The FCC has given Hollywood permission to activate the "Selective Output Control" technologies in your set-top box. These are hidden flags that allow the MPAA to deactivate parts of your home theater depending on what you're watching. And it sucks. As Dan Gillmor notes, "Fans of old TV science fiction will remember the Outer Limits. Given Hollywood's victory today at the FCC -- they'll be able to reach over the lines and disable functions on your TV -- the intro to the show takes on modern relevance."
The FCC says that they're doing this because they believe that if they do so, the MPAA will start releasing first-run movies (the ones that are still in theaters) for TV. They say that Hollywood won't make these movies available unless they get Selectable Output Control because SOC will stop piracy.
This is ridiculous.
First, it's ridiculous because this can't ever stop piracy or get first-run movies into your living room. Even with SOC, the studios are not going to release high-value movies that are still in theatrical distribution for viewing in your house, where you could set up a tripod and high-quality camera (along with ideal lighting) in order to make your own camcordered copy and put it online.
Now, the FCC could have solved this by saying that only movies that are in their first theatrical release run can have SOC turned on, but they didn't, because they knew that the MPAA was lying through its teeth about using SOC to enable the "new business model" of showing you first run movies in your home.
Second, it's ridiculous because it's possible in the first place. The FCC (and the candy-ass consumer electronics companies) allowed for Selectable Output Control to be inserted into your devices even though they claimed all along that they would never allow it to be used. Read your Chekhov, people: the gun on the mantelpiece in act one will go off in act three. Allowing the MPAA to get SOC in your set-top box but "never planning on using it" is like buying a freezer full of chocolate ice-cream and never planning on eating it.
If the CE companies and FCC wanted to prevent SOC from being used, the best way of doing that would be to not include it in devices in the first place.
Finally, this is ridiculous because of what it's really for: ensuring that Hollywood gets control of all the features in your home's devices and computers. Here's how that works:
- SOC only works with DRM-crippled outputs, like those locked with HDCP, DTLA, etc.
- Now that some content will have SOC on it, every manufacturer will race to add SOC (and hence HDCP and DTLA and so on) to their devices
- The committees that run DTLA and HDCP and other DRM cartels are absolutely in thrall to the MPAA. When I've attended DRM committee meetings, I've watched the MPAA reps tie the consumer electronics guys in knots, playing them off against each other, bullying them, dirty tricking them
- Putting DTLA or HDCP in your devices isn't simple: in order to do so, you have to comply with an enormous about of restrictions that the MPAA dreams up and crams into the license agreements (much of these agreements are secret, and not available for regulators or consumer to inspect)
- Ergo: now that the FCC has allowed SOC in devices, all devices will have SOC, and since SOC comes with DRM, and since the studios control DRM licensing, and since they shove all kinds of restrictive crap into DRM licenses, the FCC has essentially just guaranteed that the future of all media will be controlled by Hollywood, to our eternal torment and detriment
Now here's the really scary part:
I'm not just talking about TVs and set-top boxes here. This stuff is targetted squarely at operating system vendors. Both Apple and Microsoft have enthusiastically signed onto adding DRM to their OSes in order to comply with HDCP, DTLA and other "device-based" DRMs.
In the PC world, compliance with DTLA and HDCP rules isn't just about what features the OS can have, but what features the video cards, hard-drives, network interfaces, motherboards and drivers can have.
So the FCC has just handed the keys to specify drivers and components for general purpose PCs to the thrashing dinosaurs of Hollywood. Because even your cheapo netbook or homebuilt Linux box relies on components that are manufactured for the gigantic mainstream PC and laptop markets.
Now that the mainstream component market has a new de-facto regulator at the MPAA, watch for all of those components to come with restrictions built in.
The Obama White House has done some good, but its administrative branch is stuffed with Hollywood lawyers who are Democratic Party stalwarts. The FCC has some great tech people on this, but the commissioners' staffers who wrote this memo are either the most credulous yokels that ever met an MPAA lobbyist, or they're in the pockets of Big Content.
(Thanks, Adam and Dan!)