SOC in ContextNovember 9, 2009
The MPAA's attempt to get the FCC to allow Hollywood to impose Selectable Output Control (SOC) on consumers has gotten quite a bit of coverage in the tech-savvy blogosphere over the past few days.
I was reading through the comments on two prominent blogs' postings, Boing Boing's Tell the FCC to say no to Hollywood's insane “Selectable Output Control” kill-switch and Gizmodo's MPAA Still Trying to Plug Your Analog Hole with Selectable Output Control, and it appears that even among a very informed subsection of the public, SOC still causes a lot of confusion. The main point of confusion is the relationship of SOC to other forms of video DRM. If the details of SOC are mysterious to many Gizmodo readers, asking the rest of consumers to understand those details is going to be a disaster. The purpose of this post is to put SOC in context. Unfortunately, doing so requires a lot of acronyms.
SOC, DRM, and You
In a nutshell, Selectable Output Control is not just another form of copy protection or DRM. It gives Hollywood the power to remotely shut down part of your electronics.
As the quality of the movies and TV we've watch at home has increased, from VHS to DVD and now Blu-Ray, and from standard-definition analog TV to all-digital HDTV, new kinds of connectors were needed to carry the new-higher quality signals between devices. Old-fashioned coaxial connectors or component cables don't carry quite as clear a picture as more modern technologies, like HDMI (High-Definiton Multimedia Interface).
Just as movie studios wouldn't adopt DVD or Blu-Ray without imposing onerous copy-protection schemes onto those kinds of discs, the content industry wouldn't buy off on a technology like HDMI without adding a layer of copy protection to it. This copy protection is called HDCP (High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection). HDCP is similar to the CSS encryption used in DVDs and the AACS scheme used in Blu-Ray in a number of ways. First, HDMI doesn't require HDCP, just as there are DVDs without any encryption. The copy-protection scheme is an additional layer of technology. Second, just as with CSS and AACS, a motivated individual can bypass HDCP.
Most modern devices have multiple kinds of AV inputs and outputs. One way that HDCP can be bypassed is by simply using an output that does not support it. This can be an older analog output, or an unprotected digital output. Because unprotected analog inputs are far more common, this has been described as the “Analog Hole.” The purpose of SOC is to shut down this so-called “loophole” by adding information to certain broadcasts to switch off any outputs on a consumer's device that do not use HDCP.
Why SOC is a problem
First, there are millions of devices in people's homes today that do not support HDCP. SOC would limit the usefulness of those devices by making them incapable of displaying content with SOC enabled. This is not a matter of new technology making old gadgets obsolete. Unlike with the move from analog to digital television or from VHS to DVD, SOC has no consumer benefit. It doesn't provide a better picture or more functionality. It is intended to give content providers, not users, more choice and power.
Second, most of the “bypassing” of HDCP that is done today is for perfectly legitimate reasons. It may be necessary to enable the use of non-HDCP devices, or to enable legal uses like time- and place-shifting. It should always be possible for consumers to make lawful uses of the content they have lawfully acquired, and Hollywood shouldn't have the right to use technology to rewrite copyright law. We've seen before that these kinds of technologies have a way of interfering with legitimate customer expectations.
Third, even after inconveniencing consumers by disabling part or all of their devices, SOC is unlikely to have an effect on unauthorized file sharing. Most movies that end up on the Internet for free get there well before those movies are available to consumers via video-on-demand or DVD. In fact, most movies get put on the Internet by insiders with early access to them, or by international groups. Not only that, the knowledge of how to get around HDCP and thus render SOC useless is widely available. SOC would have no impact on those that put movies on the Internet today.
Fourth, the MPAA’s waiver request does not limit the use of SOC to analog and non-HDCP digital outputs. The MPAA even wants the ability to block HDCP-compliant outputs. The request seeks not only to block the use of “insecure” outputs, but also secure outputs that might be deemed “inappropriate.”1 SOC could be used to limit what devices you may use, or to dictate your home theater setup, even if you only use HDCP-compliant outputs. Even cutting-edge electronics with HDCP-compliant outputs could be shut down. The MPAA has been quite clear that even secure digital outputs are liable to being shut down.2 No devices are immune from SOC.
Although MPAA says that SOC will only be used to offer video-on-demand movies earlier than they are offered today, the fact remains that any use of SOC would fragment the television market into those consumers able to access this content and those unable to. This fragmentation would come about not because of technological progress, but because of an anti-consumer technology imposed by Hollywood. (And we note that past technological changes to television, such as the move to color TV and the move to digital, were handled in ways that ensured backward compatibility.) By treating consumers like criminals, SOC would foreclose many lawful uses of content. SOC is neither technologically nor economically necessary for studios to offer their movies on demand earlier–we've recently pointed to examples of studios that already offer their movies on demand prior to their release on DVD, for example.
SOC is a bad idea, start to finish. Tell the FCC not to allow this anti-consumer technology.
1: On page three of the petition, the MPAA writes that it seeks the ability to block all outputs on consumer devices except those “particular secure digital outputs that each Petitioner and its MVPD partners may independently determine appropriate to the circumstances.”
2: See pages ii, 7, and 8 of the MPAA's reply comments in the waiver proceeding.
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.