Dear geek, the BBC is not your friend

The BBC have a policy of tightly controlling access to their “iPlayer” IPTV services. Last I checked, access to the HTML video “iPlayer” front-end is restricted to devices authenticated via SSL, through a vendor private key signed by a BBC certificate authority key. General web browser access to “iPlayer” is via the now obsolescent Flash applet technology, using RTMPE streams.

BBC management appear to be under the impression that Flash RTMPE secures access to the video streams. Or rather, they appear to wish to seem to believe in that impression, because I know for certain their management are aware it does not. There is, of course, simply no way that you can deliver content to a general purpose computing device AND prevent whoever controls the device from easily copying the digital content. The BBC iPlayer Flash streams are easily recorded using non-BBC approved software. Some of which perhaps exists to aid piracy, but some of which exists because the BBC decided to shut-out certain users of iPlayer (e.g. those who prefer not to run insecure, proprietary software from Adobe). If you mention such software exists on BBC forums your comment will be deleted and you will be warned that you are violating the BBC ToS. The BBC takes a firm “head in sand” approach to the futility of trying to secure stream access, at least for the present.

To my thinking, the BBCs’ current digital/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 seems) moving to HTML video interfaces for 3rd party device access. However, by requiring those devices submit to BBC type approval, and enforcing this through strong cryptographic authentication, the BBC have increased my concerns about competition. The BBC is even in the position where it is a major share-holder in “YouView”, a company that makes a cross-UK-broadcaster IPTV software platform and consumer device. Dragging the BBC even further into anti-competitive and anti-public-interest commercial interests.

The BBC tries to deflect these concerns by trumpeting there are now “an astonishing 650 connected TV devices”. Those 650 devices are from just 21 vendors however, those few blessed by the BBC. One of the criteria for receiving this blessing is that you be large enough to make it worth the BBCs’ while. I know this as the BBC refused to certify my IPTV device, on the grounds the market I would serve was not significant enough (i.e. initially just my family).

Basically, if you’re a net-neutrality geek, or an open-access geek, or a competitive-markets economics geek, then know that the BBC is not the cuddly, friendly public champion you might think it is. Rather, the BBCs’ digital wing has and continues to work hard to ensure the future of IPTV, at least in the UK, is a tightly-controlled arena, controlled by the BBC and a select few large players. The BBC are working hard to ensure you lose the right to record your TV. The BBC are working very hard for a future where, if you want to watch the BBC or any TV, you must choose a locked-down device, controlled by the BBC or organisations it approves of.

If you are such a geek, know that the BBC is not your friend.

Edits: Fixed some prepositions. Removed a redundant sentence. Changed “the” in “the major shareholder” to “a”. Changed “ondemand strategy” to “digital/ondemand strategy”. Added link to the 21 vendors.

13 Comments »

  1. Paul Jakma said

    Oh, I don’t have an issue with the BBC authenticating whoever controls the device, per se. My issue is with the BBC trying to build a world where small manufacturers and hobbyists are locked out of building IPTV devices, and where end-users are strictly limited in what they can do with the IPTV devices they own.

    If the BBC wished to authenticate end-users generally, I could live with that.

  2. Jeffery Lay said

    While I see your point of view, and in principle I agree, I think the BBC’s in the position where it needs to court content providers in order to make their content available, and the content providers require strong (or a best attempt at strong) DRM because their own (ie. not the BBC’s) management and policymakers insist upon it.

    Therefore while DRM is bad, and prevents sensible usage, and so on, the simple fact is that the BBC (whose content I hold in the highest regard, and do not wish to lose) operates in an ecosystem where they’re not the only rules-maker, and in order to be a part of that ecosystem, DRM is the necessary compromise.

    Put simply, if they drop DRM, they’re in breach of existing content contracts… and if they tried to negotiate DRM-freedom for future contracts, most media companies would simply close negotiations at once, as most are not prepared to bend on this issue.

    Given the choice of their current DRM (which is circumventable with a bit of fiddling, but enough to deter casual mass copying) or no content at all, I’ll accept the compromise. Clearly it’s more frustrating in your position, but I still side with them. Sorry, but needs of the many, etc…

    Ideals are things to aim toward, most definitely, but are rarely achievable without compromise in the real world.

    • Paul Jakma said

      The argument you make is pretty much exactly the same as the one BBC people have made to me, about why DRM is necessary. This makes me think you’re quite well informed as to what the BBC thinks. ☺ I can mostly accept that it is the BBCs’ right to see things this way.

