Movie companies permitted to disable set-top box output remotely

Posted by Emma Woollacott

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided that movie companies should be allowed to switch off features of consumers' televisions in their own homes.

The FCC's Media Bureau has ruled that cable and satellite providers can turn off the output connections on the back of set-top boxes remotely with the aim of preventing illegal copying.

Selectable output control (SOC) essentially disables non-secure, analog outputs. The Motion Picture Association of America argued that permitting this would allow televisions with digitally secure interfaces to receive HD movies before their release on DVD or Blue-ray without danger of piracy.

The MPAA wanted to be able do to this indefinitely, but the FCC ruled that bans can only last 90 days, and will only be granted after review by the FCC.

"On balance, this limited waiver will provide public interest benefits — making movies widely available for home viewing far earlier than ever before — without imposing harm on any consumers," said the FCC in its ruling.

"This action... is a major step forward in the development of new business models by the motion picture industry to respond to growing consumer demand," said Bob Pisano, president and interim CEO of the MPAA.

"We deeply appreciate the recognition by the FCC that recently released movies need special protection against content theft when they are distributed to home televisions."

But consumer groups are up in arms.

The CEA comments, drily, "We are unsure when the FCC has ever before given private entities the right to disable consumers’ products in their homes. The fact that the motion picture studios want to create a new business model does not mean that functioning products should be disabled by them."

Further, many HD television sets don't actually have any digital input, meaning their owners won't be able to see the movies at all if SOC is applied.

"The order allowing the use of selectable output control will allow the big firms for the first time to take control of a consumer’s TV set or set-top box, blocking viewing of a TV program or motion picture," said Gigi B Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge.

"We will be watching for the first time the industry decides to exercise its control over electronics in a consumer’s home.  At that point, neither the Commission, nor, we suspect, Capitol Hill, will be able to ignore the outrage that will surely come from consumers."