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Freedom to view

In my younger days, live theater in Britain was regulated by the Lord Chamberland's office, in what amounted to censorship. In the post-war years, there was a movement toward greater freedom of thought, and the role was abolished in 1968. Although the arrangement in many ways suited commercial theater, it was highly unpopular with art theater.

This control by government is creeping into television, and it is not just through legislation, as technology can provide the means for enforcement. Again, this may suit the big commercial program distributors by helping them retain a hold on what we are allowed to watch, but it will impede the free dissemination of knowledge and entertainment.

It often has been said that the restrictions on access to information helped the Soviet state fall behind the West in areas such as technology. Free access has been a cornerstone of modern democracies and is accepted as a right.

Under the guise of copy protection, the broadcast flag is one means to extend control over content distribution. The efforts of the FCC to implement a flag have so far failed in that they were seen to be extending their remit too far. Not withstanding that, the DVB Copy Protection Technologies Group is working on a new set of standards for copy protection and management for the DVB area with the goal of incorporating the technology into any media player, set-top box, TV receiver and mobile handset.

A recent DVB presentation stated that the purpose is to enable (rather than prevent) the distribution of content via the widest range of business models. This is fair enough. However, the problem arises with control over the license to manufacture the device used to receive content. We have already seen this with DVD players, where all licensees have to conform to the wishes of the closed group that manages the standard. What that means is that if you want to buy a player that can play content made by the group, that player will conform entirely to its restrictions on use.

Such control could lead easily to anti-competitive practices, plus strangle innovation. In practice, the control over licensing rests with corporations rather than governments. It would be possible for a corporation to make arrangements with a totalitarian regime to prevent the public in that country viewing anything but that permitted by the regime. We already have seen many examples of corporations cutting such deals for their own short-term business aims. The Western companies are effectively supporting censorship.

The DVB may well have honorable aims — to deliver fair payment for fair use of copyrighted content. The question is: Do we trust the corporations that are party to the control of the copy protection? Should we look back on the 1960s as an age of enlightenment? We could watch what we wanted, where we wanted. We may have done a bit of home taping, but the music industry thrived.

In the 21st century, how will the public react to new controls over what, when and where we can watch content? One scenario is that the public turn its back on the controlled entertainment served up by the multinationals and turn to the Web, video blogs, and independently produced and distributed entertainment. The public would have to buy a different box to view it, because its DVB platform may prevent access to the world of unregulated entertainment. However, the freedom to view may well be worth the cost of two boxes.

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