October 10, 2005 | By Danny O'Brien

Stopping the Signal: Broadcast Flag Update #2

Not long ago we updated you on the MPAA and RIAA's shenanigans to smuggle the Broadcast Flag through the United States Senate. Those who paid attention during "Schoolhouse Rock" will realize that's only half of the duo's burden. To make the Flag law, they must march it past the House of Representatives, too.

Now the second shoe has dropped: 20 members of the House sent an open letter to Congressman Fred Upton, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet (part of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce), and its ranking member, Edward J. Markey. All 20 pledged their allegiance to the Broadcast Flag.

The letter is short, with a single substantive talking point. If Congress doesn't deliver a Broadcast Flag pronto, warns the letter, content producers will abandon free, over-the-air broadcast TV.

To pound home this dire threat, the phrase "free, over-the-air television" is repeated no fewer than eight times - with four repetitions in four consecutive sentences. It's a little like the local racketeer rustling up extra protection money by emphasizing over and over how beautiful your precious Ming vase is, and what a tragedy it would be if anything were to happen to it.

But no matter how many times this threat is repeated, it's not even close to credible. The corporations that make up the MPAA have been threatening to boycott digital TV for years, without ever actually managing to stop broadcasting. Of course, Mr. Upton doesn't really need convincing, anyway. He's already gone on record as supporting the Broadcast Flag.

So why are 20 House representatives writing him a public letter? Because Mr. Upton is the one who needs a show of support.

You see, it appears that the MPAA and RIAA may have a problem with the House of Representatives.

The driver of digital TV legislation in the House is Joe Barton, Chairman of the Commerce Committee. And if what we hear through beltway back channels is true, Barton wants a deal. He believes that if the MPAA wants the Broadcast Flag in his bill so badly, it should be willing to compromise.

But the MPAA is in no mood for discussion. It wants to ram this bill through as quickly as possible, and it's leaning on Upton to stay the course. The letter is a way of saying that Upton isn't alone.

Fortunately for us, the fact that 20 out of 57 committee members support the Flag sends a message the MPAA doesn't want anyone to hear: the Broadcast Flag is controversial. If it wasn't, no one would be writing open letters to anyone else. And that means this committee has a duty to engage in serious, careful, comprehensive discussion and debate before the Flag legislation goes anywhere.

The Hollywood lobbyists are tallying their support, but they don't have the majority of the committee convinced. Do your part: tell your representative that you and your fellow constituents won't stand for the Broadcast Flag, especially without a hearing showing evidence that anyone but the MPAA and RIAA supports it.

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