Posts Tagged iPlayer

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.

Comments (13)

BBC Trust On-Demand Syndication Consultation

The below are my answers to the BBC Trusts’ Consultation on On-Demand Syndication, which closes very soon, on the 21st of July. Note that the link to the PDF of the questions seems to be broken, the correct link is here. The full text leading in to the questions can be quite long, in which case I have elided all but the closing part of the questions.

  • Q1. … The BBC Executive would therefore like the Trust’s on-demand Syndication Policy amended to make clear that BBC programmes should always be made available in the context of a BBC package (such as a BBC TV channel (BBC1 for example) or via the BBC iPlayer on a PC, TV or mobile phone) in order to deliver the public purposes more effectively.What are your views on this proposal?

    While I sympathise with the desire for editorial integrity, if the choice is to be a binary choice between:

    a) The ability of device manufacturers (commercial or otherwise; hardware or software) to innovate

    or

    b) The ability of BBC to tightly control devices, and to deny access 3rd party access to content

    then I would suggest the public interest is served far, far more by the former than the latter. I would suggest that the BBC Trust ensure that any guidelines seek to protect 3rd party innovation above all else.

  • Q2. Do you agree with the BBC Executive that the Trust should place more emphasis on value for money in its syndication policy?

    Yes, I do.

    A very important aspect to value for money is 3rd party access. Such access allows multiple 3rd parties to innovate and make new products available to the public, independently of the BBC and *without* the BBC having to spend money.

    As an example, 3rd party iPlayer applications have allowed people to construct ‘media-centres’ for themselves, building on commodity PCs and Linux (XBMC); have allowed a wide-range of Android based phones to access iPlayer (unlike the official BBC Android iPlayer which works only on a limited range of the newest phones); have allowed general Free Software users to access iPlayer. All of these were produced without cost to the BBC. In all but 1 case, they enabled access on platforms which the BBC does not consider ever worth supporting, and in the final case it enabled broader access long before the BBC produced its limited access.

    It is clear therefore that 3rd party innovation allows greater access to BBC content by UK users who generally are entitled to access that content. Thus this furthers the BBCs’ chartered goal of providing as wide access as possible, while doing so at no extra cost to the BBC.

    Unfortunately, to date, the BBC have taken the view that such 3rd party access must be restricted as much as possible. The BBC has regularly taken technical steps to shut off access to any 3rd apps. This is most unfortunate and, given the above, on the face of it somewhat at odds with the BBCs’ remit.

  • Q3. The BBC Executive agree that wide syndication is good for audiences, but they are concerned about the cost of developing different versions of packages like the iPlayer for growing numbers of platforms and devices. To make the iPlayer or other packages of content widely available across a range of platforms in a more cost-effective way they propose to develop ‘standard’ software (notably for the iPlayer) that can work on many devices. Manufacturers can build this into their products when designing them. The BBC would publish details of how decisions on which standard software products to develop would be taken.

    What do you think about this proposal?

    This proposal is ridiculous. Provably so given the history of there already being a number of independent iPlayer applications available for a number of platforms which the BBC does not support, at no cost to the BBC. Rather than the BBC investing so much energy into denying access to these 3rd party applications, the BBC could save its resources AND promote wider platform access simply by desisting from trying to block such applications.The BBC would be much better off publishing the technical details for supported access to its streams, and communicating with 3rd party device makers (commercial or otherwise; software or hardware). This step alone would ensure that iPlayer access was effectively universal (at least, relative to what the BBC has the resources to achieve), at very little cost to the BBC.

  • Q4. Do you think that the BBC should, in principle, be prepared to invest in developing special non-standard technology for other devices at the BBC’s expense?

    False dichotomy.

    The BBC should not at all be aiming to be the developer of end-user devices, beyond whatever prototypes required to verify its delivery infrastructure. It is quite wasteful of resources that the BBC has taken on this role for itself – a role it can never properly fulfill. Instead, the BBC should, as is its long-standing practice in broadcast TV, contribute to industry standards bodies (for the case of internet technologies, these would be the IETF and the W3, nota bene) and publish the technical information needed for devices to access its content using such standards. Thus, the responsibility for the development and marketing of devices ought to be borne by the free market. This arrangement has been proven to be the most economical way of developing products for public use.

    It is disturbing that the BBC wishes, by use of the technology-shift from broadcast to online for TV, to acquire complete control over TV devices. This is quite clearly anti-thetical to a healthy free market. That we must then talk about which platforms the BBC then should or should not support – rather than allowing a free market to decide – is the result of this unhealthy control.

    In short, let the free market invest to develop that ‘non-standard’ technology. Let the BBC publish, not decisions about which platforms it deigns to support, but technical specifications that allow such a free market to operate. This is how the market for TV devices has worked for many a decade – the BBC should not be allowed to change the fundamental economics simply because the technology details change.

  • Q5. Is audience reach the best criterion for setting priorities? If so, what number of potential users should be taken as the threshold?

    Yes it is. The number of users is irrelevant – the free market should be allowed to decide, as elaborated in my answer to Q4.

  • Q6. Should the BBC also publish its criteria for prioritising any non-standard software development?

    Yes, the BBC should endeavour to operate transparently, in all things.

  • Q7. An alternative is that, provided the BBC has the resources available, a manufacturer would have to pay the BBC’s costs for the development of a customised iPlayer that worked for its platform. What do you think about this?

