FCC is taking wrong turn on digital media

Public-interest advocate Gigi Sohn says that the FCC is perilously close to knuckling under to a powerplay that will limit the way consumers can use their digital media.

4 min read
Forty years ago, there was a scary TV show called "The Outer Limits."

The show started with the narrator's words: "We can reduce the focus to a soft blur, or sharpen it to crystal clarity. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear."

Who knew that today the Federal Communications Commission would be trying to turn that sci-fi introduction into a regulatory reality? Not only is the commission considering rules that would result in the digital television picture from reaching its full, sparkling potential, but the FCC also is considering defining where, when and with what rights consumers can use digital media.

There are two separate, but related, issues that the FCC is considering. What they have in common is that they are generated by the fear, yet again, by the "content community"--principally the movie industry--that consumers will have too much say in how and when and where we can have access to digital TV or cable.

It's hard to believe, but one issue is whether the broadcasters should be able to make their picture quality more fuzzy as a means of limiting the distribution of programming, say over the Internet. The technical term is "down-resolution," or "down-rezzing."

In an FCC proceeding to set the rules for allowing consumers to see digital cable without a cable box, Public Knowledge opposed any use of down-rezzing. The content industry wants to aim this feature at consumers who want to record digital programming. There's no clear reason for down-rezzing, except that the content companies want to transform the consumer electronics industry into something that's more controllable.

The content companies want to transform the consumer electronics industry into something that's more controllable.
Overlooked by the proponents of down-rezzing is the obvious question: Why would anyone pay thousands of dollars more to buy a TV set that sometimes could have a picture scarcely better than the one they already have? Also overlooked is the irony that the FCC years ago started to create the digital television service in a bid to provide better picture quality and service than currently exists.

While the FCC has put some limits on how down-rezzing could be used, the fact that it's still being considered in some context at all contradicts the commission's entire philosophy to date. Broadcasters were given billions of dollars worth of spectrum for the conversion to digital TV, particularly outrageous given the fact that consumers are faced with the prospect of buying new digital TV sets.

At the same time that the FCC is considering whether to make your TV picture worse, it's also considering another program--the Personal Digital Network Environment (PDNE), which would set boundaries on where consumers can view and use the digital programming that comes into their homes.

Consumers seem intent on having the right to use digital TV and other content wherever they want, despite what the big media companies would like. As part of FCC proceedings on the "broadcast flag," which is supposed to prevent copying and redistribution of digital TV by embedding a warning flag in the signal, the commission recognized that in some cases, the Internet could legitimately be used by consumers to move programming they might want to use other than in front of the TV.

The FCC proposed the PDNE as the solution--a boundary, within which consumers could shift their digital content. The agency suggested that the PDNE could be thought of as a zone, "within which consumers could freely redistribute digital broadcast television content." The problem is that there really is no way that such a zone could be defined, and it would be silly, as well as wrong, to try to do so.

As our technology, particularly wireless technology, advances, a PDNE could expand until it's either meaningless or would become the most all-encompassing regulation ever suggested. Think about it, the next time you stop into a coffee shop that has wireless Internet access or board an airplane that has Internet connections.

The PDNE "zone" could be everywhere--from the office in your home to 30,000 feet in the air, as you fly across the country. However, that may be what the content providers have been thinking, as they try to put even more restrictions on what you can do with material you want to see, as it is distributed over cable or through the air. Whatever they were thinking, the idea that the FCC, at the behest of the big-media lobby, should control our technology--and deprive consumers of their rights--is just wrong.

There was one other part to that "Outer Limits" introduction. It started out by saying, "There is nothing wrong with your television set." If the FCC and the content community get their way, there will be.