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Will Digital Protection Spoil Home Entertainment?

25 Apr, 2002 By: Holly J. Wagner

A working group of studio moguls and hardware makers organized to agree on how to protect broadcast digital TV signals from Internet piracy is abusing the process to broker back-room deals that will benefit them and harm consumers, the chief of a major DVD maker told Congress today.

“Private industry should be given a chance to reach a consensus,” said Lawrence J. Blanford, president and CEO of Philips Consumer Electronics North America, “but the process should be cleansed by the sunlight of government. Further discussion should be held in an open forum, with the involvement of those who are entrusted with the development of public policy.”

He warned the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet that if certain Hollywood studios get their way, anger millions of consumers by forcing them to replace perfectly good DVD players to record and watch broadcast programming.

Blanford accused certain studios and a group of hardware companies known as 5C of devising a plan for controlling the content of digital broadcast TV that raises serious issues of cost, complexity, reliability and confusion for consumers.

“This proposal,” he said, “threatens the Fair Use rights of the consumer and introduces unnecessary levels of complexity and costs in consumer devices.”

At issue is a technology to protect the content of digital TV against unauthorized retransmissions over the Internet. Philips wholeheartedly supports the goal but believes that it must be achieved in a way that protects the Fair Use rights of consumers to the content that they enjoy through their TVs, DVDs and other recording devices.

Meetings of the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG), -the industry working group pressing the plan, have been roundly criticized for their secrecy. Although the $100-a-plate gatherings at the LAX Renaissance hotel are billed as open, some members of the press have reportedly been turned away. Critics also say the meetings are harder to get into than a Beverly Hills rave and frequently break up after a couple of hours, with participants negotiating one on one in the halls for hours.

“This issue will affect consumers, studios, consumer electronics and information technology companies for years to come,” Blanford said. “We need an approach that will be fair to everyone.”

A group of companies within the BPDG, Blanford charged, is pressing an approach through which all manufacturers of TVs, DVDs and other devices will have to sign up for an overly broad, burdensome and private license, which will govern the encryption technologies that must be in these devices and the process to enforce copyright protection. This small group of companies will mandate the technologies, control the rules that govern the technologies, and change those rules whenever they desire.

Such a decision should include input from the public, consumers, licensees and public officials the present approach shuts out of its implementation.

“In short, private interests are taking control of the balance between consumer rights and commercial interests and, as a result, establishing public policy,” Blanford said. “Philips cannot, and will not, accept that. We believe other companies will not accept that. Congress should not accept it either.”

Blanford called on Congress to “reassert its role in this critical public-private partnership by providing an appropriate, public forum to continue these industry discussions and to foster workable solutions on a timely basis.”

Philips will offer related Philips technologies to all comers, “under open, fair and easily available terms,” he said. He also called on other companies to join this discussion to assure that ``we get this right.''

The bill would threaten consumers' control over what they see and record, Blanford said, because the technology that supports the emerging plan has the potential to remotely disable a device that is recording a movie or other program in a consumer's home.

In essence, through their private contractual relationships, this small group of studios and companies would control digital TV technology and how people use their TVs, DVDs, and other devices in the privacy of their homes.

“The current direction is not in the interest of sound public policy, is not in the interest of the affected industries and is certainly not in the interest of the consumer,” Blanford said.

He warned that Philips, which has been participating in the BPDG meetings, has “lost all confidence” that the group will achieve consensus, “or that it will allow for serious consideration or adoption of technology solutions of equal merit presented by other interested parties,” Blanford said.

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