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Spy TV

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Jane Black in Business Week on digital privacy:

    entertainment industry’s honchos will once again journey to Capitol Hill when Congress convenes a new session later this month to ask lawmakers and the Federal Communications Commission for more protection. However, if Hollywood has its way, consumer privacy — not piracy — will pay a heavy price.

    ….Case in point: Hollywood wants a digital broadcast “flag” built into every new digital-TV receiver. This would allow content owners to track and/or designate which movies — or any programming, for that matter — could be copied, how often, and by whom.

    In July, a consortium of Hollywood studios, high-tech companies, and a consumer-electronics trade group called the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group issued a report asking the FCC to mandate that “robust” and “flexible” copy protection be integrated into every digital-TV set. Without it, the studios say they’ll refuse to license their movies and other programming to broadcasters, slowing the already-glacial transition to digital TV.

    “Making digital TV a reality is a top priority in Washington. The FCC is under intense political pressure to act,” says Jim Burger, an attorney at Washington (D.C.) firm Dow, Lohnes & Albertson. Burger is representing the computer industry — which backed the proposal but is generally opposed to mandated technology fixes — in the negotiations. The FCC is accepting comments on the proposal until Jan. 17.

    ….A database of who watches what also would allow studios and broadcasters to better target advertising and promotional campaigns. Do you watch the Star Trek TV series every day? How about buying the collection of Star Trek shows on DVD? It’s a marketer’s dream come true.

    I think it raises questions about violating every person’s right to anonymity. Monitoring what you watch and when is akin to tracking what books you buy and read, something the courts have already ruled is a violation of the free expression of ideas protected by the First Amendment. Marketers have plenty of ways to obtain information about consumer preferences. This shouldn’t be one of them.

    If your right to read whatever you want is constitutionally protected, why should anyone — especially Hollywood studios — be permitted to invisibly track and record what you watch on TV? The broadcast flag would bestow the entertainment industry with just that power. “New copy-protection technologies put the right to watch anonymously at great risk,” says Seth Schoen, staff technologist for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital-rights advocacy group.

    NO SPYING INTENTIONS? The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) disagrees. Rich Taylor, MPAA’s vice-president of public affairs, says the technology is designed only to stop consumers from creating a massive database of TV shows on the Internet — not to spy on the average couch potato. “All the broadcast flag does is drops the garage door down if someone tries to send a file over the Internet,” he says. “It doesn’t run back and tell the copyright holder who does what. It just stops piracy from happening.”

    But if that’s all Hollywood is after, the broadcast flag proposal should also mandate that whatever technology is chosen doesn’t violate consumer rights. After all, it would be anything but a happy ending if the entertainment industry’s quest to quash piracy came at the expense of privacy.

And people are worried about the Patriot Act? This is potentially worse.

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