FCC Proceeding 08-82: Selectable Output Control

Here's a copy of a letter I recently sent to the FCC. Since they said it was part of public record, I felt like posting it here, too:

I am writing to express my concern about Selectable Output Control. SOC represents a struggling industry's attempt to block consumer choice and limit the usefulness of products already purchased. Disabling the ability to use analog outputs is an absurd leap, for the sake of "protecting content".

And let's be honest: this will do next to nothing to stop piracy. One copy is all it takes, typically leaked from within the studios themselves, or by one of the many content partners. A federal involvement will only devalue the hardware and software already purchased and in use by consumers, harming innovation and damaging consumer confidence at a time when our country needs it most.

Imagine a parallel: what if the highway billboard industry claimed that in order to offer full video billboards (with sound!), highway speeds must be limited to 20mph or less, so that users could receive the full benefit of the new ads. In such a situation, the governing body would be severely harming a large number of consumers to protect the interests of a private industry.

I strongly urge the FCC not to agree to the MPAA's request for SOC. SOC would represent an industry artificially limiting customer choice, and negatively impacting a much larger industry (consumer electronics) for their own favor. It does absolutely nothing to benefit the consumer in any way, increase the value of new and existing technologies, or grow the industry in a meaningful way.

And now, a little backstory, if anyone's curious:

Selectable Output Control is a technology that the movie industry developed to cripple your TV. Basically, the idea was that while watching Pay Per View (or anything else) on your TV, the MPAA should be allowed to, at their discression, disable any and all of the analog outputs from your television (audio and video). The idea was that this would "limit piracy", by making it harder to record something and later distribute it. Since digital connections (DVI, HDMI, DisplayLink) all conform to a High-bandwidth Digital Content Protection (HDCP) standard, the recording device can't actually record "protected" content. That means that if you plug your HD cable box into your BluRay burner, it won't let you record anything. Sounds just fine right?

But what happens when I have a legitimate reason for wanting to do this? Suppose I buy a PPV event and want to record it onto my computer so I can watch it on my laptop on my next flight. With HDCP, this is impossible (and even trying is a felony). I used to be able to use the component outputs and plug it into one of these or these. These products could happily collect data, record it, and let me do with it what I please (you know, the exact reason people BUY products like this).

SOC is bad for consumers and bad for the electronics industry. Pretty much the only people it benefits is the MPAA, who wants to do everything in its power to stop users from recording TV, since it means you can skip commercials, share with friends, etc. Trouble is, all it'll do is push more and more users to the illegitimate services, since they won't have any of these restrictions.

I think that's something the MPAA forgets: they're not fighting piracy, they're competing with it. Right now, pirated movies offer a better experience to the user: they're cheaper, I can do whatever I want with them, I can re-format them to put on a mobile device (iPod, phone, etc), and they never expire. I'd be perfectly happy to buy such things if I could, because I'd be guaranteed quality and a virus-free file. Since the MPAA insists on trying to fight piracy, it ends up exhibiting all manner of destructive behavior, and SOC is just the latest.

Limiting consumer choice has never been good for the consumer, and in a world where there are more and more options, locking down my TV's outputs will probably never directly affect me. I'll just hop to a technology that isn't restricted, and one that the MPAA gets no money at all from. What it will do is create a headache for legitimate users (like those that still get HD cable over component video), an expense for the FCC, and a burden on consumer electronics companies, especially their support departments.

It sure as hell won't stop piracy though!

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