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Legislator Wants Broadcast Flag Issues Resolved By July 15

11 Jun, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

Facing a July 15 deadline to craft a plan to protect digital TV (DTV) content with broadcast flags, the Motion Picture Association (MPA) paints a picture of harmonious negotiations, but the group's most vocal dissenter is calling for congressional intervention to repair what critics call a flawed process.

The co-chairmen of the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG) reported on the agreement on the broadcast flag descriptor in a written report to House Commerce Committee Chairman Billy Tauzin (R-La.) and at a congressional roundtable on digital TV, claiming support is “near unanimous” among studio and hardware manufacturer interests.

“Make no mistake. The final report of the BPDG demonstrates that there is substantial agreement between the consumer electronics, information technology and content communities,” said MPA president and CEO Jack Valenti. “The news delivered to Chairman Tauzin confirms that it is possible for a disparate group of people to come together in a good faith discussion to produce positive results for all.”

Many in the group agreed on a scheme to code digital flags or watermarks into the digital content for broadcast.

“Implementation of this broadcast flag will permit digital TV stations to obtain high value content and assure consumers a continued source of attractive, free, over-the-air programming without limiting the consumer's ability to make home copies,” Valenti said.

But Philips Consumer Electronics North America president and CEO Lawrence J. Blanford is calling for a new public policy forum on digital content issues.

Among his objections is a concern that the proposed flag technology would make the present generation of DVD and DVD-RW players obsolete. The Consumer Electronics Association has echoed that concern.

Philips, which has defended consumers' rights to copy and download programming, contends the agreement reached in near-impenetrable industry sessions to discuss the issue would create unfair marketplace advantage for a small number of companies.

"The report is the result of a self-interested effort by narrow interests to adopt a preconceived plan for content protection," Blanford said. "It threatens the rights of consumers to enjoy movies and other content in their own homes and it attempts to control the rules relating to 'authorized' content technologies that would enable some companies to favor their products over those of competitors.”

The BPDG, a subgroup of the Copy Protection Technical Working Group (CPTWG), began its discussions after Sen. Ernest Hollings issued an ultimatum for content providers and hardware makers to come up with a way to protect digital content like movies from piracy.

But Blanford and other critics have blasted the group for barring media representatives from its monthly meetings and using a high ($100 to $120 per person per day) meal charge to prevent some interested parties from attending.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a Bay Area-based digital rights group, has criticized the BPDG for working in secret to cut backroom deals that will benefit participant companies at consumers' expense.

“It should come as no surprise that the chief BPDG participants happen to have proprietary interests in BPDG's list of ‘approved' technologies, while the technologies of their competitors (including future innovators) have been excluded,” said an EFF statement.

“Individuals, companies and groups of companies were free to meet separately to form and negotiate proposals and present those to the full BPDG,” the BPDG's report responds. “This may have given the unintended appearance that BPDG was not fully transparent and some parties might have felt ‘excluded' from particular discussions.” A footnote in the report also notes the group excluded the press because “it was felt such participation would have a chilling effect on the discussions.”

If Congress backs the group's plan, EFF contends, it will not only make the companies rich, it will slow digital TV adoption that already missed a federally mandated deadline last month by putting decisions about DTV-interoperable device price and features into the hands of the technology's staunchest opponents. Further, it does little to address unauthorized Internet distribution of the materials it purports to protect – the very issue that studios and TV networks cite as the barrier to DTV. EFF sent a letter to Tauzin today, requesting consumer participation in the debate.

Other technology and consumer groups also oppose the plan, among them Digital Consumer.org, a coalition of digital entertainment and venture capital executives.

That group, launched earlier this year, claims it gained 33,000 members in its first five weeks and is urging lawmakers to back its six-point “consumer technology bill of Rights” to protect consumers' rights to record entertainment and shift the time, place or device they use to consume it.

Following his invitation-on;y roundtable early this month, Tauzin askedthe participants to resolve their differences by July 15.

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