FCC Throws Hollywood a Bone. Kill Switch: Activate!

May 7, 2010 ,

It looks like the Media Bureau decided to do the MPAA a solid–the media industry now has the power to deactivate part of your TV remotely.

Before now, movie studios and content companies were blocked from using a technology called “selectable output control” (SOC). No more. The Bureau waived rules (that were adopted by the full Commission) designed to protect consumers from remote kill switches. Now the movie industry is now free to turn off the “feature” of your TV that lets you connect things like cable boxes to it, in a misguided effort to stop “piracy.” It can flip a bozo bit and break your TV. This means that millions of people with HDTVs (including the FCC itself) are not going to get all of the programming they pay for, and people who depend on the “analog hole” to watch TV or use devices like SlingBox are out of luck.

It’s a shame that the Bureau didn’t give much weight to the many comments filed in the docket by consumers who don’t want Hollywood to break their TVs. It’s also a shame that this agency, like the USTR, continues to give weight to bogus industry piracy claims, despite a GAO report that saw them for the hogwash they are. In fact, given the sorry state of the evidence we’ve seen, the only real basis for giving the MPAA what it wants is that it really, really, really wanted the waiver—and the Media Bureau wanted to do it a favor. This FCC has shown itself to be data-driven agency for the most part. But in this case the star power of Hollywood has clouded its judgment.

This isn’t the worst thing in the world. It’s not the broadcast flag—the FCC isn’t mandating that DRM be baked into consumer electronics. (Stringent licensing deals for HDCP mandate that already.) The waiver is limited to pre-release movies, and it will be reviewed after two years. You can’t use SOC after the movie is on DVD. (Of course, even after the DVD is out, you have to wait another 28 days to get it on Netflix–the movie studios really have it in for those guys.) The most worrying thing about it is the precedent.  What other “high value content” deserves a waiver next–live sports? The season finale of Mad Men? Should parties who whine loudly enough have the rules waived for them—rules that were put in place to prevent the very thing they want to do? Is the FCC going to continue to take industry infringement claims at face value? Why is the FCC in the “anti-piracy” business at all?

About John Bergmayer

John Bergmayer is Legal Director at Public Knowledge, specializing in telecommunications, media, internet, and intellectual property issues. He advocates for the public interest before courts and policymakers, and works to make sure that all stakeholders — including ordinary citizens, artists, and technological innovators — have a say in shaping emerging digital policies.