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FCC to look at digital radio piracy?

Consumer groups say regulators are planning an unexpected focus on content protection for new radio services.

Federal regulators appear to be making a surprise move toward proposing new content protection rules for digital broadcast radio, consumer groups said Wednesday.

In a joint letter to the Federal Communications Commission, Consumers Union and Public Knowledge asked regulators to avoid issuing new antipiracy proposals for the nascent medium before holding a strict review of technical costs and benefits.

The two groups said the letter was triggered by private information indicating the FCC was close to releasing a proposal or starting an inquiry on the issue, possibly as early as Thursday. The technology proposal would be similar to the "broadcast flag" already instituted for video, a plan that has not yet been seriously considered for digital audio, the groups said.

We "urge that the commission avoid a rush to judgment in this matter," the groups wrote. "There are neither pressing technological issues nor spectrum-related issues that require the commission's immediate action to protect digital radio content."

In comparison to other mediums, digital radio is still young enough to have barely triggered the kind of antipiracy debates already seen with the Internet and digital TV. But few believe that controversies surrounding the technology are far-off.

Digital radio, which is already beginning to broadcast in a few places around the world, turns over-the-air radio signals from analog into digital broadcasts. Its receivers better resemble computers than they do traditional radio.

Because the content is digitized, and potentially could be played on radios with processors and hard drives, people predict it will offer the ability to record CD-quality sound from airwaves or set up tracking and archiving capabilities much like TiVo. Consumers could listen for and save particular bits of music, for example.

That worries record companies, which foresee another way for consumers to get music for free, rather than purchasing CDs or songs from online stores like Apple Computer's iTunes. They suggested ideas like the audio broadcast flag in an FCC informational roundtable held earlier this year, but found little support from consumer groups or consumer electronics device makers. Most in the industry expected the issue to drop.

A Recording Industry Association of America representative had no immediate comment on the FCC's unconfirmed plans or the consumer groups' letter. A representative for the FCC could not immediately be reached for comment.

The video broadcast flag, on which an audio proposal might be based, was approved by the FCC late last year. It creates new rules that would let digital TV broadcasts include bits of data indicating whether a program could be copied and sent over the Internet. Computers and consumer electronics devices must read and obey this bit of information in order to receive digital TV signals.