    See my answer to Q4. Obviously, my answer would be ‘no’. Rather, the BBC should make content available in industry standard ways (thus, IETF or W3 for internet technologies). Thus the BBC invests its resources once, so allowing many others to invest theirs (likely without even having to contact the BBC) to develop software for whatever platform they wish. The BBC should seek to support a free market in devices. The public interest is served by the innovation and breadth of products a free market brings – it is not served by having the BBC centrally plan the device market.

  • Q8. A further alternative is that manufacturers should be free to develop their own versions of the iPlayer or other technology (known as ‘self-build’) to show BBC content.The BBC Executive do not think this should be allowed because they do not think the BBC would be able to ensure editorial standards or the high quality that viewers expect from the BBC.

    What do you think about this?

    I agree there should be a free market in devices (commercial or otherwise; software and/or hardware). I believe the BBCs’ role should be to support such a market by investing in industry-standard (i.e. non-discriminatory, royalty-free – W3 and IETF for internet) delivery interfaces.As an example, the BBC at present has an HTML video / CSS based iPlayer – a fully industry standard version, which would work on a wide variety of devices which the BBC does not support at present, such as generic digital TV sets which are internet enabled (but lack Flash, and lack the power for Flash) available from a variety of asian manufacturers. The BBC could trivially make this interface available to all devices, but it chooses to restrict it to Apple iPads, Sony PS3s and a small handful of other types of devices.

    If the Trust were to decide the BBC ought not to have such tight-fisted control of device access, then the BBC could tomorrow start the process of enabling much wider access, using standard delivery technology the BBC already has developed.

Comments (1)

More BBC iPlayer Encryption FOI Materials

I received some further materials from the BBC about the iPlayer encryption issues. My request is covered in the BBCs’ Final Response. They released 2 documents, one I specifically asked for entitled “Pan-BBC Approach to Combating Piracy“, another entitled “Public/Press reaction to introduction of SWF Verification on iPlayer – Briefing Paper”.

They again denied my request for details on the mystery rights holders, however I have since noticed Alan Cox made a similarish request relating to the FreeView HD encryption and his response lists the following organisations as having indicated interest to the BBC in the Freeview HD encryption proposal:

  • ITV
  • C4
  • S4C
  • Five
  • BBC Worldwide
  • Disney
  • Fox Entertainment
  • Sony Pictures
  • Time Warner

I’ve sent the following reply to the BBC:

Hi,

Thank you very much for this. I am glad to hear the BBC intends
to publish a blog entry relating to these issues soon. It is very
much a goal of mine in all this to seek to provoke useful, productive
dialogue.

I am very disappointed that you have chosen to deny my request
for information on which organisations are making encryption
requirements on the BBC. I note that have you supplied such
information to an extremely similar request that covered the HD DVB
encryption, at:

http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/request/encryption_proposals_to_ofcom

I do not quite understand how the DVB-T2 EPG encryption issue is
different from the iPlayer encryption/DRM issue. I would ask you
review your decision in light of the above to ensure your decisions
are consistent.

I am also disappointed you were unable to supply further documents.
E.g. you must surely have recent documents covering the SSL/TLS
authentication encryption scheme for iPlayer, brought to public
attention recently with the launching of the iPad iPlayer. Such
documents seem to fairly clearly fall within the scope of my recent
requests, and yet somehow none of the documents I have received have
mentioned this scheme. I would ask you review your response to ensure
you have not accidently missed out such documents – it seems you must
have.

I thank you again for your time in all this. I apologise again for
the burden, but I stress again that I feel there is a strong public interest in this.

regards,

Paul Jakma

Comments (6)

BBCs’ Most Favoured Devices

Here’s a list of some of the BBCs’ most favoured devices for internet TV (iTV?), for which the BBC will open the gate to its non-flash, HTML5 based version of iPlayer:

  • Sony PS3
  • Sony BluDisc
  • Cello TV
  • Apple iPad
  • (soon) Selected Windows CE devices

Notable devices/platforms not on this list:

  • Google Android
  • And all other HTML5 compliant devices

If you own such a device, then tough for you – even though the HTML5 iPlayer would work fine on such devices if it weren’t for the fact that the BBC have gone out of their way to bar those devices from it! Particularly tough for you if your device does not support Flash (e.g. Android). Best of all, the BBC straight-facedly claim:

“But we don’t back any one technical horse. We care about making our services available as widely as possible: for our audiences.”

This is highly misleading. For this goal clearly is utterly subservient to the BBCs’ greater goal of tightly controlling access to iPlayer, and denying iPlayer as much as possible to platforms which the BBC feels it can not control, as we know from FOI requests – referred to as “authentication” there, generally.  This has been the case ever since the BBC introduced a HTML+H.264 standards based iPlayer for the Apple iPhone, and then went out of its way to implement technical measure after technical measure to block this interface to other, unapproved platforms.

As per a previous blog post, it is a very unhealthy situation for the BBC to be able to pick & choose the “winners” according to its whims.

Comments (8)

BBC Response to my iPlayer DRM FoI Request

Got my response from the BBC regarding who is forcing them to implement content protection,  as their upper-management has publicly stated, and how they came to their decisions on it. It’s pretty disappointing really.

They’ve refused my request to determine exactly who is requiring it of the BBC, on the grounds that this information is held “for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature'”. The 2nd part they refused generally on the grounds of it being too burdensome – my request was phrased poorly it seems. They did release one document though, though heavily redacted.

Feel free to read the “final response”response and the released document, ERTG “Content Protection Update”.

Suggestions on what, if anything, to do next would be useful.

Comments (3)

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.

Comments (6)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

%d bloggers like this: