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EFF to FCC: Consumers Need Strong ‘Unlock the Box’ Rules That Bring Competition, Innovation to Set-Top Boxes

PRESS RELEASE
April 22, 2016
Copyright Laws Are No Obstacle to New Devices, Despite Cable Company Claims

Washington, D.C.—The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to adopt robust, consumer-friendly “Unlock the Box” rules that will give Americans access to more innovative, useful, and creative devices and software for watching pay cable and satellite television.

The FCC’s proposed “Unlock the Box” rules will allow any manufacturer to create and market devices or apps that will connect consumers to their cable or satellite TV feeds. The proposal will lead to a new generation of navigation devices that let viewers search and play shows on cable, online services, or over-the-air broadcasts from a single clicker, app, or box.

“Unlock the Box” is a long-overdue effort to open up the closed world of TV set-top boxes to competition. For decades pay-TV customers have had no choice but to rent set-top boxes—and while the cost of the TVs and computers they use for viewing has dropped by 90 percent, the cost of cable set-top boxes that often contain three-generations-old technology have risen 185 percent. Recently, some pay-TV companies have begun making some programming available through apps on other devices, but they remain in complete control of the design and function of those apps, while competitors are locked out.

In comments to the FCC today, EFF urged adoption of  “Unlock the Box” rules that maintain user privacy, allow testing by security researchers, and steer clear of loopholes that would enable cable and satellite TV companies to use copyright and other laws to maintain control over consumer devices for navigating TV viewing.

“Clunky, technologically-backwards rental set-top boxes that cost consumers an average of $231 a year and earn billions for cable companies are a frozen artifact of a bygone era. A handful of companies now maintain a monopoly over how consumers access the programming they pay for,’’ said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Mitch Stoltz. “Competition will drive innovation in features and allow consumers to vote with their dollars for devices that are easier to use, have more sophisticated search functions, and integrate multiple sources of programming.”

Cable and satellite companies, movie studios and other major media companies allege “Unlock the Box” rules will lead to unauthorized access to their content, and that building tools for finding and viewing TV content should require permission.

This is nonsense, EFF told the FCC today. The proposed rules don’t permit consumers to access content they haven’t paid for or authorize copying or distribution of TV programming. Copyright laws don’t give rightsholders the power to control the features of your home video devices, or to dictate how you can find and watch the programming that you pay for.

EFF is also urging the FCC to ensure that manufactures of new navigation tools are subject to strong privacy standards that will give consumers the same protections they currently have. EFF warned against giving cable and satellite TV companies authority to decide which devices comply with consumer protection rules—this would only give them another opportunity to attempt to control the device market or exclude competition.

“Consumers need privacy protections, and while competitive device makers aren’t subject to FCC regulations we believe they should be subject to the same legal standards for privacy as cable and satellite TV companies,” said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Lee Tien. “For too long every effort to improve the pay-TV experience for consumers has been derailed by companies that control set-top boxes. If ‘Unlock the Box’ rules are implemented, consumers will be the winners.”

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