Flag's flying on Capitol Hill

Hollings, Tauzin, Dingell ask Powell to come up with rules for copy-protection technology

House and Senate leaders last week asked FCC Chairman Michael Powell to write up rules governing the "broadcast-flag" digital copy-protection technology. Such technology, the theory goes, will spur programmers to start delivering high-quality digital fare to TV audiences, who will start buying DTV sets, which will drive widespread adoption of the new TV system.

"Given the central importance of broadcast content protection in expediting the digital television transition, it is imperative that the FCC quickly arrive at a final resolution and implementation," wrote Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, to Powell. House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and ranking member John Dingell (D-Mich.) sent him a similar letter. Both letters emphasized allowing the views of all interested parties to be heard, which gave the flag's opponents some cover by allowing them to praise the spirit of a free and open exchange of ideas. The FCC has yet to respond to the request.

Both letters asked the FCC to work on rules for implementing the flag, which would mark digital programming so that it could not be widely copied and distributed over the Internet.

Andy Setos, chief engineer at News Corp., was instrumental in developing the technology; News Corp. and Walt Disney Corp. are big backers. "We strongly support the FCC process and are looking forward to working with the commission in resolving any outstanding issues that may impede the swift adoption of the broadcast-flag standard," said Peter Chernin, president and chief operating officer of News Corp.

The relevant industries have been working on a compromise agreement that would allow development of the flag. They have reached broad consensus but remain at odds over the details. The stalemate prompted the lawmakers to enlist the FCC.

There are still other players, however, that aren't sure the flag is the way to go. Not all consumer electronics manufacturers, for example, wholly embrace the idea, saying it may limit their ability to develop new technologies. And many software and technology companies are not enthusiastic. They say installing copy-protection technology in computers could significantly slow processing time, compromising one of their biggest selling points.

The movie studios and broadcast networks, however, are pressing to be able to raise the flag as soon as possible. They say that, without it or something like it, they will not be able to deliver digital content to over-the-air television for fear of widespread copying.

Consumer electronics manufacturers chose their words carefully, emphasizing that bringing the issue to the FCC should allow more consumer voices to be heard in the process. Some manufacturers felt that they were shut out of both the inter-industry discussion group on the broadcast flag and the industry roundtable discussions with Tauzin and other top House lawmakers.

"We are pleased these lawmakers have publicly recognized the important consumer interest in these FCC proceedings and have underscored the need for the commission to address the public interest in these issues," said Gary Shapiro, president of the Home Recording Rights Coalition, who also is president of the Consumer Electronics Association.

Though supporting introduction of DTV legislation, Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), ranking member on the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee, was following his own drummer last week. He, too, sent a letter to Powell about new DTV rules. Markey wants the commission to require that TV manufacturers include digital tuners in new sets.

Markey has been focused on that issue since 1997. He proposed a DTV-tuner amendment to the Balanced Budget Act of 1997, part of which legislated the return of broadcasters' analog spectrum to the federal government. The amendment was not adopted, but he has remained undeterred.

He also wants the FCC to finish reviews of cable operators' DTV carriage obligations and of cable-equipment compatibility and interoperability with digital TVs. He asked for a response from the FCC by Aug. 1.