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Broadcast flag: Hollywood's newest techno-darling, but can it work? (First In/First Out).

In the seemingly never-ending battle between Hollywood studios and privacy advocates, a new salvo has just been fired. While former measures to protect the intellectual property of content creators have focused on encryption, the latest technology under consideration is the socalled "broadcast flag."

In essence, the broadcast flag is a bit of code that would be recognized by A/V equipment when a digital stream is received--via a television, settop box, audio player or other broadcast device. Depending on the nature of the content, several viewing options would be available. Movies or other copyrighted material could be displayed, and perhaps copied (or burned once) for an archive but could not be sent to another device. Some streams--such as payper-view broadcasts--could be viewed but not reproduced, even for personal use. And some streams without the flag could be reproduced and redistributed freely. The flag was recommended by the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG), a consortium of device manufacturers and content creators, including entertainment companies.

The idea behind the flag is simple. As long as a stream has the flag, and a device has the intelligence to recognize it, unauthorized distribution of content would be very difficult. (Though not impossible. A digital stream could be made analog and then re-coded to subvert the system.) While any technology can be hacked with enough time and effort, Hollywood likes the broadcast flag because, with little overhead, it would deter "casual" piracy.

Not surprisingly, privacy advocates are unhappy with Hollywood's

latest "solution." The Electronic Freedom Foundation filed comments with the FCC opposing the broadcast flag initiative as an intrusive and

unnecessary fix. "A broadcast flag mandate is an ineffective solution to a non-existent problem," explained the EFF. "At the same time, any broadcast flag mandate will impose genuine and substantial costs on consumers and innovators. It would raise the cost of DTV devices while reducing the value that they represent to consumers. It would stifle innovation in DTV and general-purpose technologies. It would abridge the First Amendment freedoms of software authors. All of this, in the end, will impede, rather than encourage, the transition to


The EFF's contention that the broadcast flag would add complexity to electronic devices is true. For it to work, the government. would have to force manufacturers to add broadcast flag technology to their products. While the EFF usually opposes government intervention in the high tech industry on general principle, it is probably accurate that such a solution may not be in the best interests of manufacturers, whose innovation might be slowed by government fiats. And, as the EFF points out, non-compliant receivers that ignored the flag could be built easily. Once the program is "cracked" once, the EFF notes, it could be redistributed ad infinitum across the Internet.

The BPDG counters that the alternative--fully encrypted multimedia streams--will have too much overhead and render millions of current digital TV sets obsolete. While the broadcast flag is not 100% reliable, the BPDG says, it would deter all but the most determined thieves.

Could the broadcast flag work? It's possible that it might deter the casual copiers who, today, rip and bum copyrighted CDs with such ease. But it would do little to prevent the wholesale piracy so rampant in China and other countries beyond the reach of the RIAA. Further, it could impose the equivalent of an anti-piracy "tax" on new devices. While the EFF probably overstates the amount that such device intelligence would cost the consumer, the group's position to keep government regulation out of home electronics seems reasonable. Manufacturers should be able to develop a solution to the piracy problem without a government-mandated fix.

But the larger problem-- the same problem that has existed since the dawn of the Internet--is not going away. Do the rights of content creators trump the free-speech and fair-use rights of consumers? There's no question that those who pay for the creation of entertainment deserve protection from unauthorized distribution of their investment. But consumers, too, deserve the flexibility to re-use or re-format content that they pay for. At this point, neither side's needs are being met. The broadcast flag does little to change this fact.
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Author:Piven, Joshua
Publication:Computer Technology Review
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
Previous Article:Wireless could jump-start market recovery: but only if 3G gets its act together.
Next Article:To hack or not to hack. (First In/First Out).

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