Pluralistic: 07 Feb 2022

Today's links

The MPAA's 'You Wouldn't Steal a Car' graphic; 'a Car' has been replaced with 'the Future.'

Podcasting part one of "The Internet Heist" (permalink)

This week on my podcast, I read the first part of "The Internet Heist," a three-part series I wrote for Medium on the "Broadcast Flag," which was invented 20 years ago, on my first day on the job at EFF. It's basically my origin-story.

The Broadcast Flag was an incredibly gnarly, high-stakes digital technology issue. It combined no fewer than three esoteric fields – spectrum allocation, computer science, and copyright – and threatened to ban all free/open source software, while making it illegal to produce any digital technology unless the Hollywood studios approved it.

I break down the whole story in the article and on the podcast, but here's a very high-level overview. The US was desperate to switch off analog TV broadcasting and get people to buy digital sets, with the expectation that analog TV spectrum could be auctioned to wireless companies for billions. Americans were vastly disinterested in upgrading to DTV, thanks to the foolish decision to combine the US DTV transition with a high-def transition. That meant that Americans couldn't just add a digital TV tuner to their analog sets – they'd have to throw away their TVs and buy high-def replacements.

No one wanted to do this, in part because none of the broadcasters were willing to create high-def content (why would they, when everyone had standard-def TVs?). Advertisers weren't willing to pay to produce high-def commercials, because broadcasters weren't broadcasting in high-def, and viewers weren't watching in high-def. It was a total vapor-lock.

To make all this worse, broadcast TV viewers skew older and more rural: that is, they are more likely to vote, and their votes carry more weight thanks to antimajoritarian institutions like the Electoral College. This is a constituency no politician could afford to antagonize.

But wait, there's more! US spectrum policy bans TV broadcasters from scrambling their signals. That created a sticking-point in negotiations with Hollywood studios – who had vast libraries of 35mm films that could be digitized into high-def and used to kick-start the transition. The studios said that without scrambling, they'd just be providing the raw fodder for a high-def video Napster, and they flat-out refused to license their movies for DTV broadcast.

All of this created the conditions for one of the weirdest, most surreal tech policy proposals I've ever encountered, before or since: the Broadcast Flag. Here was the pitch: the broadcasters and studios would conspire with the consumer electronics and tech companies studios to create a "standard" for preventing "piracy" (the Broadcast Flag).

The Broadcast Flag would be a single bit (a 0 or 1) in the header of a video. The "standard" required any compliant device to look for this bit, and if it found a "1," to pretend that the video it was receiving was scrambled. It would then have to actually scramble the video before saving it, using a DRM that would be licensed on terms that required that the video remain scrambled before it was output – either as a picture, or to another drive, or over a network.

The thing is, all you would need to do to defeat the Broadcast Flag would be to build a TV tuner that didn't look for the 0 or 1 and didn't scramble the video before saving it. And building a DTV tuner just meant looking up the open, public standard for DTV (the ATSC standard), and following its instructions.

But remember, US politicians were desperate to get Americans to give up their analog TVs, and the studios had the high-def libraries that might make that happen, and they'd vowed not to release them for DTV transmission without DRM (they carefully avoided promising that they would ever release movies for DTV transmission under any circumstances, but whatever).

Enter Billy Tauzin, a lavishly corrupt Congressman who would shortly quit "public service" to take a job as the spokesliar for Phrma, the pharmaceutical lobby. Tauzin had told the broadcasters and studios that if they could get the CE and tech companies to agree on a standard for the Broadcast Flag, he'd get a law passed that would make it illegal to build a DTV receiver that didn't check for and respond to the Flag.

But here's where it gets super gnarly. Thanks to a technology called Software Defined Radio (SDR), any computer could be a DTV receiver. That meant that a law that said that you could only build a DTV receiver if it was designed to look for the Broadcast Flag and to prevent users from modifying it, that you would end up regulating every computer that would ever be built or sold, forever. What's more, that ban on "modifiability" would mean that all Free/Open Source software would be banned.

That's obviously a nightmarish idea, but the whole thing was so complicated that just explaining it to people was a huge slog. It was a classic MEGO problem ("my eyes glaze over"), where a wicked scheme is so complex that it's just about impossible to get anyone to care about it until it's too late. This is what Dana Claire calls "The shield of boringness."

The first part of the series is just laying all this out. The next two parts detail what came next, including an initiative from the MPAA to "plug the analog hole" – or as I called it, "The a-hole scheme."

Here's the podcast episode:

And here's a direct link to the MP3 (hosting courtesy of the Internet Archive; they'll host your stuff for free, forever).

Here's my podcast feed:

And if all this has piqued your interest and you want to read ahead, here's part two of the series:

And here's the third and final part:

This day in history (permalink)

#10yrsago Matt Ruff’s The Mirage: spectacular alternate history of Arabian manifest destiny

#5yrsago Romania’s anti-corruption protests are massive, growing, and they’re playful and serious at once

#5yrsago Trump’s FBI doubles down on hostility to transparency, switches to fax and snailmail for FOIA requests

#1yrago Compared to climate denial, Qanon is benign

#1yrago The FBI has never heard of me

Colophon (permalink)

Today's top sources:

Currently writing:

  • Picks and Shovels, a Martin Hench noir thriller about the heroic era of the PC. Friday's progress: 568 words (59728 words total).

  • Moral Hazard, a short story for MIT Tech Review's 12 Tomorrows. Friday's progress: 309 words (5126 words total).

  • A Little Brother short story about remote invigilation. PLANNING

  • A Little Brother short story about DIY insulin PLANNING

  • Spill, a Little Brother short story about pipeline protests. SECOND DRAFT COMPLETE

  • A post-GND utopian novel, "The Lost Cause." FINISHED

  • A cyberpunk noir thriller novel, "Red Team Blues." FINISHED

Currently reading: Analogia by George Dyson.

Latest podcast: The Internet Heist (Part I)
Upcoming appearances:

Recent appearances:

Latest book:

Upcoming books:

  • Chokepoint Capitalism: How to Beat Big Tech, Tame Big Content, and Get Artists Paid, with Rebecca Giblin, nonfiction/business/politics, Beacon Press, September 2022

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