BBC wants to encrypt "free" TV -- talking points debunked

My new Guardian column, "The BBC is encrypting its HD signal by the back door," describes a petition from the BBC to Ofcom, the UK telecoms regulator, seeking permission to encrypt its broadcast signals, something it is prohibited from doing. The BBC proposal goes like this: Hollywood studios are blackmailing us and demanding this. But the encryption won't be bad, since it'll only affect a few programmes and only in small ways.

It's simply not true. The BBC is being deliberately misleading and extremely naive here. Naive because it's just not credible that the Hollywood studios and other rightsholders will boycott broadcast TV without encryption. They made exactly the same threat in the US, saying that without the Broadcast Flag, they'd stop licensing sport and movies to broadcast TV. There's no Broadcast Flag in the US. The broadcasts of sports and new release movies go on.

Misleading because the BBC's proposal turns over control of the design of TV receivers and recorders in the UK to an offshore consortium called DTLA, effectively turning it, not Ofcom, into the British regulator. DTLA and its guidelines will determine what you can do with your TV signals, not Parliament and copyright law. DTLA prohibits the use of open source drivers, which means that this will render obsolete all cards and other devices with that can be used with free/open software. It also prohibits unencrypted digital outputs, which means that you won't be able to buy a converter box that sends a HD digital signal to your SD Freeview box, so you'll have to throw out the old box.

Be sure to check out the comments where I'm debunking the BBC's talking points directly.

Some background: licence-fee-paid television must be free to receive in the UK. Unlike cable and commercial satellite signals, free-to-air television is carried on public airwaves, which broadcasters are allowed to use for free. In return, broadcasters are expected to provide programming on those airwaves, for free. And not just free as in "free beer", but also free as in "free speech." The terms and conditions for free-to-air telly are "Do anything you want with this, provided it doesn't violate copyright law."

But big rightsholder groups - US movie studios, mostly - object to this. They'd prefer a "copyright-plus" regime, in which they get to invent a bunch of new copyrights for themselves, without the inconvenience of public debate or parliamentary lawmaking. The way they do this is by slapping restrictive licence agreements on their media, or rather licence "agreements," in inverted commas. You don't get to negotiate these "agreements," they're imposed on you, and are sometimes even invisible to you.

The BBC is encrypting its HD signal by the back door


  1. This was mentioned here a little while ago. I was one of many that emailed Ofcom, on the last day of the incredibly short ‘open review’ period in which the public were able to express opinion. I wouldn’t have even heard about it if not for BB, this was kept very quiet.

    So, given you’ve just written another piece on this, am I to assume that plans are going ahead, have Ofcom agreed/are they actually considering this?

  2. Actually, the article is incorrect on one point.

    There IS a broadcast flag in the US but no broadcaster has had the nerve to turn it on yet.

  3. the bbc seem to forget where all their money comes from.

    Weak people at the top. What an amazing bargaining position they have. say fine, we dont want your content. how long will that last?

  4. Seconded. I wrote a response as part of the consultation thanks to Cory’s heads-up a couple of weeks ago.

    What I don’t get is why the BBC seem to be arguing for this.

    It’s quite simple to me. Encrypting content causes serious compatibility problems and stifles innovation by giving effective control to an unregulated foreign standards association.

    It does absolutely nothing to stop piracy* since everyone is capable of going on the internet and typing [television program HD] to find a ‘professionally’ hacked copy, which can be safely downloaded on bittorrent. That is what casual ‘pirates’ do these days. It’s what I do instead of setting my VCR, simply because it’s easier.

    *of course, timeshifting isn’t piracy. Wasn’t that battle fought by Sony back when I was a kid. Why fight it again?

  5. uberdave, I think Cory wants everyone to fight the good fight…

    So, Cory, if you don’t have a DRMed digital box, it means you can’t watch the BBC, so you shouldn’t have to pay the TV tax, no? Alternately, if you were using a freesat receiver only, you wouldn’t be using the OTA signal, so you shouldn’t have to pay either, no?

    Yeah, I know, you’d still be liable for the tax…but there’s gotta be a way to avoid it. Have you ever seen the windows in some Edwardian houses with the windows spanning multiple floors in order to avoid paying William Pitt the Younger’s Window Tax.

    (The Window Tax was eventually repealed by William Pitt, the Even Younger.)

    (I keed!)

  6. Something else from rereading this article:
    “The BBC is being deliberately misleading..”

    Doesn’t the BBC realize that by stating this (easily fact-check-able) lie, that they’re devaluing their brand and going against their Charter’s mission to “inform, educate and entertain”?

  7. The demand for encryption free ‘free to air’ transmission is not just a demand from the British Government, but a rule that is set in the European Treaty and Directives from the European Commission.

    By European Law all state aid is illegal, unless the aid is of a specific benefit to the member state. In the case of public service broadcasting like the BBC HD Channel, there is a set of requirements laid down before the aid from the British governmnt to BBC HD is to be considered legal aid.

    If The BBC decides to encrypt the HD transmission it violates the rule, and renders the aid illegal. This opens a window for competitors to the BBC to file a complaint to the European Commission.

    There is a certain logic that ‘free to air’ television cannot be encrypted and this is also recognized by European law.

