March 20, 2018

Misleading Term of the Week: "Broadcast Flag"

[This posting inaugurates a new feature. Each week I will dissect one widely used but misleading bit of terminology. See my previous posting on the term “piracy” for more on why terminology is important.]

This week’s misleading term is “broadcast flag,” which is used by Hollywood to refer to a wide-ranging ban on video technologies that they are proposing via the Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (BPDG).

Technologists normally use the term “flag” to refer to a simple label that is attached to data to indicate some attribute of the data. A recipient of the data can use the flag as one factor in deciding what to do with the data, but most flags are strictly advisory and do not compel any action by the recipient. Such a flag is simple and nonrestrictive. Who could object to it?

Hollywood doesn’t need to ask for a true broadcast flag. The standards for digital television broadcasting already have a place for such a flag. No government action is needed to allow Hollywood to use a flag to indicate the broadcast status of a program.

Instead, they use the harmless-sounding term “broadcast flag” to refer to something else entirely. If you read Hollywood’s “broadcast flag” proposal, you’ll see that what they are really asking for is a draconian set of restrictions on video technology. Their proposal would even give them veto power over the development of new video technologies. Calling it a mere “flag” makes it sound simple and harmless. What a brilliant bit of misdirection!