WASHINGTON (AP) -Federal regulators say broadcasters may embed an electronic marker in high-quality digital television shows to make it harder to copy and distribute the programs over the Internet.

The industry applauded the move as necessary to prevent the kind of widespread copying that has hit the music business and to ensure that over-the-air television remains free. But consumers groups say it is a further restriction on viewers’ rights, while others fear it is a step toward regulating the Internet.

In approving a “broadcast flag” Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission said it was concerned that broadcasters would shift programs from over-the-air free television to pay channels such as Home Box Office if they could not protect programs from illegal copying and widespread distribution.

“The broadcast flag decision is an important step toward preserving the viability of free over-the-air television,” FCC Chairman Michael Powell said.

While some people already share TV shows and movies online, the practice is limited by the speed of Internet connections; it can take many hours to transfer high-quality copies.

But as Internet connections get faster and broadcasters switch to much clearer digital television, the movie and television industries fear consumers will put high-quality copies of shows and films on the Web that others can download for free.

The music industry saw CD sales fall as free music sharing proliferated on the Internet. It has started to sue listeners who illegally distribute songs online.

“Ideally, in the future it will all be digital broadcasting and at the same time we will all have broadband, so the potential for abusing copyright is far greater,” said Craig Hoffman, a spokesman for Warner Bros. Entertainment.

“International sales of television shows are so important. ‘Friends’ is a season or two behind in England. This way you are not able to make a perfect digital copy of ‘Friends’ and post it on the Internet where anyone can download it.”

Broadcast industry officials also praised the FCC’s decision.

“The FCC’s ‘broadcast flag’ adoption represents another advance in the digital transition and ensures that consumers continue receiving the very best in free, over-the-air television programming,” said Edward O. Fritts, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Consumer and other public interest groups, however, were not pleased with the decision.

“Having just given big media companies more control over what consumers can see on their TV sets by lifting media ownership limits, the FCC has now given these same companies more control over what users can do with that content, leaving consumers as two-time losers,” said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based advocacy group on technology and copyright issues.

In its order, the FCC told makers of digital television receivers that by July 1, 2005, their models must recognize the flag, an electronic signal that broadcasters can embed in their programs.

The commission said the order applies only to electronics equipment that can receive digital broadcast signals, not digital VCRs, DVD players and personal computers without digital tuners.

A broadcast flag in an over-the-air TV signal would tell digital devices to encrypt shows when recording. The encryption does not prevent copying at home, but is intended to hinder online distribution. Under one proposed method, encrypted files would “self-destruct” after traveling a certain distance across the Internet.

Congress already has told the TV industry to switch their broadcasts by 2007 to a digital format, which uses computer language, from the current analog format, which uses radio signals sent as waves.

While the five-member commission’s action was unanimous, both Democrats said they had some reservations. Jonathan Adelstein, for example, said he objected to allowing news and public affairs shows to carry the broadcast flag.

“I see little threat to content creators from a parent e-mailing to family and friends a local television news clip of a son or daughter receiving a community service award,” Adelstein said.

On the Net:

Federal Communications Commission: http://www.fcc.gov

National Association of Broadcasters: http://www.nab.org

AP-ES-11-05-03 0204EST

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