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EFF: Signs are NBC triggered block of 'American Gladiator'

Electronic Frontier Foundation has begun investigating the causes of a block of two NBC shows. The network couldn't have done it without nod from Microsoft and other hardware and software companies.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has begun investigating why Microsoft Vista Media Centers were blocked from recording two NBC Universal shows Monday night.

The group, which advocates for Internet users, said indications are that NBC sent a "broadcast flag" that triggered the block. But Danny O'Brien, EFF's international outreach coordinator, said the block couldn't have occurred unless hardware and software makers honored the network's request to prevent users from recording the shows. It appears Microsoft may have obeyed NBC Universal's broadcast flag.

NBC Universal and Microsoft said they need time to look into the matter.

The incident began when several dozen users of Vista Media Centers from across the country gathered online at a message board, The Green Button, to complain about being prevented from recording NBC shows American Gladiator and Medium. As they tried to record, a prompt informed them that the copyright holder prohibited recording.

Initially, the problem seemed to affect only users of Vista Media Centers who were recording from digital cable. Since then, there has been a report that a user of a Toshiba-made digital video recorder suffered the problem. In addition, O'Brien said Thursday that he has also interviewed someone who was blocked and was recording over-the-air digital.

O'Brien said he spoke to a Vista user who said he was trying to record Raleigh, N.C.'s HDTV channel WNCN-DT1 when the prompt appeared.

"(He) was attempting to record the program using Silicon Dust's HDHomeRun external tuner," O'Brien said in an e-mail. "(This) decodes the digital TV signal, and sends it over Ethernet to many digital TV receivers, such as MythTV or Windows Media Center. As Silicon Dust says on its Web site, their decoder merely passes on the data stream, and does not interpret the broadcast flag field itself."

O'Brien is concerned that Microsoft could have obeyed the broadcast flag, "despite the successful work of thousands of users to defend Microsoft's right to innovate and our right to fair use."

What he's referring to, of course, was the FCC's attempt to make software and hardware makers obey broadcast flags. The courts overturned the requirement, and now software and hardware makers are free to honor the flag or not.

O'Brien said the EFF is looking into the matter because it believes consumers should know before buying a DVR or recording system like Microsoft's Media Center whether they will help block shows.