      There is one point in this argument where I feel the BBC upper management is being misleading: that content makers demand it. Which content makers? Who are they? I have tried to obtain this information from the BBC under FOI requests, but they refuse to provide it. If the public interest demands that the BBC give up some of the public’s rights to fair dealing for the sake of content, then surely the public should have the right to know with which content makers this Faustian bargain is being made?

      That said, we have some clues as to who they are. Probably there is some overlap with those who were interested in the BBCs’ development of encryption for FreeViewHD – which the BBC released to Alan Cox in an FOI request (strange they couldn’t do so for mine then) – see here for a link. Note that BBC Worldwide is on this list. Interestingly, BBC Worldwide was listed as an example of a content maker that requires DRM by Anthony Rose in a blog post.

      It is also worth noting the precedent in the USA, where content makers demanded the FTC mandate encryption for digital television. They stated they would not make high-definition content available if they did not get encryption. The FTC were going to oblige them, until a court case by (IIRC) EFF (amongst others?) established the FTC had no authority to mandate such a thing. Digital broadcast television in the US as a result does not have encryption features. Did the content makers refuse to supply content? No. They do so happily, including in high-definition.

      Thus, this argument there will be no content without DRM is likely empty and without foundation. Further, it seems that the content maker the BBC is most mindful of, when it says content licensors require DRM, is actually BBC Worldwide – a subsidiary of the BBC! And if that’s not the case, let the BBC release the documents proving it!

      So, sorry, this argument doesn’t hold water to me. It really sounds like the BBC has become captive to private media interests, at the expense of the public interest.

      • Jeffery Lay said

        “This makes me think you’re quite well informed as to what the BBC thinks.”

        If so, it’s not through any inside information – I have no knowledge of the Beeb; I’m just as a customer who takes an interest in such things.

        “I have tried to obtain this information from the BBC under FOI requests, but they refuse to provide it.”

        That could be a term of the contract, in which case it’s business-critical and exempt from FOI (at least for some of the contracts).

        “If the public interest demands that the BBC give up some of the public’s rights to fair dealing for the sake of content, then surely the public should have the right to know with which content makers this Faustian bargain is being made?”

        Again, in principle I agree. The best I can suggest is looking at the details of the production companies at the end of most programmes’ credits, then contacting them directly.

        “Interestingly, BBC Worldwide was listed as an example of a content maker that requires DRM by Anthony Rose in a blog post.”

        BBC Worldwide is run quite differently to the domestic arm of the BBC, I reckon. Since BBC (UK) is not allowed to make a profit, ALL profits have to go back into further productions, BBCWW has to be a separate business entity.

        “a court case by (IIRC) EFF (amongst others?) established the FTC had no authority to mandate such a thing. Digital broadcast television in the US as a result does not have encryption features. Did the content makers refuse to supply content? No. They do so happily, including in high-definition.”

        Sure. Where they have to. But where they don’t, they still wield the power.

        “Thus, this argument there will be [no] content without DRM is likely empty and without foundation.”

        It may be – I was speculating, not asserting any actual knowledge. I could be completely wrong in everything I’ve written. On the other hand, since you’ve heard (or been given) some of the same answers, it’s probably close.

        “Further, it seems that the content maker the BBC is most mindful of, when it says content licensees require DRM, is actually BBC Worldwide – a subsidiary of the BBC! And if that’s not the case, let the BBC release the documents proving it!”

        This point I cannot refute. I know the business relationship is complex, and the market forces abroad are quite different to those here, so what might seem simple often is anything but… but I can’t see a good reason not to release this information. They, on the other hand, seem to think they have one.

        “It really sounds like the BBC has become captive to private media interests, at the expense of the public interest.”

        More like they’ve agreed to terms which a small minority of the public don’t find reasonable or convenient.

        Don’t forget that the Beeb can still get things wrong… that’s where people like you should step in, and expose their mistakes, which is precisely what you seem to be doing – kudos to you for that. I just think that while I share your ideals, I know how phenomenally complex business arrangements make almost any kind of data sharing – part of my job is to write databases for business needs, and there are SO MANY administrative hurdles in the way of getting even straightforward data that’s already public that it’s amazingly hard. Getting hold of data where there’s even a nominal challenge beyond that is like blood from a stone.

