Could the FCC’s proposed open set-top boxes accidentally encourage piracy?

cable subscribers loss q2 2016 set top box subscription
One common complaint from cable subscribers concerns the required equipment that must be leased from cable service providers in order to access their service. The companies maintain that this is necessary, but recently the FCC has proposed a new, more open approach that would allow customers to buy and use their own third-party set-top boxes.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is leading the charge on the new proposal, and President Barack Obama came out in favor of it last month. Predictably, the MPAA and other Hollywood groups including SAG-AFTRA warned that these open set-top boxes would lead to increased piracy and other copyright concerns. Now these groups are receiving support for this position from inside the government as well.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and congressman John Goyers have penned a letter (PDF link) to Wheeler voicing concerns about the new set-top boxes, TorrentFreak reports. The two lawmakers’ main concern is that users of these boxes would consider any apps installed on them to be perfectly legitimate, which could lead to accidental piracy if less-than-legal apps were to end up making their way on to the boxes.

“For example, apps such as Popcorn Time that focus on providing access to piratical content have tried to match the format and ease of use of legitimate apps to mask the theft of copyrighted content,” the lawmakers wrote. “Creators are legitimately worried about the prospect that future set top boxes, or their functional equivalents, could incorporate apps such as Popcorn Time or its functionality, or otherwise lead to the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted works.”

On the one hand, the ease with which Popcorn Time and similar apps provide access to pirated content does lend weight to the lawmakers’ claims. On the other hand, Popcorn Time is already available to a large user base, and achieved this status without relying on open set-top boxes, so it isn’t likely that its being available on a handful of new devices would lead to a massive increase in piracy.

As for what these set-top boxes would look like, our best guess is that they would come in somewhere between an Apple TV or Roku and a cable box, but since we’re only looking at a proposal, it’s unclear exactly how open they would be. The closest current example would be Comcast bringing its Xfinity app to Roku boxes and Samsung TVs, but both of these platforms are notably lacking a Popcorn Time app, and one doesn’t seem to be on the way anytime soon.

Piracy isn’t the only issue cable and satellite companies have with the open set-top box proposal, and they also argue that offering support to their customers will be more difficult with more hardware options available. Even so, customers fed up with paying a monthly fee per TV in use in their homes would probably gladly accept the trade-off.

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