In the future, the Motion Picture Association of America will control your television set. Every TV sold in the United States will come equipped with an electronic circuit that will search incoming TV programs for a tiny electronic “flag.” The MPAA’s members will control this flag, putting it into broadcast movies and television shows as they see fit. If the flag is present, your TV will go into a special high-security mode and lock down its high-quality digital outputs. If you want to record a flagged program, you’ll have to do so on analog tape or on a special low-resolution DVD. Any recording will be limited to analog-quality sound. This security measure is not designed to protect the television from viruses or computer hackers-it’s designed to protect TV programs from you.This future arrives on July 1, 2005.
Legally known as the Advanced Television Systems Committee Flag, but better known as the broadcast flag, this little bit of Machiavellian technology was folded into the Federal Communications Commission’s rulebooks last November. Reaction since then has been mixed. Most journalists writing about the flag have said that it won’t affect most consumers-unless they try to record high-quality digital video in their living room and play it back in their bedroom. The Center for Democracy and Technology called the FCC’s ruling a historic compromise that will preserve many consumer rights while preventing rampant video piracy as television goes digital, but CDT also notes that the FCC’s whole process for approving the broadcast flag sets a dangerous precedent that could easily turn against consumers. Indeed, many technologists that I’ve spoken with believe that the broadcast flag introduces dangerous Trojan Horse technology-a technology that could be rejiggered with even stronger anti-consumer provisions as time goes on. “Any broadcaster who uses it should lose their license because it is a misuse of the public’s trust,” says Andrew Lippman, a senior research scientist at the MIT Media Lab.
In fact, all of these things are true.
To understand why the MPAA lobbied so hard for the broadcast flag, you need look no further than the world of recorded music. Twenty years ago the music industry started putting pop tunes on optical compact discs. The music was completely unprotected-meaning that there was nothing to prevent it from being copied-but at the time nobody really cared. Each CD stored far more information than did many mainframe computers of the era. So even though the data was there for the taking, if you took it, there was no place that you could put it.
I bought both an Apple Macintosh computer and a Sony portable CD player in the spring of 1984. The digital music on my Dark Side of the Moon album took up nearly 600 megabytes of space; the Mac had on its floppy disk a mere 400 kilobytes of storage. There was no way that I could rip that music!
Three things changed this balance. The first was the relentless march of technology. By 1988, my desktop computer had a hard disk that stored 20 megabytes; in 1992 I bought a drive that could store a full gigabyte-big enough to hold the contents of a CD. The second factor was a real scientific breakthrough: the MP3 sound compression technique, which let me squeeze that Pink Floyd classic down to 50 megabytes. The third factor, of course, was the widespread deployment of broadband Internet connections, which made it possible for me to share those 50 megabytes with 10,000 of my closest friends.
Not that I would ever do such a thing, of course.