IT critical of digital TV rules

A major information technology trade group asks regulators to revise a proposal aimed at preventing digital TV signals from being copied over the Net.

Jim Hu Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Jim Hu
covers home broadband services and the Net's portal giants.
Jim Hu
3 min read
Signaling Silicon Valley's growing rift with Hollywood over digital media, an information technology trade group has asked regulators to revise a proposal to prevent digital television from being copied over the Net.

The IT Coalition told the Federal Communications Commission late Friday that device makers should not bear the main burden of protecting TV content as the industry switches from analog to digital broadcasts. Rather than force equipment makers to include technology for scrambling signals on the receiving end, as the FCC's plan currently suggests, broadcasters should be required to scramble signals before they're sent, the group argued.

"If the FCC thinks it's necessary to do, the better solution is to encrypt at the source," said James M. Burger, an attorney for Dow Lohnes & Albertson, a law firm that represents the IT Coalition, a group with members including Microsoft, Apple Computer, Dell Computer, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and Intel.

Remarks from the IT Coalition on Friday came in response to an FCC deadline for public comments on the digital TV plan. A wide coalition of broadcasters and entertainment industry professionals, including the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), ABC, CBS, Fox Broadcasting, the National Association of Broadcasters, and the Screen Actors Guild, also submitted comments Friday in a joint filing.

The debate over copy-protection schemes for digital television is just one flash point in a larger conflict between the entertainment and technology industries over digital media.

Movie studios and broadcast networks fear their ownership of creative works will be compromised in an age where people can find virtually any song through peer-to-peer networks such as Morpheus and Kazaa. Hollywood does not want to see a repeat of the music industry's file-swapping woes on its own turf, and they've turned to lawmakers and regulators to mandate antipiracy standards.

That's led to a backlash from technology companies, some of which have criticized Hollywood for seeking to implement regulations that they believe will hurt consumer adoption of digital media in the long run.

The FCC's digital television proposals have sparked a heated debate between the entertainment, consumer-electronics and PC industries over the future of digital programming.

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Digital broadcasts allow people with digital TV sets to watch programs with greater audio and video quality than current analog broadcasts. TV broadcasters are required to switch over to digital systems under federal law, although exemptions and deadline extensions mean the process could take years.

The FCC digital TV copy-protection proposal requires all manufacturers of digital TV receivers, namely consumer-electronics and PC companies, to encrypt digital signals transmitted by television broadcasters. The encryption technology would prevent people from recording movies and TV shows and then distributing them over the Internet for others to download. Broadcasters would be required to implant a marker, called a "broadcast flag," into their digital transmissions to tell receivers it's a signal that must be encrypted.

The entertainment industry played a significant role in crafting these rules and has rallied bipartisan support for the broadcast flag proposal from influential members of Congress. Top members of the House and Senate have pressed FCC Chairman Michael Powell to implement the plan.

The movie studios, which have been the loudest voice in this debate, oppose requiring broadcasters to encrypt digital signals. They argue that broadcast encryption could prevent current digital TV owners from receiving digital signals, causing a legacy problem. More significantly, encrypting from the broadcast side would hamper the release of digital broadcasting.

A representative for the MPAA said the IT Coalition's suggested approach of encrypting digital TV signals at the source would unnecessarily complicate the future of free network television.

"That would be a way of doing this, but policy implications are enormous," said Fritz Attaway, executive vice president of the MPAA. "Our system of broadcasting is based on the idea of free access, and to impose conditional access on what the public regards as free broadcasting would be a difficult sell."