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Broadcast Flag Wins FCC OK

Digital TVs and other products capable of receiving over-the-air DTV signals must be equipped with technology to prevent unauthorized retransmission over the Internet beginning July 1, 2005. The protections were sought by broadcasters and the motion picture industry.

In a move that will make local broadcasters twice as happy, the FCC refused calls to exempt news or public affairs from the flag’s protections. These products will be required to implement instructions in the so-called "broadcast flag," a code embedded in a digital broadcaster’s signal indicating whether or not the program may be distributed over the Internet or another network outside a consumer’s array of personal products.

The FCC did not approve any specific technologies for implementing the flag regime, but did implement an interim policy allowing equipment makers to apply for certification that their technology complies. Each certification is subject to public notice and comment.

The FCC also seeks comment on a permanent process for new protection technologies. Digital VCRs, DVD players and personal computers built without digital tuners need not comply with the new rule nor do any existing devices. Encoding programs with the flag will be at the discretion of the broadcaster.

The current lack of protection for broadcasters’ digital content "could be a key impediment to the DTV transition’s progress," the FCC said, because content producers will be reluctant to let broadcasters air their shows and high value programming could migrate from broadcast television to more secure platforms such as cable and satellite TV. "The losers would be the 40 million Americans who rely exclusively on free over-the-air TV," FCC Chairman Michael Powell said in his personal statement endorsing the rule.

"This puts digital TV on the same level playing field as cable and satellite delivery," Motion Picture Association of America President Jack Valenti said. "All the way around, the consumer wins, and free TV stays alive."

Preston Padden, Disney/ABC Washington chief, said, "Consumers have a big stake in helping to keep high value content on Broadcast TV."

Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein dissented in part from the decision, complaining that coverage of government meetings and other non-copyrightable material in the public domain were not exempt from the flag. They also said the FCC failed to consider the impact of the flag on consumer privacy.