Digital TV foreshadows erosion of Internet rights

Digital TV's locked down like broadcast, entertainment lobbies want for the Net. Could the Web also be brought to heel?

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 recognise 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 flavours 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.

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Tom Yager

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