August 7, 2002 6:15 PM PDT

FCC wades into digital TV, piracy debate

WASHINGTON--The Federal Communications Commission is about to step into an increasingly bitter spat over digital television and Internet piracy.

At a meeting on Thursday morning, the FCC's commissioners are expected to approve a set of proposed regulations that eventually would implant anti-copying technology into the next generation of digital TV receivers.

The FCC's draft rules, according to a government official who has seen them, cover a range of proposed regulations, including a way to mark transmissions with a "broadcast flag" to designate shows that should not be copied freely.

Full details about the proposal aren't expected to be released until a few days after the FCC's meeting, probably next week. But consumer groups are already girding themselves for the bureaucratic equivalent of trench warfare against the entertainment industry.

"Right now, I can digitally record a news program in my living room, then watch that recording in another room, or in my office, or at my friend's house," said Chris Murray, an attorney at Consumers Union, which publishes the magazine Consumer Reports. "Will the FCC's rulemaking guarantee that I'll continue to be able to do this in the future?"

Hollywood's lobbyists view government intervention as necessary to limit Internet piracy of high-quality digital content, which they fear could become commonplace after a scheduled 2006 deadline for over-the-air television to be broadcast in digital form.

Thursday's meeting comes after Congress has exerted tremendous pressure on the FCC to spur the availability of digital television while limiting unauthorized redistribution of content. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest "Fritz" Hollings , D-S.C., wrote to FCC Chairman Michael Powell last month, saying "it is imperative that the FCC quickly arrive at a final resolution and implementation."

It's not a partisan issue. The Republican chairman of the House Energy and Commerce committee, Billy Tauzin of Louisiana, and the top Democrat on the panel, John Dingell of Michigan, appear equally impatient. "We are writing to urge that you also begin working to implement a 'broadcast flag' solution to protect digital content delivered over the broadcast airwaves," Tauzin and Dingell wrote in a letter to Powell last month.

The draft regulations include a range of options the government could follow, including recommendations that a working group of broadcasters, studios and hardware manufacturers published in June, the FCC official said. That group, called the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG), concluded after 16 meetings and teleconferences that the idea of earmarking digital TV broadcasts as not for copying "is technically sufficient" and necessary to thwart illicit copying.

Under the BPDG plan, a digital television receiver would recognize flagged digital content and allow consumers to record it only in lower-quality analog form or encrypted digital form. The encrypted digital version would be intentionally disabled so, for instance, it would only be viewable on the recorder that was used to create it. Digital content can also be flagged, according to the BPDG, as permitting open copying.

But because consumers might not buy impaired receivers if given a choice, action by the FCC or Congress would be necessary to compel software and hardware manufacturers to recognize and abide by the "broadcast flag." Sen. Hollings has introduced a related bill that would restrict hardware and software that doesn't adhere to government-approved "standard security technologies."

After the FCC's proposed regulations appear later this month, typically the public has one to two months to comment and an extra month for reply comments. If the FCC moves quickly, the commissioners, who received the draft regulations three weeks ago, could vote on a final set of regulations by early next year.

 

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