Dems Have DSTAC Issues, Too

It was not only Republicans who took aim at the FCC's (DSTAC) Downloadable Security Technology Advisory Committee report on set-top box security at a House FCC oversight hearing this week.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) used his first question to the FCC commissioner panel to tell FCC chairman Tom Wheeler that the DSTAC report mandated by Congress in the STELAR Act "provides no assurances that under an AllVid, unlike an apps approach, congressionally mandates protections like privacy and emergency alerts would be honored." He asked the chairman how that approach would serve the public interest.

Wheeler said the AllVid approach was an old approach and that the report looked at the security issues involved in the FCC's statutory responsibility to assure the availability of navigation devices. He said he was unaware of the issue being raised in the comments, but would look into it.

But Butterfield was not through. He asked how it would affect the availability of diverse programming to consumers if the AllVid approach did not honor licensing terms between programmers and MPVD's.

Wheeler said that one reason you have the security discussion in the first place is to protect copyrights, "so that the kind of situation you talk about wouldn't happen."

Butterfield was still not done. He asked whether AllVid would give a competitive advantage to online video distributors over traditional MVPDs.

Wheeler said he knew the committee was interested in making sure there was no thwarting of innovation through regulation, a goal he shares. He said he hoped one of the questions addressed in comments on the report, which came in last week, was "what is the impact of the set-top box on thwarting the kind of opportunities for consumers" he said Butterfield was concerned with.

Rep. Yvette Clarke of New York told the chairman that her issues with AllVid included the need for an additional box and the dual issues of increased box and energy costs, as well as the consumer protection issues Butterfield raised. She said that approach "seemed out of step with today's marketplace" and asked whether increased costs and diminished consumer protections weren't a concern for the FCC as well.

Wheeler reiterated that it was premature to draw any conclusions from the report, on which comments had just been received an, he said earlier in the hearing, on which no decision has yet been made. 

Wheeler said that the commission "believes it has the responsibility to assure that there is competitive choice in terms of navigation devices. DSTAC had several approaches as to how to do that." Those included the AllVid-like approach of a device to unite traditional and online video in an FCC mandated standard and an app-based approach to the downloadable software recommendation DSTAC was charged with recommending. "The decision about where you go from there is one we have not yet made," he said.

Clarke said that the committee needed to monitor the issue closely because there was no doubt two devices would mean increased energy costs. Wheeler countered that it could also mean no devices--that would be the app-based solution cable and MVPDs advocate.

MVPDS and programmers argue an AllVid approach is a one-size-fits-all government mandate that would chill innovation and is unnecessary in a marketplace where online video is already proliferating and accessible on an increasing number of platforms.

Computer companies counter that, like the Carterfone decision that unleashed innovation in that device market, a "competitive navigation" approach would do the same for those devices.

Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado said of downloadable security that consumers needed protecting, but that cable provers and content providers need the flexibility to "adapt to changing business models."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.