files will soon be broadcast on millions of high-definition TVs (HDTV), the organization is looking to curtail what is happening in the music industry today.

The flag is intended to prevent high-definition copies of TV shows, movies and other programs from being used as peer-to-peer (P2P) fodder for file traders. The FCC ruling, if allowed to proceed as is, would allow for lower-resolution redistribution to take place in a "fair use" situation, which would allow for legitimate copying but at lower-than-HDTV quality.

According to Scott Rafer, CEO of Weblog search engine Feedster.com, fair use to the MPAA seems to be geographically based, and would not allow him to view files outside his house or even on his home network.

However, the biggest problem he has with the proposed regulation is the fact that with the rule in place, his site's popularity is affected. In January, the biggest event in TiVo history occurred when what he calls the "Janet" happened, the now-infamous halftime show featuring singers Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake. Almost instantly, his search engine was a popular place as people looked for blog sites that had the clip, or were discussing the "Janet."

"A single screen-grab here and there certainly falls under how fair use was intended," he told internetnews.com. "That would all go away; you would theoretically be able to publish that kind of thing as an individual outside your house."

The flags are not intended as an anti-piracy method, a fact both the FCC and MPAA don't deny. It's a technology best described as a stopgap to prevent "casual" file traders, not computer experts, from parsing the flag out of the content. For instance, a user could hack into their broadcast receiver and take the flag component out of the box, allowing for distribution. However, the MPAA is confident "most consumers will not hack their devices," according to a comment in the FCC's NPR.

Chris DiBona is co-founder and vice president of marketing for Damage Studios, a PC game developer out of San Francisco. Although his product line isn't impacted by the FCC mandate, and as a content provider would seem a likely candidate to side with the MPAA rather than against, he said tech companies need to band together as an industry to combat the FCC's plans for content re-distribution.

He said broadcast flags take away the company's ability to control the information that enters their system, which takes away competitive edge. While DiBona sympathizes with the movie industry organization, the broadcast flag isn't the route to take.

"I don't think it's effective, this broadcast flag won't stop people from pirating movies, if it did I would say great, lets look at it as a way to help out the content providers while not removing the rights of Americans -- but it's not even going to do that," he told internetnews.com.

Officials at Public Knowledge have spent the past two weeks encouraging smaller tech companies to add their names to prevent the broadcast flag issue from going any further. Sarah Brown, the organization's strategic policy advisor, told internetnews.com that while many large tech companies, like Microsoft and Hewlett-Packard , have the resources to address and fight federal regulations, many smaller start ups are left without a voice.

By getting these companies together and voicing their concerns, she thinks the FCC will heed the call for more scrutiny into the ramifications of broadcast flags on technology companies. At press time, 23 Silicon Valley companies had signed up with the organization's petition.

"I think (the FCC) is going to be extremely responsive, they've always been very concerned about not making regulations that are going to halt innovation," she said. "We've made the argument over and over that the broadcast flag mandate would definitely halt innovation, but it's much different when you have the actual companies saying (that). I think the argument becomes a lot more real."

Michelle Russo, an FCC spokesperson, said the commissioners would review all comments submitted Tuesday, but didn't not have a time frame of when the FCC would make its final ruling.