Letter to the BBC Trust regarding concerns with the BBC iPlayer

This is an edited version of a submission of mine to the BBC Trust, for its recent review of BBC ondemand services.

Overview

The BBC has, no doubt in good faith, acted to frustrate a number of legitimate 3rd party clients for iPlayer which were created outwith the BBC. I believe this is not in keeping with the Charter for the BBC, nor with its remit for BBC Online, with regard to its obligations to provide broad access to all UK residents.

Further, in building BBC iPlayer on the proprietary technology of a single-vendor I believe the BBC helps promote that technology and that single vendor. I believe this distorts the market by requiring that all iPlayer access devices must build on “Flash”. I believe the BBC is acting anti-competitively by restricting 3rd party entrepreneurs from having a choice of technology vendors. Further, due to certain measures, the BBC has managed to make itself the arbiter of who may and who may not access the service.

I believe this situation is unhealthy and damaging to the public interest. I believe in fact there already are examples of the BBC having misused this power contrary to the public interest.

I would urge the BBC Trust to require the BBC to re-examine its iPlayer technologies and:

  • Investigate the use of multi-vendor, open standards, including HTML5 video
  • Engage with vendors and other interested parties in order to draw up, in an open and transparent manner, whatever further protocols are required (e.g. content rights protection protocols) to allow truly neutral access to BBC iPlayer
  • Eliminate the reliance on proprietary, single-vendor technology.
  • Draw down its development of end user/device iPlayer clients, and transfer all possible responsibility for device development to the free market, as is right and proper, and normal for other services such as radio and TV (both analogue and digital)

Background

Flash

As you are aware, the BBC chose to implement its iPlayer catchup/ondemand system on top of the “Flash” platform. This is a technology of Adobe Inc, a US corporation.

While some specifications for “Flash” have been published by Adobe, several key aspects of “Flash” remain undocumented and are highly proprietary to Adobe – particularly the RTMPE and RTMPS protocols, which the BBC use in iPlayer. Further, there are no useful implementations of the current version of “Flash” technology other than those offered by Adobe or that are licenced from Adobe, that I am aware of.

Adobe make end-user clients freely available for a number of popular operating systems and computers, such as Microsoft Windows on PC (32 and 64), OS-X on PPC/PC, Linux on 32bit PC. Adobe also licence versions of “Flash” to embedded-computer device manufacturers. It is unclear to me whether Adobe require royalties on such players, however from experience Adobe do charge an initial porting fee.

Competing video content delivery technologies include:

  • HTML5 video
    • Multi-vendor, industry standard, openly specified by the W3
    • Implemented in more recent versions of Microsoft Explorer (IE9), Google Chrome, Firefox
    • A number of online video sites have beta-tests of HTML5, including Youtube
    • NB: Firefox bundles only Ogg Theora codec support at this time
  • Microsoft Silverlight
    • Openly specified, with the usual patent issues around video.
    • 2nd source implementation available from the Mono project.
    • Has had some high profile deployment.

3rd Party iPlayer Clients

Since the iPlayer service was started, a number of 3rd party clients were created. These included a plugin for “XBMC”, a software solution to turn a PC into a “media centre”; and “get_iplayer” which is a command line tool to allow Unix/Linux users to access iPlayer.

Both these clients were respectful of the BBCs’ content protection policies and restrictions and were careful to honour them. These clients were also subject to the BBCs “geographic IP checks” (geo-IP) which allowed the BBC to ensure users of tools were in the UK (to the same extent as it could ensure this for official BBC iPlayer). These tools did not rely on Adobe technology, and their source is freely licenced. Some users perceived a number of technical advantages, such as being better integrated with their respective environments, having lower CPU usage, etc.

At several stages, the BBC made technical changes to the service which appeared to have no purpose but to frustrate unofficial, 3rd party clients. E.g. the BBC started requiring certain HTTP User-Agent strings.

