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Net firms dodge online TV ban

Internet companies dodge a congressional bullet as lawmakers back off from rules that would have barred firms from broadcasting local TV programs online.

Internet companies dodged a congressional bullet late last week, as lawmakers backed off from rules that would have barred firms from broadcasting local TV programs online.

A last-minute legislative provision targeted companies like Yahoo and America Online, saying the firms would not be allowed to broadcast local programming--like sports events or news--over the Net. Cable programmers have long had access to these shows for their own broadcast services.

Net firms have yet to say whether they have such programming plans in the works, but argued they didn't want to see the option disappear without any kind of public debate.

But after an eleventh-hour lobbying effort, lawmakers agreed to take out the provision. That only means rules on the issue will have to be written later--but the Net companies say the situation's better than passing a blind restriction without consulting the parties involved.

"Congress preserved for itself the opportunity to give careful thought to this issue, and has preserved for consumers and companies involved the ability to be heard," Yahoo attorney John Scheibel said.

Any attempt to win the right to offer genuine local programming online will still run into considerable opposition, however. Cable companies and Hollywood copyright holders--the lobbying forces that had the original provision inserted into the satellite television bill--argue that online broadcasting would badly undermine existing copyright protections.

"The retransmission of television and radio programming by an online service based in Virginia is equally accessible to Internet users…anywhere else the Internet reaches," a coalition of cable TV companies, movie studios and major league sports associations wrote in a letter to legislators last week.

"What is delivered to each online recipient…can be downloaded, copied and redisseminated without limit."

Nor are regulators on the Net companies' side. The United States Copyright Office sent a letter to Congress in the middle of the debate that sided with the cable companies.

"It is my understanding that some services that wish to retransmit television programming over the Internet have asserted that they are entitled to do so [under existing law]," wrote Marybeth Peters, head of the Copyright Office. "I find this assertion to be without merit."

The fight over Net TV services had been part of a bill giving satellite TV carriers the ability to show local programming. Shorn of the Internet provisions, that measure passed its final legislative hurdle late Friday as part of the year's budget bill, which now awaits signature by President Clinton.