        “Oh, I also asked the BBC via FOI for the wording of those contracts, where they require DRM to be implemented by the BBC. The BBC refused to release this.”

        Wording of contracts is normally confidential, I believe… there’s a clause under which you’re allowed to ask “do you observe [policy x]” and you will get an answer, but the full texts are not normally available as, again, they’re sensitive data. This is because of the chaos that would ensue if one company finds out that they’re only getting half the money that another company gets for a similar programme, or something like that. A situation where everything has to be made public would undermine the BBC’s ability to negotiate, so a situation where certain specifics can still be checked but without compromising competition is what we have.

        “And, strange how they can still broadcast this stuff unencrypted over the air via DVB-T then, no?”

        SD only, though. Freeview HD uses DVB-T2, and with DRM.

        • Paul Jakma said

          Commercial confidentiality is not an absolute in the FOI law. If the commercial sensitivity being prevented is relatively limited compared to the public interest being defended, then it should be released.

          It’s a balancing judgement, but unfortunately the public can do little but trust the BBC has made the right call. However, I do not accept for a moment that the BBC had their hands bound by content makers – the BBC owns or part owns many of the production companies it commissions from! And for those it does not own, they have demonstrated they are happy to fore-go encryption elsewhere. I am not even convinced these contracts really require the BBC to implement DRM, except perhaps with BBC Worldwide. Particularly given the technology is evolving, and the BBC was not in a position to guarantee OfCom or the BBC Trust would have actually allowed them to implement DRM.

          As for DVB-T2, it does *NOT* have DRM. The BBC *tried* to get DRM for FreeViewHD, using the same arguments as for digital, but OfCom disallowed it ruling, iirc, that BBCs’ remit requires them to broadcast unencrypted. Parts of the EPG data are indeed encrypted, but the actual MPEG media streams are NOT encrypted. And guess what, there’s plenty of content to broadcast!

          As for SD, the content available on iPlayer often doesn’t go past SD in potential quality. Which is also being broadcast in the clear!

          I sympathise with the BBC situation somewhat. However the arguments they’ve made have reality-consistency issues to them that undermine their credibility. Where those arguments might hold water, it relies on documents which, conveniently, can not be released or even quoted from; on associations with other organisations who can not be identified.

          So basically, there are 2 poles to the range of ways to view what has happened:

          1. The valiant little BBC fought hard for the public interest, but ultimately was cornered by the powerful private content-makers, and forced into signing away the public’s fair-dealing rights. Worse, the BBC can not even defend itself from the likes of me, because those powerful content-makers have made every detail of those agreements confidential.

          Poor BBC!

          2. The BBC, under the leadership of people who sometimes come from and often later go to private media companies, have used the extensive resources available to it to re-shape the future of TV (which IPTV almost certainly represents). In particular, removing freedoms the public has held for many decades. Freedoms which private media companies have never been easy with, and which they find inconvenient in the digital world. The BBC have justified this based on the deals the BBC has made with private media companies. Where those deals require DRM, the BBC has actively encouraged the addition of such terms. The BBC is conveniently able to hide these deals from FOI requests under the smoke-screen of commercial sensitivity, even though some of these deals will be with companies the BBC part owns or even wholly owns – BBC Worldwide most notably.

          I don’t know which of these two extremes is more representative of what’s happened. The BBC won’t show me the documents that could allow me to tell! I suspect option 2 may be closer to the truth though.

    • Paul Jakma said

      Oh, I also asked the BBC via FOI for the wording of those contracts, where they require DRM to be implemented by the BBC. The BBC refused to release this. And, strange how they can still broadcast this stuff unencrypted over the air via DVB-T then, no?

    • Paul Jakma said

      Let me answer your “ideals” and “compromise” point.

      Let me be clear, I do not object to the BBC authenticating the end-user. E.g. if the BBC would sign my certificate, so that my home-built IPTV device could access the HTML video iPlayer interface, I would be happy. More generally, to satisfy me, the BBC would need at least a semi-automated Cert Authority system to allow small vendors and hobbyists to request and obtain signed certs. This would allow the BBC to later revoke access, if they had evidence of misbehaviour by an end-user.

      My problem is that the BBC discriminates in who it will issue these certificates to, locking out all but a selected few from the ability to build IPTV devices.

  3. Mordan said

    How is using Flash anti-competitive? You were making reasoned arguments up to that point then go off on one. Saying “to my thinking” is not the same as giving evidence or facts.

