Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Freeview retune day: the thin end of a long wedge? Part I

In a two-part post Dave Woods reports on the Freeview update that happened earlier today.

As of lunchtime today, approximately 18 million UK households will have to retune their digital televisions and set-top boxes in order to keep receiving certain Freeview digital television channels. The main changes are to Channel Five and some channels in the ITV bouquet, along with the arrival of a new Discovery channel, Quest. After the retune, little will be different for most people apart from the appearance of Quest, though there will some loss of services to a small percentage of households. (See here for more details.) Behind the scenes, however, this reshuffle is part of the technical preparation for Digital Switch Over, the turning off of the analogue TV signals that makes terrestrial TV reception entirely dependent on possessing digital receivers. There are two main outcomes from the changes. First, Channel Five will become available ‘universally’ (which means about 98.5% of homes) to Freeview viewers, the same proportion as the other public service broadcasters (BBC, ITV and Channel 4). But the changes also pave the way for the introduction of high definition (HD) TV reception via the rooftop aerial, and it’s here that controversial measures that could affect the viewing habits of the nation are being pushed through, and rather speedily at that.

The big issue is Digital Rights Management (DRM). Or perhaps more accurately, DRM is the technological expression of a wider struggle over the future of UK television. On Sept 3, Ofcom began a consultation stating that it was ‘minded’ to allow for ‘the protection of intellectual property rights in High Definition television services’ on the public service channels. The consultation itself was a response to a letter from the BBC sent at the end of August requesting such measures, in which the BBC made it clear that the pressure to implement some sort of content management system (i.e. restrictions on copying programmes) for HD was coming not from itself but from ‘[t]hird party content owners’.

Trying to introduce a system to control the copying of television content for public service television is a legally tricky business since it is a condition of the broadcasting licence that the signals be available ‘free to air’, i.e. cannot be encrypted so that proprietary hardware is needed to receive them. Ofcom duly rejected this suggestion. As a way of coping with this, the BBC proposal suggested encrypting not the video and audio signals themselves, but the Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) needed to make a set-top box usable. Hardware manufacturers who were willing to produce equipment that obeyed the copying controls embedded in the signal would be given access to the keys to unlock the EPG.

There are several crucial implications in this development, reflected in the rapidly growing number of responses to it. First and foremost, we have been here before. From the early 2000s in the US, the ‘content owners’ (which broadly means the film and television production complex based mainly in Hollywood) started pressing for a legally enforceable ‘broadcast flag’ for digital TV, which would have had similar effects to the proposals currently before Ofcom. The demand was taken up by the Federal Communications Commission. Due to the efforts of librarians and public interest groups including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, such measures were found to overstep the remit of the FCC and rejected. As Danny O’Brien of the EFF puts it, ‘Veterans of the broadcast flag battle in the United States will recognise [the language of the BBC proposal]: rightsholders are once again attempting to use the power of the public regulators to force universal DRM on the general public, and place their veto power over the next generation of HD digital TV technology’.

To expand this point a bit further, while the explicit aim of these measures is to help to ‘prevent mass piracy’ as the BBC proposal puts it, this has been argued to be a rather implausible reason. At least it needs some clarification. The sort of encryption (in fact a sort of compression) envisaged is very weak, and as the BBC acknowledges is unlikely to deter for long anyone intending to overcome it. Perhaps it would be better to describe it as deterring casual piracy, i.e. preventing a non-technically minded person from copying a programme onto a DVD and giving it to their friend. As a defence against uploading material to the internet (whence relatively technically unsophisticated people can acquire it easily) it is barely a token gesture. And that is all it needs to be; once it is in place hardware manufacturers,
in order to be legal, will be obliged to implement whatever DRM the content owners specify. For O’ Brien this is precisely the point: ‘In Britain, as in the United States, this proposal isn't about piracy. It's about creating a rightsholder veto over new consumer technologies in DTV’. In other words, the technologically enforced modification of ordinary people’s habits without the option of other hardware becoming available to allow the old habits to continue.

But to try to be more specific, what habits are going to be modified? What are these restrictions on copying? Why is there widespread criticism of these measures?

Part two coming soon.

(photo credit: Lee Jordan, permissions)

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