Congress divided on broadcast flag plan

Some politicians say a new law is needed to prevent digital TV piracy. Others aren't so sure.

WASHINGTON--A plan in Congress to revive the "broadcast flag," a controversial form of copy-prevention technology for digital TV broadcasts, drew a mixed response from politicians on Thursday.

At a hearing convened by a U.S. House of Representatives panel, some committee members appeared to endorse the broadcast flag proposal, while others said it was premature.

"I'm not quite sold on the idea yet," said Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat and one of Congress' more prominent supporters of "fair use" rights.

Boucher said he understood the "logic" behind the flag but feared the current proposals would be unduly restrictive. He said he saw no reason why news and public affairs programs, for instance, needed to be "flagged."

But Rep. Howard Berman, a high-ranking California Democrat, said he was concerned over "the fact that mass indiscriminate distribution of unauthorized copies is still possible" and said Congress must prevent "abusive use of technology."

No legislation has been introduced yet, but draft proposals have been circulating this week.

Earlier this year, a federal court threw out Federal Communications Commission regulations mandating the so-called flag, a device intended to prevent television viewers from freely copying digital broadcasts and reusing them. The entertainment industry has argued that without adequate safeguards, the increasing shift to digital television broadcasts will leak copyright content to the Net and create new avenues for piracy.

One of the proposals asks Congress to authorize the FCC to reinstate the video broadcast flag, while the second proposes a new broadcast flag for digital radio. The third calls for plugging a so-called "analog hole"--that is, outlawing consumer devices designed to convert copy-protected digital material to analog format, strip the copy protections, and then shift it back to digital format.

"We want a free marketplace, not a black marketplace," said

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, a California Democrat, said that "we should do what we can to support content owners from being ripped off." But she said that protection should not come at the expense of limiting the rights of consumers or impeding the growth of new technology.

By the end of the hearing, members of the panel appeared to be divided on what course they will take.

Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican, suggested it was the FCC's "core responsibility" to set technological standards with regard to what happens over the airwaves. Twenty members of Congress dispatched a letter in September calling for speedy reinstatement of at least the television broadcast flag, though no politician offered an outright endorsement at Thursday's hearing.

"There are far better alternatives to the heavy-handed technology mandates proposed today," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, the digital rights group that brought the case against the FCC's broadcast flag rules. "They include a multipronged approach of consumer education, enforcement of copyright laws and use of technological tools developed in the marketplace."

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