Podcasting part one of “The Internet Heist”
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…