For quite a while though, the BBC made no further changes, and the clients concerned worked very well for their users. Until very recently when the BBC implemented a protocol which requires that the client “prove” that it is the official BBC iPlayer client by providing a numeric value that is calculated from the binary data making up the BBC iPlayer client and from data provided by the server. This numeric value can obviously not be easily provided by 3rd party clients, unless they first download the official iPlayer SWF file from the BBC of course.

These measures taken by the BBC objectively do not add any immediate end-user value to the service. These measures objectively do interfere with the ability of 3rd party clients, being used legitimately by UK licence fee payers, to access the service. These measures have indeed reduced the base of clients able to access iPlayer,  with the developers of get_iplayer having decided to abandon further work due to repeated frustratative measures taken by the BBC.

Concerns

Concern 1: Public Value and Emerging Communications

In the licence for BBC Online, the Trust asked the following of the BBC with regard to emerging communications, in part II, 5.6:

BBC Online should contribute to the promotion of this purpose in a variety of ways including making its output available across a wide range of IP-enabled platforms and devices.

Additionally, the BBCs’ general Charter Agreement states, in clause 12, (1): “must do what is reasonably practicable to ensure that viewers … and other users … are able to access UK Public Services“.

My concern is that the BBC had made available a service, which was being used by UK licence fee payers, in full compliance with all usage restrictions, and it then took technical steps aimed directly at blocking access to the service. To me it is most contrary to the BBCs remit and its Charter agreement to act to block legitimate access!

I believe this one example of an abuse, though well-intentioned and in good faith, of the power the BBC has acquired by gaining control over the end-user platform (i.e. by restricting access to BBC iPlayer to the BBCs’  Flash-based player, and to a select, approved device-specific clients, such as the Apple iPhone).

Further, Adobe Flash is a roadblock to wide access. Whereas multi-vendor standards tend to be widely available across devices, Adobe Flash is not. This can be because certain embedded system vendors can not afford the moneys required to get Adobe’s attention to port Flash to new platforms (from experience, it’s a not insubstantial amount even for large multi-nationals; which can be an impossibly huge amount for small, low-budget startups).

In essence, the single-vendor nature of Flash is a significant obstacle to the goal of wide deployment over a range of platforms. With all the best will in the world, it is not within the resources of Adobe alone to support all the different kinds of things people would like to play video on, at a price suited to small startups.

Similarly, it is not within the resources of the BBC to properly engage with every aspiring builder of iPlayer access devices.

Concern 2: Market Impact

The BBC Online licence asks the BBC to consider the market impact, in part I, 1:

BBC Online should, at all times, balance the potential for creating public value against the risk of negative market impact.

I will set out my stall and say that I believe that in many spheres of human activity the public interest is best served through free market activity, in a reasonably unrestricted form. While I cherish the BBC for its content, and I agree with its public service remit, I do not believe the public interest is served by having the BBC dictate the end-user platform. Rather, I believe software and device vendors should be free to create and develop products, and the public to pick which is best.

The BBC have managed unfortunately to acquire the power to dictate whose devices and software do and do not have access to iPlayer. It has managed to do so under the guise of “content protection”. Under this pretext the BBC has persuaded the BBC Trust that, unlike prior modern history, the BBC alone must provide or approve of all code for iPlayer viewing that runs on end-user devices. The BBC Trust has gone along with this on a temporary basis.

This gives the BBC an unprecedented power. Which it has not had in any other area of end-user device technology in working memory.

As detailed above, the BBC has already wielded this power to cut-off clients which it does not approve of – though these clients and their users were acting as legitimately as any other. The BBC claims this is a necessary requirement. However, there is no reason why the BBC can not, in conjunction with the internet community and interested vendors, prescribe a standard way for clients to implement the BBCs’ content protection. Such a way that would afford the BBC all the same protections as it has at present, both technical and legal such as under the Copyright &Related… Act 2003, while allowing 3rd party access on a neutral basis.

There is no need for the BBC to be the king-maker of the device market, and the BBC should not have this power. The BBC should not be allowed to build a new empire over end-user devices. It should be scaling down its iPlayer client development – not up! It should focus on back-end delivery technologies, and provide a standards specified interface to those technologies, just as it does for over-the-air broadcast with DVB-T and DVB-T2, and its participation in setting those standards.

