Posts Tagged competition

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.

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Imagine if the BBC had stopped VHS

Recently I obtained from a FoI request to the BBC, a document entitled “Content Protection Update”. This document details issues that were put to BBC management regarding content protection, as well as minutes from an ERTG meeting. The document is about protecting BBC content, and preserving the BBCs’ ability to licence content from others. It contains this advice:

If we were to provide a version of iPlayer that was available to any device, then there would be nothing to stop an unapproved manufacturer creating a box that allowed these streams in perpetuity

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 before, such power to approve devices is anti-competitive and easily abused.

The current BBC management effectively believe the UK licence payer should not be able to do what it has been doing since the early 80s: to record TV for later viewing. The BBC would undo the effective rights the licence fee payer has had for 30 years, since the wide-spread availability of VHS. Without the ability to record TV arbitrarily, would people have invested in BBC-approved video tape technology? I would say not. In which case, the market in selling content to video-tape likely would never have happened. Would the BBC ever have developed its lucrative commercial market in selling its back-catalogue to VHS?

The immense irony here is that today’s BBC management, in acting to maintain tight control over content and hence over the devices that may play that content, are doing so in greater part to protect the £100m odd of profits generated by BBC Worldwide in 2009, £44m of which comes from DVD sales. A market which grew out of consumer technology developments, i.e. home video tape, that could only have been funded by the uncontrolled access to broadcast material.

Further, in acting to protect this £100m market, the BBC is making life difficult for the people who supply it with its £4.6bn of licence fee income. These people are not just those with such niche devices as Nokia or Android phones, who find they can not access BBC iPlayer. It is the entire fee-paying population which suffers, by being denied the wide range of innovative devices that might be available if it weren’t for the BBCs’ tight grip on which devices are and are not approved. Imagine we could have cheap PVRs for BBC, or digital TVs which transparently could show us shows either from over-the-air broadcast or from on-demand iPlayer. None of this exists widely, because it all requires the BBC to inspect and sign off on each and every device.

Indeed, worse, the BBC at present are proposing that they should be the ones who develop the devices too! So far as the future of TV is the internet, the BBC wishes to ensure that it has firm control over your TV!

In my opinion, the BBC should not be putting its interests in its commercial activities so far above the interests of the licence fee payer. Particularly not when the licence fee payer generates 400 times more revenue for the BBC. The BBC should not be acting as the gatekeeper to the TV market, broadcast or internet TV. I remain baffled as to why the BBC is acting in this way.

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