Pols push FCC for safe sets

Copy-protection for computers, TVs sought

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers on Monday ordered the FCC to mandate technology preventing digital TV from being hooked up to the Internet and made vulnerable to piracy.

The communique marked a major victory for Hollywood and other sectors dependent upon copyrighted works that watched as the music biz was ravaged by the likes of Napster.

In a show of unity, top pols in both houses of Congress simultaneously sent letters to Federal Communications Commission chair Michael Powell, who is expected to move quickly in taking up the issue. Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-S.C.) signed one letter, Reps. W.J. “Billy” Tauzin (R-La.) and John Dingell (D-Mich.) the other.

Should the FCC follow the instruction, new computers and TV equipment would be equipped with copy-protection technology.

Technology at issue is known as a broadcast “flag,” which has been promoted in recent months by the likes of Disney topper Michael Eisner and News Corp. chief Peter Chernin. Motion Picture Assn. of America prexy-CEO Jack Valenti — repping the major studios — and National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy-CEO Eddie Fritts have been lobbying heavily for it.

Without the flag, broadcasters say they won’t be able to secure high-quality programming once the switch to digital is complete, since content providers do not want to risk that their product will be pirated on the Internet. (There already is a certain amount of copy protection when it comes to cable nets and satellite TV.)

“This reluctance has real and adverse consequences for the digital television transition, for consumers and for the broadcast industry,” Hollings wrote to Powell.

Hollywood studios, computer makers and consumer electronics manufacturers have made substantial progress in agreeing to the flag technology, but final consensus remains elusive. The broadcast flag is the least controversial element of the copy protection technology sought by the entertainment biz.

Tech sector kicks

In general, the tech sector has questioned whether Hollywood should be allowed to define the boundaries of computer technology and the Internet. Also, it insists that consumers shouldn’t be restricted in making copies of free, terrestrial TV.

When writing to Powell, the lawmakers were careful to commend computer makers and consumer electronics manufacturers for playing ball.

“As the (FCC) implements the broadcast flag solution, it is essential that the views of all interested parties, including high-tech and consumer groups, be afforded careful review and consideration,” Tauzin and Dingell said.

“Any solution must strike an appropriate balance between the need to protect digital content from piracy while, at the same time, continuing to stimulate technological innovation and maintain reasonable consumer expectations,” the Capitol Hill duo wrote.

The MPAA and NAB have assured pols that consumers will still be able to make copies of digital broadcast programming for home use.

The Consumer Electronics Assn. could not be reached for comment regarding the lawmakers’ letters to the FCC. The CEA has come under fire from the Bush administration in recent days for resisting Powell’s voluntary call to begin equipping TV sets with digital tuners, beginning in January on a staggered basis.

Pols praised

Valenti and Fritts had nothing but praise for Tauzin, Dingell and Hollings.

“Their leadership, as well as chairman Powell’s, will make sure that consumers will continue to receive high-quality, free over-the-air programming in the digital world,” Valenti said.

Fritts said the efforts of the solons in helping to “facilitate this national goal” were greatly appreciated.

The lawmakers are adamant that the FCC has the authority to step in and craft regulations governing the scope and breadth of the broadcast flag.

The FCC had no comment as to when it may begin the process of defining the flag.

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