TV licensing: i-Playing fair enough

iplayerThe date has finally been set after which users of the BBC iPlayer catch-up TV service will require a TV Licence. From 1 September, viewers will need to have a licence if they are to use iPlayer legally, just as they do to watch live television. I think that is fair enough. The only reason a licence hasn’t been needed up until now is because catch-up services didn’t exist when the legislation was drafted.

Last year, I questioned which services such a law would apply to. An important principle of the TV Licence is that it is required in order to watch any television, even though the money is used specifically to fund the BBC; it is not considered desirable to think of it as a subscription to the BBC. However, in the event, the change in the law has been framed in such a way that it only applies to BBC catch-up services, in other words iPlayer. As I said last year, it is very hard to define what constitutes a catch-up TV service as opposed to an online video sharing site such as Youtube, so it is not entirely surprising that the scope of the law has been limited. Whether it is the first step on a slippery slope to a subscription model remains to be seen.

One question that has cropped up is how the new law will be enforced. Now, I don’t believe laws should be broken just because they are hard to enforce and people can get away with it. The law is the law, and citizens have a responsibility to abide by it. Having said that, I don’t think the BBC’s TV Licensing arm can possibly know whether someone using iPlayer has a TV Licence or not. It seems, for the time being at least, that there will be no log-in required, no need to enter a licence number to watch a programme. That actually puts iPlayer catch-up in the same situation as its live streams. With those, there is a warning that a licence is required, but no further measures to prevent it being watched illegally.

Some people have suggested that it will be easy to trace people using iPlayer without a licence as the IP addresses of all users can be logged. While it is true that they can log IP addresses, this won’t tell them anything about who is using that IP address. Only the viewer’s ISP knows who an IP address corresponds to at a given time, and there is no requirement for them to disclose that to the BBC or anyone else. When copyright holders have wanted to clamp down on people unlawfully downloading films, for example, they have had to obtain court orders to force ISPs to hand over the details of people behind the IP addresses from which they had detected the files being downloaded. Obtaining a court order is likely to be a costly and laborious process, so only the worst offenders have been targeted. Compare that to the matter of unlicensed online TV watching. Unlike dodgy downloads – which no-one should be using – most people using iPlayer will have a TV Licence, and will be doing so perfectly legally. How, therefore, can TV Licensing even know which users to obtain a court order for in the first place? They can’t ask for details of all the millions of iPlayer users. Not only would that be impractical, it would also be totally disproportionate, as the vast majority of people they were obtaining details for would be doing nothing wrong. The bottom line is, there is no way for the BBC to know who is using iPlayer, and whether those people are licensed, unless they require some sort of log-in, and that applies equally to the live streams.

As an aside, I have noticed comments online suggesting the solution to the above is to use “encryption”. I feel there is some confusion here between encryption and authentication. Traditionally, broadcast pay-TV, for example satellite TV, has been encrypted to stop non-subscribers from watching it. After all, anyone with a dish can pick the transmissions up. Internet catch-up TV is different. As a simplification, the video is effectively sent to each user separately as it is requested. The only consequence of it being unencrypted is that it would be possible to snoop on what someone was watching if you were listening in to their internet connection. You would have to watch the same programme as the person you were spying on at exactly the same time, rather defeating the point of catch-up TV! Stopping people from watching without a licence actually requires authentication: either the input of a TV Licence number, or a login to an account associated with a licence. The password/licence number would be encrypted when it was sent, as it should be any log-in credentials used online; the video itself need not be encrypted, as this would just add unnecessary overheads.

It will be interesting to see whether any sort of log-in does eventually appear on iPlayer. In the meantime, I’m fairly certain they have no way of knowing whether viewers are licensed or not, and they will need to rely on the public’s integrity, backed up by threatening letters from an army of TV Licensing officers, if a significant number of additional viewers are to pay for a licence.

One response to “TV licensing: i-Playing fair enough”

  1. Dave Brown

    The confusion existing around this make me once again question whether the current funding model for public service broadcasting is appropriate in the internet age.

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