The BBC and Freeview encryption

It may seem an odd juxtaposition to place together as the title of this post the words "Freeview" and "encryption" -- after all, surely the point of Freeview is that there are no restrictions, no contracts, no terms & conditions, etc? Well, that was indeed true until Freeview HD launched in the UK. Freeview HD broadcasts, including those from the BBC, are now broadcast with encryption. Yes, the public corporation, funded by mandatory TV licenses (or taxes, given another name), a Public Service Broadcaster (PSB) with a charter requiring it to broadcast its content in the UK for free and without restriction. So how is the BBC allowed to do encrypt its content, and why does it want to do so?

First just to mention that I'm rather late to the party writing on this topic now, but I've only just looked into the details having come up against a real and frustrating consequence of it. To answer the question of why the BBC and other PSBs are allowed to do this: it is purely a technicality. The video and audio streams are not themselves encrypted, but the in-band electronic programme guide data that consumer electronics devices depend upon is. Because the video itself is not encrypted, Ofcom has given the go-ahead.

The answer to the second question lies in the lobbying the BBC has been subjected to by the big US movie publishing studios. Such corporations will tell you that illegal internet filesharing is killing their business, and that encryption and Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies are key weapons in the holy jihad against the Evil Filesharer. Without them, we won't have any films to watch. In other words, it's for our own good. Of course, a cursory interrogation of the facts and the smallest grain of intuition tells you that the sharing of copyrighted material is not going to be the slightest bit reduced by any such tactics. History shows us that If enough people want to do it (and millions clearly do), it is never long before these technologies are sidestepped. Audio CDs, DVDs, satellite transmissions and Blu Rays all have copy protection, and yet it is easy to download good quality material* if you wish to do so. And despite all this, legal music downloads are a growth market, and profits are up.

No, it is not about preventing copyright infringement. It is about control and, of course, money. You see, by controlling the scheduling data, the content publishers have been able to also control what manufacturers who license the decryption can do with their devices - namely televisions and PVRs. Part of the Freeview (and consequently Freeview HD) certification is the mandatory use of the guide, and any device wishing to bear the Freeview HD logo must therefore sign up. The Digital Transmission Licensing Administrator (DTLA) issues licenses (at a fee, I'm sure) to consume the content under certain restrictions. Although the HD content is not encrypted over-the-air, devices are required to subsequently encrypt it in any storage or digital outputs, meaning only other DTLA-licensed devices can work with the content. In practice none can. What we have as a result is yet another proprietary closed system of content control (as if we needed more). Naturally the consumer is the one who loses. Firstly because it restricts what you can do with the hardware you own. For instance, my Humax Freeview+HD PVR can archive its recordings and will soon be able to stream content to other boxes throughout the house. Very convenient, except that it only applies to SD content. If you want the option of watching your favourite TV recording in bed, you will have to record it in SD. I bet Humax sympathise me when I say that I find this incredibly frustrating**, as they have nothing to gain from implementing this restriction.

The other significant requirement imposed by the DTLA is that devices must resist "user manipulation". This seems to make sense if you consider that it might otherwise be possible to encrypt the content by default, but include a backdoor in the software to turn the encryption off. But it also in one fell swoop excludes manufacturers using open source software from obtaining a license. Open source and community-developed software is feature-rich and cutting edge. MythTV has been doing fantastic things for years, likewise XBMC, and this is filtering down in consumer products like Plex and Boxee. Without this we as consumers get less innovation and competition, which means poorer and more expensive products.

So why did the BBC want to do this? Worryingly, BBC head of distribution technology Graham Plumb still thinks this is about copyright infringement and does not seem to grasp the restrictions imposed by the scheme: "The only actions that may be prevented, and only for certain programmes, are retransmitting the content in HD over the internet or, in some cases, from making more than one digital copy of the highest-value content on to Blu-ray." It seems the lobbying of the studios, who threatened a boycott of the BBC should it not find a way to bend to their will, has worked***. Or perhaps copyright infringement is just the easy-to-swallow public face to the issue, and really it is simply a boycott that the corporation is worried about. But it didn't work when BBC satellite transmissions went free-to-air, and it didn't work in the US with the Broadcast Flag. Why would it work here? In my opinion, the BBC should grow a pair.

Bootnotes

* Yes, downloads are good quality. Gone are the shaky camcorder recordings, complete with men in tall hats getting up to go to the toilet, coughing and crunching popcorn. Unless of course you believe the ludicrous and un-skippable propaganda you're forced to watch for having the audacity to actually pay for a movie. What logic is this?

** Interoperability of systems is fantastic when it works, but it so rarely works well in the technology/media industries because everyone seems to want to build their own empire. It's one of my major bugbears in the technology industries - even when there are standards, companies still see fit to invent their own version and cripple compatibility with products from other manufacturers.

*** As one commenter on Cory Doctorow's blog post on the issue states, this has happened before with DAB - the studios somehow convincing the BBC that DAB MP2 broadcasts would be fodder for illegal sharing. This despite the superior quality of the long standing FM broadcasts and ready availability of MP3s.

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