Monday, March 14, 2005

The Broadcast Flag, and GNU Radio

I listened to a talk (broadband, dialup) that Cory Doctorow gave at a conference on the ten-year-old web, about the evils of the broadcast flag.

A receiver is broadcast flag compliant if it recognizes a bit in a broadcasted video or audio signal, and if that bit is set to true, the receiver will not permit full-resolution or full-bandwidth signals to be available to the owner of the receiver. Because that would allow the owner to record that signal and share it with other people. A compliant reciver must also be tamper-resistant, so that the owner can't modify it to make it ignore the bit. The broadcast flag is primarily aimed at high-definition TV signals, but if it goes into effect, it will set precedents that could affect all signals and all receiving devices, and ultimately, all electronic and computing equipment.

There is a law that will go into effect on July 1st 2005, which will criminalize the building or selling of non-compliant receivers in the United States. No doubt there will be subsequent attempts to criminalize non-compliant receivers everywhere else.

It might not look like much, but this is a big issue. Should it be a crime for you to own a computer that does what you want it to do? Should it be a crime to receive a radio signal and be able to look at it?

The really screwed-up thing here is that these guys are getting ready to trade away many of your taken-for-granted liberties regarding privacy, information and computation, really basic First Amendment stuff, and the benefit to their business WILL BE SMALL, and probably temporary. Meanwhile your freedoms will be FUNDAMENTALLY DIMINISHED FOREVER.

I'm thinking about making some affordable hardware for the GNU Radio project (which has a wiki). This is a project where you build radios, and most of the radio is built in software. A single piece of hardware can act like a lot of different regular radios. The hardware I have in mind would cover the band from DC to about 15 megahertz, picking up AM, shortwave, and two ham radio bands. Add up- and downconverters, and you can get those soon-to-be-illegal flagged broadcasts. If I build these things and sell them by July 1st, they won't become criminal. If my time and energy and funds permit, I'd like to build as many as possible and get them to as many people as I can.