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Consumer Groups Say 'Bag Flag'

Concerned that Congress might authorize the broadcast flag digital content-security regime as part of legislation to set a hard date for the DTV switch, consumer groups have written their congressman to protest.

In a letter to Sen. Ted Stevens, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Public Knowledge, Consumers Union and Consumer Federation of America argue that the flag is superfluous in light of other content-protection technology, will harm educators and consumers, and would give the FCC "unprecedented" control over technology.

Back in May, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington ruled that the FCC overstepped its authority when it required manufacturers of digital TVs to include "broadcast flag" technology to protect programming content from piracy.

Broadcasters and Hollywood say a strong safeguard against illegal copying must be in place if TV stations are going to be allowed to air digital versions of the latest movies and other valuable programming.

The court agreed with petitioners Public Knowledge, the American Library Association and others that the flag rules are not authorized by the FCC's right to regulate interstate radio communications.

The FCC has the right to govern how TV signals are received but not what is done with them after reception of the signal is complete.

The flag is a code embedded in broadcast programming that signals the receiver to block the illegal retransmission of the broadcast over computer networks and other devices.

Broadcasters argue that without that protection, the switch to digital is fraught with dangers from digital pirates.

The court said there is "no statutory foundation for the broadcast flag rules." Saying the commission acted outside its scope of authority, the court found that "Congress never conferred authority on the FCC to regulate consumers' use of television received apparatus after the completion of broadcast transmissions."

Public Knowledge and the others now want to make sure Congress doesn't decide to confer that authority.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton is said not to want to include the flag in the House DTV bill, but the Motion Picture Association of America has been pushing for it. Broadcasters didn't push quite so hard, having concentrated on getting a multicasting must-carry provision in the bill.