The U.S. Federal Communications Commission stepped into the debate over digital copyright protection on Thursday. At its monthly meeting, regulators unanimously agreed to open formal discussion of the so-called “broadcast flag,” a technology designed to prevent piracy of digital signals.
The entertainment industry has pushed for the broadcast flag, saying that piracy concerns have kept them from creating content for next-generation devices.
“By today’s actions we wade into some raging waters,” says Chair Michael Powell, who highlighted the need to strike a balance between the rights of copyright holders and those of consumers. “I am confident that government and the commission will be able to find that balance.”
The decision represents new government pressure for industry groups to create a system on their own for digital rights management. These groups are already facing the threat of legislation from members of the House and Senate.
Last month, key legislators urged the FCC to also take up the issue.
Although the FCC could decide not to intervene, Commissioner Michael Copps says this decision should “make clear to various industry stakeholders that they have only a small window to reach agreement … or they will face a solution imposed on them in the near-term future.”
Interested parties have until the end of October to file comments with the commission, a deadline that is short even by the FCC’s standards, says Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology.
“I think the FCC actually moved too quickly,” he says.
Godwin says his group would have preferred that the FCC let Congress handle the issue because it is more directly accountable to the public.
A broadcast flag is a sequence of digital bits that could tell electronic devices not to play pirated content. With the technology, consumers could make copies for their own use but would be prevented from distributing copyrighted material over the Internet.
Critics — including consumer groups and technology companies — argue that the standard could stifle innovation and prevent users from making fair-use copies.
“We think the broadcast flag is really bad stuff,” says Cory Doctorow, outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Our disappointment was that the FCC didn’t say ‘This is a ridiculous idea, let’s not do it.'”
The Commission is seeking comment on a variety of topics, including whether it even has the jurisdiction to regulate broadcast flag technology. Former FCC Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth said last month that the commission’s jurisdiction would be subject to debate.
But Copps argues that the agency’s jurisdiction is clear, and says he worries that debating the issue of jurisdiction could cost the agency “precious additional time.”
Privacy groups say they were pleased that the FCC did not give any preferential treatment to the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group, a standards-setting organization that in June issued a report on how a broadcast flag should be designed and implemented.
The BPDG report was criticized by consumer groups and some technology companies, which complained that they had no role in its creation. And although the BPDG reached something of a consensus on the broadcast flag, opponents still dispute how that flag should be used.
The FCC used the BPDG report as an information source before its current action, but will treat the report like any other, says W. Kenneth Ferree, the FCC’s media bureau chief.
Will Rodger, director of public policy with the Computer and Communications Industry Association, calls BPDG a “kangaroo court” that was dominated by Hollywood. He warns that its current suggestions would give Hollywood virtual “veto power” over new technologies and would limit legitimate copying of digital broadcasts.
The Motion Picture Association stands behind the standards as good for consumers and welcomes FCC involvement. “We are pleased that the commission is expeditiously addressing this issue,” says spokesperson Rich Taylor.
Although the current discussion focuses on the broadcast flag only, and not other piracy concerns like peer-to-peer networks, any FCC action might set a precedent for its involvement in digital rights issues, consumer groups say.