Cable TV is a welcome addition in the homes of millions of Americans, and for more than 75 years, it’s been a force for radical transformation of the opportunities available to creators, performers, and audiences alike.
But these may be the last days of the cable system.
Oh, not this cable system. This cable system is fine. But for anyone who wants to invent a new cable system, to ascend to the daring heights of cable providers, the way is being blocked. Having climbed from scrappy pirates to fleet-commanding admirals, the executives of the cable world want to pull up the ladder after themselves — and they’re being given a critical assist by the World Wide Web Consortium, which once stood for open standards, competition and innovation on the Web.
Imagine you wanted to start a business that intercepted the most expensive, high-production-value video content in the country and retransmitted it on your own wires, charging your customers for the privilege and not sending a dime back to the broadcasters or production studios.
Sounds like piracy?
It’s the cable industry, at its inception in 1948. Back then, cable was called “Community Antenna TV,” and it was pioneered by scrappy, daring entrepreneurs who erected titanic broadcast receiver antennas with the height to tune in distant TV signals that were too faint for their customers’ set-top rabbit-ears. These companies ran physical cables from the antennas to their customers’ homes, providing them with TV service — for a fee.
The broadcasters squawked, called it piracy, but the cable operators stuck to their guns, and successfully lobbied Congress to set a compulsory licensing scheme that let them retransmit any signals they could tune, at a fixed fee, without having to negotiate with broadcasters.
Cable began as an industry founded on the principle that it was better to beg forgiveness than get permission — especially permission from an incumbent broadcast industry that wanted no part of any new, “disruptive” business models that might upset its apple cart.
Today, Comcast is one of a handful of entertainment companies, incumbent browser vendors, and companies that make products that restrict your access to your own computer who’ve successfully co-opted the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the world’s leading maker of standards for the open Web, into standardizing a system that will prevent anyone from ever doing to today’s cable operators what they did to broadcasters a generation ago.
The W3C’s Encrypted Media Extensions system is specifically designed to prevent anyone from making use of copyrighted works without permission, even if those uses are allowed by law. With EME, companies get to decide which software can access the videos they send out, and what features that software is allowed to have.
Normally, when a company tries to prevent something you want to do, something the law allows, then other companies — like those cable pioneers — step up to sell you what the competition refuses to offer.
But EME is designed to allow companies to invoke a notorious law, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which contains a clause (section 1201) that lets companies sue the competition for breaking their locks, even if those locks were preventing us from doing something the law allowed. Once a technology is squeezed into the DMCA zone, companies get to write their own laws, imposing restrictions on our use of their products and services, and invoking the power of the courts to enforce them.
This problem goes beyond the USA. The US Trade Representative is patient zero in a global epidemic of these laws, enacted by other countries’ governments as a condition of trading with the USA.
When the W3C announced that it was going to do this work, we asked them not to. We told them that standardizing a system designed to stop new, innovative companies was a betrayal of the trust that the Web’s users put in them, the hard-won trust that treats the W3C as an honest broker of an open Web.
They turned us down.
We’ve put a new proposal to them as a compromise: enact a binding legal agreement between W3C members that requires them not to invoke the DMCA to shut down the competition. This isn’t as good as not making EME in the first place, but it’s in keeping with the W3C’s existing policies: the W3C already makes its members promise not to use their patents to attack new technologies.
We understand why Comcast doesn’t want new companies to give it the same treatment it gave to the old guard when it was getting started. We just don’t understand why the W3C is willing to help it accomplish this dubious goal. A gathering of all the major players in the industry to agree on a course of conduct that locks out new competitors for no valid reason would be illegal, a form of anti-competitive collusion. The W3C’s EME project doesn’t just give moral support to the idea of designing computers to control their owners — it gives cover to the companies who get to choose the winners and losers on the Web forever after.
The W3C once stood for the open Web. After decades of using its power to make companies agree to clear the barriers that prevented innovation, now they’re helping them create those barriers. It’s a shame.
The W3C is supposed to stand for a Web where users control their own devices. They’re supposed to listen to users, not just the companies that profit from them.
Please share this post. The W3C still has it in its power to make EME’s architects sign a nonaggression pact that protects the browsers, projects and tools that don’t yet exist, that don’t have a seat at the table with the companies that are trying to prevent them from ever getting started. With enough public pressure, we can convince them to do the right thing.