Without making specific allegations, the Future of TV Coalition – a diverse group of US programmers, content creators, civic groups and television providers formed to celebrate and promote the thriving innovation that is revolutionising the video viewing experience – has intimated that Google may well have had advanced warning of the FCC’s plans to introduce rules FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler says pave the way for software, devices and other innovative solutions to compete with the set-top boxes that a majority of consumers must lease at the moment.
According to the Coalition, Google Staffers in Congress received an unusual off-the-record email January 28, inviting them to an invite-only meeting at Google’s DC office to ‘test drive’ something called the ‘competitive video solution’.
“Amazingly, Google plans to demonstrate its new AllVid-style TV set-top box, presumably in order to build support for the new rules being considered by the FCC on video competition announced to much fanfare just this week,” says the Coalition, who say this raises a burning question: how does Google have a box that could possibly comply with the FCC’s proposal when an intentionally vague framework of the proposal was announced just two days ago; when the FCC says there are still numerous technical issues to be addressed; and when no technical specifics are yet available to the public?
The Coalition notes that Wheeler’s ‘fact sheet’ says a new ‘independent open standards body’ will be formed to determine technical specifications for these new devices, a process that could take years. “Yet Google already has a working box,” it notes, questioningly, adding that if it does have a working box already, why on earth is a yearlong rulemaking proceeding and a sweeping government mandate needed “unless this new box won’t work without a government thumb on the scale” it suggests.
“If we didn’t know better, we might think Google had a sneak preview of the FCC’s new proposal. Or maybe they’re just amazingly confident they will be able to dominate the supposedly ‘open’ standards setting process, ramming through specs cooked up in Google’s Silicon Valley labs. Confidence that may be justified since Google reportedly held a similar off-the-record confab with the FCC staff late last year – a great opportunity for them to shape this AllVid 2.0 regulation from the beginning,” it notes.
“If that’s the case, it doesn’t bode well for the openness of the regulatory process, or for independent and minority programmers and their advocates who have been sounding the alarm against the FCC’s new rule” it warns.
“Nor does it bode well for viewers, who already endure Google reading their email and tracking their Internet searches – and could now be hoodwinked into handing over detailed, individualised records of what they watch on TV without having to live by any of the privacy protections that Congress requires of other pay TV providers,” it adds.
The Coalition says the “secretive” demonstration is also especially troubling to the many companies, organisations, and engineers who worked for over a year side by side with Google on the FCC DSTAC committee that reported to the FCC Chairman in 2015. According to the Coalition, during that entire process, Google never hinted that it had built a new navigation box or offered to bring committee members in to its offices for a demonstration. “We suppose they were saving the goodies for invitation-only, Top Secret meetings far from the prying eyes (and open records requirements) of the DSTAC Committee,” it states, wondering whether the current demonstration is little more than a fantasy, “a Potemkin set-top box that will undoubtedly look good on the surface, but tells us virtually nothing about how it might exploit the many plausible loopholes in any new FCC mandates that could hurt creators and consumers”.
“Either way, the secrecy and subterfuge shouldn’t be tolerated and professional staffers who know the ropes and are unlikely to be swayed by a flashy demo and a Golden Ticket,” declares the Coalition. “The AllVid scheme being flogged by Google and the FCC is unfair and destructive to values held far too dearly on Capitol Hill – undermining free market competition and putting a government thumb on the scale for powerful incumbents like Google, and making it harder for those serving communities of colour and providing diverse and independent programming to make the video ecosystem work,” it contends.
“We wish Google good luck with its demonstration. And we hope the staffers coming in for the show can see through the spin and take a hard, rigorous look at how Google wants to build a new business by taking a free ride on the labours of others. And the damage this could do the Future of TV” it concludes.