Tech tangle over new telecom bill

Panel debates on antipiracy technology

Can content protection and technological innovation co-exist?

The House Energy & Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Telecommunications & the Internet addressed that very question Tuesday, and the answer is probably not, if the hearing is any indication.

The Senate Commerce Committee is debating a massive telecom bill that will authorize antipiracy technology known as broadcast flag (for digital video content) and audio flag (for HD radio). The House hearing solicited testimony on whether either flag will impinge on future technological development, and the discussion rapidly expanded to include possible negative impacts.

Fritz Attaway, exec VP for the Motion Picture Assn. of America, said if a broadcast flag is not mandated, Hollywood would favor cable and satellite TV over broadcasters as secondary markets for films. Unlike broadcast, cable and satellite are able to protect high-quality content from mass copying and redistribution. The mandate would require that broadcast technology be able to mark, or flag, content for similar protection.

But Gigi Sohn, president of the public interest group Public Knowledge, said a broadcast flag would do more than just prevent indiscriminate redistribution of content. “It will also prohibit discriminate redistribution,” she said. It also will force consumers to pay more for televisions, which will have to contain the flag technology, she added.

“The content industry reacts to every new technology with fear, apprehension and cries for government intervention,” said Gary Shapiro, prexy-chief of the Consumer Electronics Assn. “Their track record is unbroken: They opposed the player piano, FM radio, television, the cassette recorder, the VCR, the MP3 player and the TiVo.”

Discourse wasn’t any more agreeable on the subject of a flag for HD radio content. Radio satcasters Sirius and XM market iPod-like devices that can record content as it is being transmitted. Recording Industry Assn. of American topper Mitch Bainwol repeatedly referred to the devices as instruments of “aggregation” that allow users to “cherry-pick” songs to build a private music library without compensating artists or labels.

Pressed to distinguish between these devices and simply taping songs from FM radio — a legal act — Bainwol said, “With these devices, you can tape without listening. That’s not old-fashioned listening to the radio. You’ve changed the fundamental nature of radio.”

HD digital transmissions, he said, give consumers a “pristine” copy at the expense of the recording industry. “What you call personal use is actually replicating a sale that we’re not paying for,” Bainwol said.

Some subcommittee members and other witnesses disputed Bainwol’s statements, noting TiVo, a legal device, does many of the same things Bainwol argued against. Moreover, Andrew Levin, exec VP for Clear Channel Communications, and Ruth Ziegler, general counsel for Sirius, said Bainwol was exaggerating the abilities of the devices.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce Committee resumed Tuesday the mark-up of the telecommunications reform bill, which at one time faced a possible record-setting number of amendments — more than 250 — that committee members wanted to attach. Committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has consolidated some, while members have withdrawn others, but the total still looms near 100.

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