Gimme My Radio

Every so often, some evil sci-tech company like Dow or Microsoft does a giant branding campaign. Its P.R. describes ridiculous futuristic technologies like cyborg rhinoceros helicopters or sentient holograms, then makes it seem like these things are about to hit the market. Someday soon you, the consumer, can enjoy holographic rhinoceros-enhanced vacations! The future is here! Most of us are so used to seeing this kind of absurdist technoganda that we never actually expect to buy anything portrayed in it at Circuit City.

At the same time, we never expect that cool futuristic devices will be hidden from us. If people were trying to sell us shit that will never exist, obviously they'd be ramming it down our throats if it could actually be built. Right?

Wrong. There's a nifty little device out there right now that would allow you to use your computer to listen to the radio, watch digital TV, and surf the Web at the same time. It's a cool machine called a GNU Radio, and you're not allowed to buy one. In fact, some lawmakers would say you're not even allowed to own one. The GNU Radio may be a groovy widget with an obvious market, but two relatively obscure Federal Communications Commission regulations threaten to keep it out of the Sharper Image catalog forever.

The FCC's "broadcast flag" mandate, which goes into effect in July 2005, stipulates that any device that receives digital television signals (like a GNU Radio) must run "tamper resistant" software to decode that signal. This software - which can't be open source like the GNU Radio's - is supposed to prevent people from disseminating copies of their recorded media on the Internet. While that seems fairly reasonable, in practice what it means is picking up digital TV signals on machines like the GNU Radio will be illegal.

You see, the GNU Radio is designed for people who want to tamper with the software -- that's the beauty of a general-purpose device. You can program it to be a TV, a radio or something else. But the FCC, in its eagerness to appease the wishes of Motion Picture Association of America member corporations that pushed for the broadcast flag mandate, is quashing more than a bunch of TV pirates. It's shutting down our ability to watch TV on our radios. Does that mean the future will never be here?

Maybe we should try to put the broadcast flag mandate in a more positive light, though. It's not really an anti-future rule -- it's just pro-past! And hey, everybody knows that the best thing for science and technology is a really strong, pro-past agenda. After all, physicists recently predicted that Moore's Law (which stipulates that the number of transistors on a microprocessor doubles every 18 months) will break down in 600 years, so we should probably start slowing down the future as soon as we can.

And there's another fine bit of pro-past FCC regulation, a small part of Title 47 in the Code of Federal Regulations that will ensure another 6,000 years of Moore's Law instead of a paltry 600. In the early 1990s, the FCC mandated that no receiver-frequency converter device like the GNU Radio shall be sold or owned if it's "capable of readily being altered by the user." The concern that brought about this bizarrely draconian, free speech-limiting regulation was that people were programming devices to pick up cell phone signals. So, instead of mandating that cell phone companies should encrypt their signals to protect their customers' privacy, the FCC ruled that any device that could be altered to listen in on the cell phone bands would be illegal.

Because the GNU Radio is a general-purpose device, it's technically possible that somebody could hack it to pick up cellular telephone bands. But the argument to keep the GNU Radio off the market for this reason is analogous to one in which angry citizens argue to outlaw large sticks because they saw the Rock in Walking Tall and realized that sticks, in the hands of strong men, can be used to beat people. It's hard to deny that sticks are general-purpose devices that could be deployed in an illegal way. Using the FCC's logic, we'd reduce the menace of sticks not by making laws to ensure that beaten people have recourse to justice, but instead by making sure all sticks are off-limits (unless they are FCC-approved, tamper-proof, non-beating sticks). Makes sense, right? See how smart you get when you come around to the pro-past way of thinking?

Annalee Newitz ( is a surly media nerd who once used a stick to pirate an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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