Digital TV foreshadows erosion of Internet rights

With regard to the free exchange of information over the Internet, we, the people, have mostly managed to hold our ground. We can thank activists, hacktivists, legislators saying "no, thanks" to money from the entertainment lobbies, and forward-thinking artists and content distributors--I'm proud that writers and publishers took the lead on this--who recognize that reach is the currency of the digital age. We sh

With regard to the free exchange of information over the Internet, we, the people, have mostly managed to hold our ground. We can thank activists, hacktivists, legislators saying "no, thanks" to money from the entertainment lobbies, and forward-thinking artists and content distributors--I'm proud that writers and publishers took the lead on this--who recognize that reach is the currency of the digital age.

We should take as a warning sign of descent down the slippery slope toward the loss of Internet freedoms Internet providers' arbitrary blocking and throttling of BitTorrent traffic. The rationale points to the bandwidth wasted by BitTorrent. That doesn't ring true. There are other flavors of traffic such as VOIP, streaming news, advertising and entertainment, photo galleries, remote PC access, Usenet repositories, denial of service attacks, and spam that consume beastly amounts of bandwidth, but somehow none of these warrants detection and control at the provider's end of the pipe. It makes one wonder, what's so special about BitTorrent that it cries out to be controlled in such a radical manner?

That's an easy one. The entertainment lobby (my shorthand to avoid spewing the alphabet soup of movie, TV, and music trade groups), having failed to get the feds to impose a tax on videotapes and recordable discs, or to hold Internet providers liable for copyrighted content transferred through their networks, or (so far) to add a piracy tax to every broadband user's monthly bill, is using the most powerful weapon yet devised: "Standards."

I put that in quotes to differentiate it from true standards. Analog television, for example, works because standards and regulations ensure the interoperation of transmitters and receivers. These standards take the public good into account. The move toward digital television, which will be complete in February 2009, is attended by standards and regulations constructed to ensure interoperability and to guard the public good as well. No broadcaster can arrange that a digital TV signal require a non-standard receiver, for example, one that bills your credit card every time you watch a popular show on an over-the-air (OTA) digital channel. As a matter of practice, most cable companies pass local broadcasters' HD channels to their basic cable subscribers.

The very characteristic that makes digital TV look so good is the one that makes it so vulnerable to restriction and manipulation: A TV broadcast is no longer a signal, it's a bitstream, one that has far fewer points of origination than the Internet and is therefore easier to control. Digital TV is rapidly heading for precisely the sort of lockdown that entertainment and broadcast lobbies desire for the Internet, and to the extent that they can be used as video players and recorders, our PCs, Macs, and notebooks.

The primary example of digital lockdown is HDMI, the High Definition Multimedia Interface. Simply put, HDMI is how you get digital video into a high-definition TV. HDMI looks like a dream come true: A single cable with a small connector passes digital video, digital audio, and control signals. HDMI has always incorporated High Definition Copy Protection (HDCP), but for a long time its enforcement was relaxed. You could hook an LCD computer monitor to a cable box or DVD player with an HDMI output. All you needed was a $20 HDMI/DVI adapter.

It doesn't work that way now. If you plug an LCD monitor into a late model DVD player or other device with an HDMI output, all you'll see is text telling you that your device is incompatible. If it were truly incompatible, it wouldn't be able to display that text. Wait, it gets better.

Let's say you do spring for an HDTV with HDMI input. Depending on the maker of your cable box or DVD player, if you plug an HDMI cable into your TV, the device turns off all of its analog outputs. Simply put, the price for upgrading your TV to digital is that your existing VCR, DVD recorder, and video-capable PC or Mac go blind. I can make recordings of digital and analog cable programs, but only if I go behind my equipment rack and yank the HDMI cable out of my set top box. It gets better still.

HDCP requires credential handshaking that's prone to errors, forcing many consumers into the ludicrous practice of rebooting their TVs (mine runs Linux) to recover permission to watch them. I've had to update the firmware on my TV and amplifier to address HDCP issues, and it's still buggy as hell.

The lesson I learned from this is not to waste my money on HDMI cables. By trying to sneak martial law into a digital video interconnect standard, entertainment forced consumers to retreat to readily recordable analog even for their high definition content. Fortunately, the quality of component video, the three-cable analog connection supported by all HDTVs and high-definition devices, is indistinguishable from HDMI in well-made equipment.

Can't a computer with a digital TV tuner and a DVD drive solve this whole mess and allow all-digital connections? It ought to. A copy of Vista Ultimate and a $129 TV tuner are ostensibly all that's required to turn a PC into a combination digital cable box and video recorder. But not so fast, friend. Have you met the broadcast flag?

The broadcast flag signals receiving equipment that recording is not allowed, not even to videotape. A broadcaster can stream this flag into any program it chooses. Nothing can be sold in the U.S. that doesn't respect the broadcast flag and pass it downstream. Yes, I am aware that the FCC's mandate for the broadcast flag was overturned by a Court of Appeals. This simply means it doesn't have federal enforcement. The entertainment lobby still has the power to impose its will on technology companies. Some companies proved more eager to eat from entertainment's hand than others.

Microsoft baked the broadcast flag into Vista, a fact that was revealed last month when NBC inadvertently flipped on the flag for an episode of American Gladiator. Vista-based Windows Media Center systems tuned to NBC refused to record the show. I'd take a cheap shot about this program's popularity among Vista users, but Vista users weren't alone. Everybody loving their new digital video recorders got hit by the blackout. NBC said "oops" and Microsoft said "so what?" Let's start a pool on how long it will take before we're paying for reruns of the network TV shows we pick up with rabbit ears or pull from basic cable.

It disappoints me deeply that not one vendor told entertainment to get stuffed. The closest thing I've gotten to a statement from a vendor that's been in the back room with entertainment came from ATI, fresh from its AMD buyout and jazzed about a recent win. "We're one of the first to ship Blu-Ray player software with our hardware." Later in the discussion, I was told that "ATI has reduced the risk of unauthorized access to the frame buffer." Given that frame buffer access enables recording video to disk, I didn't have to ask who was considered unauthorized.

It would seem that the Internet, being so anarchistic, won't have its arm twisted so readily by the entertainment lobby, but Internet rights restrictions come through your telecommunications equipment. It would take an act of Congress to force a change to firmware of networking devices to restrict traffic based on content. There will be no broadcast flag for files that don't start life as commercial content. The vendors who make the components and operating systems that run our laptops and desktops see broadband digital entertainment as the next frontier, the next great driver of sales and services. The entertainment industry declared that there is no path to riches but through them, and that path requires paving over a few of your freedoms.

Unless, that is, you download your entertainment through BitTorrent. Does it meet the definition of "irony" that it's far easier for an unskilled person to do this than to deal with HDMI, HDCP, broadcast flags, frame buffer blocks, and other nonsense created specifically to frustrate consumers' efforts to enjoy digital entertainment?

Recommended
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies