Man-In-The-Middle Or Middleman?

In security parlance, a man-in-the-middle is a type of attack that places a computer or other device in the communication chain between two devices to steal passwords, keys, or eavesdrop on communications. Recently CableLabs has made changes to the OpenCable POD Copy Protection specifications to further resist this form of attack. However, CableLabs continues to be attacked as the middleman trying desperately to arbitrate between the objectives of the content community and those of the consumer electronics industry.

The issue of copy protection has surfaced in Washington, DC this year as one of the hot political issues. Members of Congress have been trying to uncover the reasons behind the lackluster take rates for digital TV broadcasting and broadband access. Senator Fritz Hollings has introduced the Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act while Congressman Billy Tauzin has been holding a series of hearings to assess the source of the digital broadcasting implementation delays.

Representative Rich Boucher complained to the FCC about the CableLabs POD-Host Interface License Agreement (PHILA). Even the broadcasters are driving a process within the Copy Protection Technical Working Group (CPTWG) to mandate a type of retransmission protection.

While CableLabs is the cable industry's research and development laboratory and not an advocacy group, it has been caught in the middle of this political firestorm. Actually, the fight is really between the consumer electronics manufacturers and retailers and the Hollywood studios that create movies and television programs. CableLabs has been merely playing a role as arbitrator or middleman between the opposing views of these two industries.

On one hand the studios seek protection of their intellectual property. They have a right to protect the assets they spend millions of dollars creating. In order to drive the distribution industries to higher levels of technological protection of their assets, they threaten to withhold the goods unless certain protections are in place. They use the competition for distribution between satellite, cable, rental stores, and the Internet to force each distribution path to raise the bar of protection for fear of getting inferior content while the good stuff is sold through the competing channels.

On the other hand, the consumer electronics industry and its retailers push for the right to build products which are unrestricted and unencumbered by complex or expensive copy protection technology, the limitations of license schemes, certification, or robustness rules. At the same time they complain that there is no content to drive the sale of new products. Go figure.

CableLabs assumes the role of go-between in this fight, sometimes taking appropriate steps to assure content owners don't have unrestricted control over all aspects of home taping or viewing rights. When the content community asked for default maximum storage of 90 minutes for internal PVR storage, CableLabs resisted, requiring no such fixed limit. At the same time, the company is building a versatile tool chest of copy protection capabilities for cable operators to use to strengthen their ability to obtain high value content. With better and flexible tools, operators can negotiate for movies with earlier release windows and in high definition formats.

The copy protection tools provided by CableLabs in the form of interface standards and product specifications, licenses, and certification, help assure the content owners their high-value assets will be protected. However, these tools don't require any particular content to make use of the copy protection, nor do the tools require any particular content to be scrambled. Decisions about such settings are left to the cable operators based on separate contracts with content owners. It is important to remember that cable operators are in the business of selling attractive programming packages to subscribers at a competitive price point; if the packages they offer aren't attractive, they won't get subscribers.

This concept of tools without rules seems to upset the consumer electronics industry. It fought hard within the five-company (5C) copy protection licensing process to include encoding rules. Those rules define categories of content with separate copy protection levels for each type. But no single set of rules can apply in all cases; instead cable operators really need a flexible box of tools able to meet the diversity of requirements.

While the actual conflict in this whole copy protection battle seems to be between the consumer electronics industry and the content community, CableLabs has fought hard to win compromises that satisfy both sides. In reward for this, both sides seem to portray CableLabs as a man-in-the-middle trying to steal value from each side, when in fact, it has been a true value-added middleman acting as negotiator and advocate of each side to the other.

The opinions expressed in the story above are those of the author only and are not necessarily those of his employer, or the publisher.