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Microsoft confirms Windows adheres to broadcast flag

Broadcasters have Microsoft's cooperation in preventing consumers from skipping past commercials. How many other hardware or software makers honor the flags?

Microsoft has acknowledged that Windows Media Centers will block users from recording TV shows at the request of a broadcaster.

"Microsoft included technologies in Windows based on rules set forth by the (Federal Communications Commission)," a Microsoft spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail to CNET "As part of these regulations, Windows Media Center fully adheres to the flags used by broadcasters and content owners to determine how their content is distributed and consumed."

The software company was responding to questions about why some users of Windows Vista Media Center were prevented from recording NBC Universal TV shows, American Gladiator and Medium on Monday night.

The "rules," in which the spokeswoman is apparently referring to are those proposed by the FCC, which would require software and hardware makers honor "broadcast flags." The flags are code that broadcasters can insert into the data stream of TV shows that typically require restrictions on the recording of the shows. What she didn't say is that the "rules" aren't rules at all.

The courts struck down the FCC's proposal in 2005, saying the regulator lacked the authority to tell electronics makers how to interpret the signals they receive. Since then, Microsoft and other manufacturers have retained the option of whether to honor the flags.

News that the world's largest software maker has voluntarily agreed to help broadcasters control the recording of their shows is bound to outrage enthusiasts of digital video recorders, as it represents the biggest threat to the practice known as time shifting since the FCC's attempt to require flag adherence.

"Microsoft has put the requirements of broadcasters above what consumers want," said Danny O'Brien, a staffer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group for Internet users that is looking into Monday's block. "They've imposed restrictions way beyond what the law requires. Customers need to know who Microsoft is listening to and how that affects their equipment. Right now, the only way customers know what Microsoft has agreed to is when the technology they've bought suddenly stops working. Microsoft needs to come clean and tell its customers what deals it has made."

The question of whether NBC Universal issued a flag for American Gladiator has yet to be answered. The network said last week that it needed time to look into the matter. Microsoft's spokeswoman did not offer any information on whether NBC Universal activated a flag. The software company did, however, inform us that accidents do happen.

"In some cases content may be incorrectly flagged in the actual broadcast, which may affect the consumer's TV experience," Microsoft's spokeswoman wrote. "The success of the entire distribution chain is dependent on all involved maintaining the necessary checks and quality control so that coding is correctly applied thereby avoiding any unexpected outcome."