    • Paul Jakma said

      Flash is a proprietary technology. It is available only from a single supplier, and hence only platforms that the supplier cares to support have Flash. That supplier can demand porting fees and sometimes per-unit royalties for that support (the PC version of Flash is free to end-users, but it is not generally the case that Flash is free of cost). That is a clear-cut anti-competitive situation.

      For there to be competition in the market for Flash, requires there to be an alternative supplier for it (one that actually works). I am fairly confident that none such exists (and I know about Gnash and Lightspark). If you know otherwise, feel free to point me towards that supplier.

      See also an earlier blog of mine, “Letter to the BBC Trust regarding concerns with the BBC iPlayer”.

      • David said

        If, as you say, no alternatives exist then are you also saying that the BBC should cease providing iPlayer streams using Flash?

        It would appear that the BBC selected a supplier of streaming technology (Adobe) as a partner on the iPlayer project. Previous comments from the BBC would indicate a key factor was cross platform delivery. Previous to adopting Adobe they used Microsoft technology. The selection of Adobe appears to be above board – as you say what other platforms were available? Real, Microsoft, Quicktime (Apple) come to mind – and I’m sure we all remember how bad Real player which the BBC used to use for audio…

        The fact that all the UK IPTV providers use DRM and/or Flash would indicate that digital protection of the stream is a requirement. I would have thought it unlikely that anyone would spend good money on DRM delivery platforms if they weren’t needed.

        You can record TV locally as broadcast for time-shifted viewing – I think this has to be performed from the live broadcast and in your home. The fact TV is broadcast un-encrypted allows you to do this. The universal delivery of TV is currently mandated by the BBC Trust. The nature of the current TV license/BBC funding would need to change if delivery of all TV moved to the Internet. I’m sure technology would be developed to support local timeshift copies that are digitally locked to the local user to ensure copyright is preserved.

        • Paul Jakma said

          I think the BBC should provide methods that are generally accessible (even if requiring authentication), and not dependent on a restricted, selected set of suppliers. If the BBC were do provide that, then it wouldn’t matter what other methods they provide.

          Unfortunately, at the moment, the only options are:

          a) An obsolete technology, whose supplier is no longer particularly interested in porting to new platforms, nor even in continuing to support existing platforms. Even if they were interested, it may require a six-figure sum and/or per-unit royalties.

          b) Persuade the BBC to approve your device. Whether the BBC will do so depends on unspecified criteria.

          The net result is that at present, entrance to the ondemand IPTV market has a very high barrier to entry. This is entirely due to the BBC. Further, the longer this goes on the more it seems the BBC is deliberately pursuing a strategy of building a restricted IPTV market.

          Is my view.

          • David said

            Surely the barrier is no different to the technology needed to create a TV, build a PVR or to build a video recorder? Why should the barrier to entry be different for IP delivered media to that of terrestrial broadcasting?

          • Paul Jakma said

            Building a digital TV from scratch is something that you can do, without needing from permission from anyone – the specifications and patents are all available on non-discriminatory terms, as result there are many vendors of ready-made components (if you don’t want to do it entirely from scratch). Ditto for a PVR. However, you can not build a new IPTV platform, without the approval and explicit co-operation of either Adobe¹ or the BBC.

            E.g. I could get a IPTV-capable TV from random, cheap Asian vendors, which support all the technologies required to use the BBC HTML video iPlayer platform, yet the TV will not work with that platform, unless BBC approves of that vendor and that vendor has done the work to enable it. The BBC has constructed this power for itself. Now imagine if every state broadcaster in the world takes this approach – its going to increase the costs of IPTV significantly.

            So yes, I completely agree with you. It should not be different. However, it is. That is my complaint. It should be yours too.

            Update: A concrete example today: Android. Android supports all the technologies needed for the HTML video option, yet if you try to access iPlayer with Android it will not work (unless you have Flash, which many Android users do not). Why is this? The BBC has not approved Android for some reason, even though it has approved Apple iOS devices. Android users have been asking this of the BBC for years, to little avail. The BBC recently introduced an Android app to solve this problem, which is basically an Adobe Air wrapper for the Flash interface, however many users appear to find it substandard in features and performance, e.g. compared to the HTML video interface available to iOS. This would not be an issue if there were non-discriminatory access to the BBCs’ IPTV platform.

            1. For however much longer the Flash platform remains relevant – I wouldn’t want to invest in it at this point.

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