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Flag Burning

Nope. It’s not what you think. One of these days, maybe, but not today.

This is about something called the “broadcast flag,” a deceptively innocuous-sounding thing that is Big Media’s latest attempt to reach into your homes and control what you do. The concept of the broadcast flag has been kicking around the FCC, the courts, and Congress for a few years now, and it’s getting hot right now.

What this is about is that Big Media would like to be able to tag high-quality digital radio and television programs with a marker that would trigger devices in your home receiver to prevent home recording of the programs. Home recording would be prevented because the music, movie, and television industries would also control how radio and television receivers are made and sold, to ensure that people can no longer get the rather basic and currently readily available technology that allows them to grab stuff off the air.

Insane, right? It’s in the air so you can grab it, right? This is how it’s always been, right?

Well, of course. But this isn’t how the Big Media companies see it. To them, it’s stealing, just like cassette recorders, videocassette recorders, and Tivos were all burglars’ tools, before the courts stepped in and decided they weren’t. But every time a new technology comes along that allows the storage or transfer of information, Big Media’s there to make sure that it doesn’t become available without a fight. And this time, Big Media not only is trying to block the public’s use of new technologies: If this thing goes through, the public will lose its historical right to use, reuse, copy and transfer media programs that it has always been able to access off of the airwaves. All we’ll be able to do is watch and listen when the bosses say it’s OK to watch and listen.

A few years ago, Bush’s FCC—which, not surprisingly, sees its role as making the world more comfortable for its corporate overlords and protecting the American public from itself by censoring what we can see and hear—ruled that all new television sets be compatible with broadcast-flag protections. In other words, all new TVs would be set up so you wouldn’t be able to record much of what was on TV, and what you could record you wouldn’t be able to copy or share. The movie and TV studios told the FCC that without these controls they would withhold most programming, and the FCC, like a good lapdog, bought that ridiculous threat, and caved, passing regulations, with the force of law, that would have mandated strict “content control” on all televisions sold in the U.S.

Fortunately, the courts stepped in and ruled that the FCC has absolutely no authority to control what people do with programs once those programs are broadcast into people’s homes.

Undaunted, and like the relentless zombies in Night of the Living Dead, the studios are now assaulting Congress to achieve by legislation what they’ve already sleazed past the FCC. It’s not clear whether Congress will pick this up this year or next, but the Big Push is on, the legislation is being written (by industry lawyers, of course), and the discreet contributions to the right reelection campaigns and PACs are being made. Expect a bill to be introduced soon, along with a flurry of “studies” and planted “news reports” uncovering the grim horror of people doing what they want with movies and TV shows. It’s kind of funny; issues like this aren’t really red-state/blue-state issues, but it always seems to be Republicans who end up carrying the entertainment industry’s water on stuff like this. Can’t imagine why that would be. Ka-ching!

And the same thing is going on with digital radio. Soon, much of the radio you hear, at least on new radios, will be based on digital transmissions, which have begun being broadcast throughout the country, and digital radio eventually will completely replace the old AM-FM signals. The recording industry is banging on the FCC to similarly outlaw recording features that could easily be incorporated into digital radios, and I’d imagine they’re probably going after Congress, too, given the treatment that the FCC’s attempts to control television received in the courts.

Of course, while the industry wants the recording functions on your television and radio systems to be disabled, there shouldn’t be a problem with TVs and radios having a big red button on them that you can push whenever you want to buy a copy of whatever’s playing at the moment.

That’s what this is all about. Big Media, studios, record companies, and broadcasters have always hated, despised, your ability to grab what’s out there and replay it, remix it, move it around to your car, or share it with your friends. And they are very, very keen on taking that right away from you. And they will raise all of the usual arguments about the financial incentive to create, the intellectual property rights of creators, and the dark evil motives of millions of normal people who (a) like music and TV, and (b) have access to the . . . (insert frightening music here) . . . the Internet! All of us are criminals, and our conduct needs correction.

But they can only do this, of course, if we let them do it. Let’s not.

—Paul Rapp

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