With regard to Adobe. Even if the BBC did not make use of Flash to restrict 3rd party iPlayer clients, the reliance on a single-vendor is a problem. Adobe may have a reasonably good history of being open and providing royalty free clients for most popular clients. However, Adobe are a for-profit US corporation, and so they in no way are beholden to the UK public interest. They would be perfectly entitled to start charging royalties in the future if they wished. They have charged device manufacturers royalties in the past in certain scenarios (exactly which is not public, to the best of my knowledge).

Further, Adobe are but a single software company. As stated previously, they do not have the resources to work with every little TV/STB startup. As such, they apply basic economics and raise their fees for enabling Flash on new embedded platforms (porting fees), to the point that demand diminishes to a manageable point. This means small startups may be excluded from enabling iPlayer on their devices.

Finally, the internet has been developing multi-vendor standards for video, as part of HTML5. It is reasonably widely acknowledged that multi-vendor standards are more favourable to the public interest than single-vendor proprietary technologies, all other things being equal.

As such, the BBC ought to have a duty to favour the use of multi-vendor, openly specified standards – to advance the public good.

Conclusion

My conclusions are as given in my introduction. I believe the BBC has, albeit in good faith, misused the control it has gained over end-user platforms with iPlayer by deliberately interfering with usage of iPlayer by legitimate clients.

I believe the BBC, no doubt in good faith and with all good intention, has made a mistake in choosing to build its iPlayer video delivery systems on the proprietary technologies of a single-vendor. I believe that these acts and decisions are not in keeping with the Charter, nor with its remit for BBC Online or iPlayer. I believe the public interest demands that the BBC should seek to step back from its current heavy involvement on the intimate mechanics of how end-user devices access iPlayer.

The BBC instead should publish technical documents describing the protocols used to access its services. It should engage all interested parties to formulate and develop any required new protocols, in an open and transparent manner. This is similar to how the BBC acts in other areas, such as with DVB.

I think this is required in order to allow the free market to be able to innovate and so create a range of exciting and useful iPlayer clients.

I think it is vitally important to all this that the BBC use openly specified and published protocols, available on non-discriminatory terms that are implementable by royalty-free software. Such software often forms the infrastructure for future innovation.

6 Comments »

  1. pjakma said

    A very practical example of the marketplace-damaging effect of the BBC having to approve all clients is the one described by Paul Battley.

    When you access iPlayer with an Android phone (at least, for some substantial period of time in the past) you are told by the BBC it is not supported, even though the Android supports all the technology and protocols which are used by the Apple iPhone. That is to say, it is the *BBC* who *chose* to exclude the Android phone, and all other non-iPhone clients…

  2. DaGaMoJo said

    I whole heartedly agree with your basic premise that the BBC should not be promoting proprietary software – particularly Windows and Flash as they have consistently done with the iPlayer – relegating non-PC users to back of the line.

    I don’t object to their technical advances – they were my first ISP when no-one else really offered internet access to the public but they should stick with open source standards.

  3. [...] Read that carefully. Given the heavy redactions, we unfortunately can not fully place that quote in its full context. However, I think we can glean that the BBC believes we should not be able to record its content. The BBC believes that it must have the power to control which devices may and which may not access BBC iPlayer. As I’ve argued power, such power to approve devices is anti-competitive and easily abused. [...]

  4. DaGaMoJo said

    I’ve also had a FOI request refused by the BBC on the grounds it relates to “programme making, jorno..” when it was a purely technical question about DRM and the Mac Os X. Perhaps we could challenge them on that – I fail to see how methods of content delivery have anything to do with programme making.

  5. Paul Jakma said

    DaGaMoJo,

    Yeah, it’s a strange one. But shouldn’t we discuss over on the blog entry for the FoI stuff? ;)

  6. [...] my thinking, the BBCs’ current ondemand strategy is anti-competitive and hence at odds with its public service remit. To the extent my previous concerns were about the use of Flash, the BBC has answered them by (it [...]

RSS feed for comments on this post · TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: