Broadcast Flag Hypocrisy and the Stevens Bill
Broadcast Flag Hypocrisy and the Stevens Bill
Broadcast Flag Hypocrisy and the Stevens Bill

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    There's a reason I never get asked to testify on the Hill, and why I'm glad we have folks like Gigi Sohn (of PK) and Ben Scott (of Free Press) to do it instead. I have a very low tolerance for the hypocrisy one encounters when testifying.

    Case in point, this past week's Senate Commerce Committee hearing on network neutrality. Ben Scott provides an eloquent defense of the principle. This prompts the usual from folks like DeMint, Sunnunu and Stevens on “The heavy hand of regulation destroys investment and innovation, the internet has never been regulated” blah blah.

    At this point, if I were in Ben's chair, I would say “Than why do you have a broadcast flag in this bill, you flaming hypocrites?”

    Consider the broadcast flag. It is harder to find a more intrusive or less desired piece of regulation (from the standpoint of the user and the equipment manufacturer at least). It requires equipment manufacturers to build in controls that allow third parties to override user preferences and control legal uses of recorded video and audio. Excuse me? I thought you just said you hated big government and intrusive regulation? Shouldn't “the market” fix whatever problem actually exists?

    Also, unlike net neutrality, broadcast flag actively discourages innovation and investment. Indeed, the entire point of broadcast flag is to make innovations that upset established business models and promote competition impossible, or at least incredibly difficult, without the express permission of the dominant incumbents.

    To make the hypocrisy worse, broadcast flag constitutes an outrageous extension of government regulation to products and businesses that have never been regulated like this before. To the contrary, the D.C. Circuit found last year that the FCC could not impose a broadcast flag because the law had never intended to give the FCC power to regulate consumer devices in this fashion. By contrast, network neutrality has been the law for more than 30 years, and remains the law until August 2006 (when the old rules phase out).

    So who wants to expand federal power, to the detriment of inventors, innovators, investors, and — oh yeah — us regular folks? The supporters of broadcast flag. But, at the very same hearing Senators give Ben a hard time about “wanting to impose stifling heavy handed regulation,” these same defenders of the free market and stalwart champions against “big government” on net neutrality turn around to sing the praises of broadcast flag.

    Worse, broadcast flag basically constitutes a new national sales tax on consumer devices for the benefit of Hollywood and the record industry. Broadcast flag drives up the cost of design and production of devices while crippling their utility. Guess who pays the extra cost necessary to keep us safe from 'piracy?' People who buy the devices. So, according to Senator Stevens at least, while an estate tax on the wealthiest Americans is bad a sales tax on the average consumer is good — provided the added tax revenues only benefit big companies.

    Had I been there and said this, I expect I would have gotten an earful about how this is a special case because we need broadcast flag to protect Hollywood and the record industry from theft, encourage them to put new content out on the market, and don't I care about protecting people's rights? “Absolutely,” I reply. “Lets start by mandating network neutrality to protect my right as a content creator and encourage me to put new content and services out on the internet.” I want all the “content creators” on YouTube or the bloggers or anyone else to enjoy the right to access my material and for me to get the value I deserve of people seeing it. Lord knows “the market” (in the form of the cable/telco duopoly) won't protect that right on its own. So why won't Stevens, et al. do for me what they do for the MPAA and RIAA, i.e., protect me by regulation because the “free market” won't.

    Not that I support broadcast flag “in exchange for” network neutrality mind. I think broadcast flag is wretched in its own right. Unlike net neutrality, broadcast flag stomps free speech and promotes monopoly control of content at the expense of users and innovators (the current internet demonstrates that the same charges against network neutrality are, to use a technical legal term from Judge Edwards' recent dissent in the CALEA case, “gobbledygook”) But when someone can tell me in the same breath they hate big government but love broadcast flag, I sniff for the tell-tale signs of hashish. If I don't smell it, I know I'm dealing with the ripe stench of hypocrisy, usually leavened with a bit of PAC money.

    Happily for us all, Ben Scott didn't say any of that. Instead, he gave an eloquent defense of the principles of network neutrality without calling the Senators in question miserable hypocrites. But that's why they invite him up there instead of me.