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Washington Watch

Judges Burn Flag

A new technology meant to protect digital TV shows from illegal Internet file-swapping received a hostile reception from federal judges last week.

The fate of FCC rules requiring that digital TVs and VCRs be equipped to block illegal computer distribution of DTV content is in trouble, if acerbic questioning by two of the judges hearing legal challenges are any indication.

“You crossed the line,” Federal Appeals Judge Harry Edwards declared, telling FCC lawyers that the commission overstepped its authority by mandating the technology known as the “broadcast flag.” In 2003, the FCC required that TVs, personal computers and digital storage devices be equipped to recognize a code, or flag, embedded in TV signals. The flag would indicate to what extent content could be sent over computer networks: unrestricted, one-time copying or none at all.

Broadcasters and Hollywood pushed for the requirement, arguing that TV stations will never be granted the right to run high-definition movies until programming is copy-protected.

The FCC’s best hope for preserving the requirement: a three-judge panel could rule that groups challenging the broadcast flag face so little risk of harm that they don’t have standing to take the commission to court. The panel, which debated the standing question at length, is expected decide the case in two or three months.

Social Security Sued Over Delay

The Social Security Administration is withholding documents regarding its $1.8 million contract with PR firm Fleischman-Hillard and possibly information on other contracts, an activist group alleges in a federal lawsuit.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) complains that the Social Security Administration failed to meet a legal deadline for producing documents requested under a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.

CREW is seeking copies of all the agency’s contracts with public- relations firms. The request was filed in January after the Department of Education confirmed that it paid TV commentator Armstrong Williams $240,000 to promote the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind program. To find out whether other agencies have similar contracts, CREW filed FOIA requests with 21 other federal offices.

FOIA requires federal agencies to respond to requests within 20 days. Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle says the agency isn’t stonewalling. Social Security is “actively working” to honor the request.

Mutual Retreat In Stern Fight

Radio giant Clear Channel and shock jock Howard Stern agreed to drop their dueling lawsuits generated when the San Antonio-based company removed his program from its radio stations a year ago.

At the time, six Clear Channel stations were under investigation by the FCC for indecency violations during Stern’s show. Clear Channel later paid $1.75 million to settle resulting fines for those and other violations.

Terms of the settlement were not disclosed. Stern was not available for comment.

Stations Draw Fines Over Deaf Alerts

Three San Diego TV stations face the first-ever FCC fines for failing to provide emergency alerts aimed at deaf viewers. The fines, totaling $65,000, were proposed by the FCC after the stations failed to provide visual warnings during wildfires that struck Southern California in fall of 2003.

The stations can appeal the fines. KFMB faces a proposed $25,000 sanction. KUSI and KGTV were socked for $20,000 each. TV stations and cable operators are required to provide people with hearing disabilities the same access to emergency information as those with unimpaired hearing. The FCC allows stations to pick a variety of methods for providing alerts to the hearing impaired, including closed-captioning and screen crawls.