Skip to main content

'Flag' May Be Raised Soon; Not All Salute It

The FCC is racing to approve the "broadcast-flag" regime for blocking illegal Internet transmission of HDTV, perhaps as early as this week.

If a deal isn't reached quickly, FCC Chairman Michael Powell is said to be planning a meeting to deal with the issue exclusively rather than wait until the commission's next scheduled public meeting Nov. 13.

The FCC is said to be rushing to complete the flag mandate in order to have specifications ready for the Christmas 2004 production cycle, although implementation now would be six months late for consumer electronics' typical 18-month cycle.

The flag is a code embedded into a broadcaster's signal that would tell DTV sets and recording devices to block retransmission over the Internet.

Last week, consumer groups derided the plan, intended to stop peer-to-peer file sharing of HDTV programs, as a "scheme" to "regulate all consumer-electronics devices and personal computers." If the FCC requires DTV sets to recognize the flag, existing DVDs and other digital recording devices will have to be junked, they say.

Also, the system will be a first step towards interfering with consumers' home-recording rights, they charge. "This proposal is a dramatic attack on the consumer's right to use content," said Mark Cooper, Consumer Federation of America's research director.

The FCC is not expected to authorize copying for personal use. But the consumer groups note that the industry is also developing a follow-up technology to prevent digital programs from being copied in analog, stripped of their retransmission protections and converted back to digital in an un-coded form that would allow unlimited Internet distribution.

Proponents of the flag say the consumer groups have it backward and that no personal copying will be blocked, no devices rendered obsolete and only mass sharing of digital files prevented. "Not one piece of equipment bought today will be hurt," countered Andy Setos, Fox Television's technology chief.

Responding to broadcasters' concerns, an aide said Powell opposes an exemption that would allow retransmission of news and public-affairs shows. Station operators are up in arms of rumors that an exemption is in the works.