  8. There’s no Broadcast Flag in the US.

    Uhhh, doesn’t BB post articles about the flag being turned on and biting people with DVRs?

  9. Yes, some American companies honor the flag, but everyone just buys dvrs and capture cards from Japanese, Chinese, or European manufacturers that don’t.

    Also, HDMI (non) compliance seems to be a bigger issue now, as devices from the same company that are supposed to work together DON’T. The default behavior for HDMI is to reject any and all connections, since it was designed from the start by Big Content.

  10. If it really does boil down to the BBC asking Ofcom if they could pretty please let the DTLA be the de facto broadcast regulator, expect Ofcom to swiftly present a large spike to the BBC and invite them to sit on it.

  11. Solution: dont own a tv set, dont pay a tv license, and download whatever you want for free, to watch at your leisure without commercial interruption! Simple really.

  12. “Users of the BBC iPlayer should be charged “micro payments” to use the online catch-up service said Lorraine Heggessey, chief executive of TV production company Talkback Thames.”

    [This sentiment has been uttered earlier this year by the BBC big cheeses as well.]

    This isn’t the first time that the BEEB has ‘thought out loud’ re: charging for already paid for content in the UK and the rest of the web content to be paywalled.

    What is disturbing about this is that we all know that the BBC is funded by the majority of TV owners who already pay the £139.50 per year, even if you don’t want to watch it through your TV! It’s a compulsory option if you like. If you have a TV then you need a license! [fair enough]

    If they [BBC] are so badly funded or managed now and feel that already pre-paid content should be double-dipped for by the majority of license payers, where will it end and then is that fair?!?
    BBC websites, FM Radio, car radios, DAB radios – could conceivably be “micro-chargeable” if they get their way!

    The encryption/flag will be the paywall, where in theory, it will be subjected to a yearly increase as per the license is now.

    I, personally, would prefer to see adverts on the BBC -or- give it all over to a pay-per-view service as SKY or Cable channels are now. Not this BS taxation of the British populous!!

    /Disclaimer: I gave up my TV 3 years ago out of protest at the poor quality programming coming from the BEEB et al. I neither watch mainstream nor cable TV, favoring internet original content (podcasts etc..) and find that I watch what interests me rather than constantly channel hopping /

  13. From what I can tell, the encryption has nothing to do with the transport streams, it is on the EPG data… an unlicensed set-top box could decode the audio/video just fine, but you wouldn’t get any info about the channel or the program.

    See Here

    This has been done in the past: In the USA, the TV-Guide On Screen (TVGOS) proprietary EPG is transmitted as an encrypted datastream on local PBS stations, and only TVs that license the TVGOS technology (mostly just Sony) can use it. The EPG available on OTA ATSC stations is open, but crap. It has the channel name, the current and next program, and that’s it.

    Guess what? No one cares. Both TiVo and Windows Media Center (probably the most DRM-laden solutions out there) provide their own EPG data. (and unlike TiVo, MS doesn’t even make you pay for it!)

    MythTV gives you a variety of ways to get EPG data, you can pay for XMLTV or scrape it from various services.

    This should be considered an annoyance more than anything.

  14. I’m not sure the BBC are being entirely misleading in this case. Although there’s no way that Hollywood could get away with a full-on boycott of the American Broadcast TV networks, they *easily* could get away with boycotting the BBC, if for no other reason than the fact that the BBC has more than enough original and domestic content to fill in the gaps.

    Although I’d call the movie studios’ bluff if I were the BBC, I can sympathize with the stance they’ve taken. If anything, it looks as though the BBC *want* Ofcom to block their proposal so that Ofcom, and not the BBC will take the blame for any boycott that might occur.

    (Also, the US does have the broadcast flag. By some miracle of God, however, it hasn’t been turned on)

  15. Our main way of watching TV in this house is via the Open Source app MythTV.

    Right now it seems unlikely that the BBC would be able to do this (for reasons other commenters have pointed out) but if they do, it won’t stop me.

    I will have to buy a closed source box to decode the signal, but my MythTV box will control it via IR.

    “You can’t stop the signal.”

  16. Someone at the BBC is clearly looking for a job in a US-media conglomerate.

    The percentage of US-produced media broadcasted by BBC is ridiculously small. They could stop buying US stuff tomorrow, and almost nobody would notice it.
    Geeks in the organization don’t want it.
    Taxpayers obviously don’t need it.
    So why is this being pushed from the top?

    The only explanation is that execs are tired of the pay freeze imposed last year, are looking for greener pastures, and certain contacts asked for a friendly gesture before the job offer is put on paper…

  17. Cory, your ‘new’ Guardian Column seems to be exactly the same as your old Guardian column and BB post from a couple weeks ago. I scoured it looking for updates on the situation, but there’s nothing. (The links within the article are a joke btw, you’d be better off without them.) And now that the Ofcom consultation period has closed, there’s bugger all action that anyone can take either.

    I don’t get it. Presumably you want to keep this issue alive, but how does it help to just recycle old news like this? Or did you write this a couple weeks back and it only just found its way into print? Or are you hoping that Ofcom will read it and they’ll be persuaded to reverse their draft decision to approve the BBC’s request?

    I mean really, tell us what you’re trying to achieve with this and maybe we can do something to help you achieve it!

Comments are closed.