In an order last week, the FCC granted a limited authority to cable and satellite services that allows them to selectively disable ports on your set top box. This order grew out of an original petition by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) in 2008. The FCC prohibited the use of “selectable output control” (SOC) in 2003. The MPAA argued that this meant that their content could be transmitted over ports that do not support copy-protection — such as analog connections — which would leave them exposed to illegal copying. (And the MPAA would appear to have cause for this concern; just look at how quickly new shows and movies appear online.)
The FCC has issued a waiver that gives the MPAA half a loaf. While the ban on SOC has been lifted with this order, it leaves the ban in place for ports that support copy-protection features, such as HDMI. It also provides a time limit for the use of the SOC feature; content providers can only cut off unprotected ports for 90 days starting when the SOC feature is first activated for that film or show. Also, the FCC did not set an expiration date for this waiver, but instead requires companies that use the SOC feature to report back in two years at which time the FCC will review the results of this lifting of the ban on SOC practices.
It’s not a warm fuzzy feeling to know that the cable company can reach in and disable the output ports on your set top box or other device, but it also is good that the FCC did not simply roll over and give the MPAA whatever they want. I suspect that this limited waiving of the SOC prohibition is likely to result in more new movie releases becoming available over cable or satellite a lot sooner. We’ll just have to wait and see if the Law of Unintended Consequences has some surprise in store for us.