The Internet Heist (Part II)
From broadcast flags to the analog hole
Last week, I began the story of the Broadcast Flag, a law that would make it illegal to build a general-purpose computer unless it conformed to a set of privately negotiated restrictions. The law had been promised by Billy Tauzin, then a lavishly corrupt Congressman, and its contours were being hammered out in an inter-industry body called the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG), convened by the MPAA and attended by movie studios, TV studios, broadcasters, consumer electronics companies, and PC companies.
All of this was in the name of hastening America’s “digital TV transition,” the difficult business of convincing Americans to replace their old analog TVs (and VCRs and other peripherals) with new digital versions. The transition was particularly politically fraught because broadcast TV watchers were overwhelmingly drawn from the cohort of older Americans, who are also the country’s most avid voters, and who are also notoriously uninterested in keeping up with the latest gadgets.
Further complicating matters: US electromagnetic spectrum rules prohibit scrambling over-the-air broadcasts. The movie studios swore that they would not permit their catalogs to be aired unless some way to “protect” them was found (they carefully did not promise that they would ever authorize broadcasts of movies, even if “protection” was delivered).
Hence, the Broadcast Flag: a rule that said that any device capable of tuning or demodulating a digital TV signal would have to incorporate restrictions codified by the BPDG. These rules would govern how files could be written and retrieved by the system, and what kind of data and audiovisual outputs could be accessed under which conditions. Digital TV programming would be restricted to digital outputs that had DRM on them.
Which DRM? Well, that was the point, really. The BPDG’s notional task was to define the technical characteristics of this mandatory DRM. Hence the presence of the CE and tech companies: each was there to make sure that whatever technical specifications the group came up with wouldn’t exclude their own proprietary DRM.