October 22, 2010

Users as Toast: The Blocking of Google TV

Blog Update (November 24, 2010): How to *Bypass* the Blocking of Google TV by Hulu and Other Networks

Greetings. The day started badly. All he wanted was a piece of toast. Yet instead of creating a crispy slice of goodness, his General Electric toaster ejected the still soft slice, and flashed a bizarre admonition on its display (odd, he didn't even remember it having a display) -- informing him that due to an ongoing dispute with Van de Kamp's bakeries, he was blocked from toasting that particular brand of bread until further notice. How droll.

At least he could head out and pick up something to eat elsewhere. But he was low on gas -- better buy some first.

More trouble. The pump refused to operate. What's this flashing on its screen? A list of acceptable car brands that have made deals with ARCO. His old car wasn't on the OK list. So -- no gas. Amazing. What's the world coming to?

Back home, at least he can watch some TV. Now what? Instead of shows, messages are popping up hot and heavy. CBS says they will only allow viewers using SONY televisions to tune in. FOX demands Toshiba or Samsung. The DuMont network insists that you use a Farnsworth set.

DuMont? Farnsworth? What the blazes is happening today? Somebody help! HELP!

And he awoke in a cold sweat from the nightmare.

Phew. Just a bad dream. Better calm down and watch the new Google TV -- go relax with some Web shows on the big screen. He settled comfortably in his easy chair to wind down -- and his face twisted into a maniacal grin as he discovered that Hulu and the major broadcast networks have blocked much Web viewing by Google TV users.

Reaching for the heavy hammer on the table to his side, he slowly approached the array of electronic devices stacked before him ...

There has been much speculation about motivations for the blocking of most full episode Web programming from Google TV users -- first by Hulu, then by the conventional broadcast networks.

Some observers suspect that disparities in ad rates between broadcast and Web versions of programs are the primary cause. Others have suggested that it's payback to Google for refusing to censor search results to try "hide" sites that offer pirated programming.

Google itself has offered a diplomatically worded statement noting that it's up to program suppliers to decide which users they're willing to service. Understandably, Google doesn't want to burn any bridges, especially before they've been fully built.

But in my view, the purposeful blocking of particular viewing platforms for other than legitimate technical reasons (e.g. genuine, serious display incompatibilities) is unacceptable -- and should be illegal.

What we're seeing now is partly a spillover from the increasingly heavy-handed tactics that have resulted in the ongoing "carriage wars" between TV channels/networks and cable/satellite providers -- with users having channels cut off when these groups couldn't agree on terms.

Now this has escalated even further. Program providers are exploiting Web technology in what can't help but appear to be attempts to demand (extort?) fees related not to which cable system a user is on, but to what product they're using to access Web programming.

What's the difference between this situation, and that toaster and gas pump from our friend's nightmare above? Not one hell of a lot.

And from a technical standpoint, this gets even sillier. Odds are (though I don't know this for a fact) that the Google TV blocking may be based on client identification information that Google TV is honestly passing to the associated servers. If Google TV didn't self-identify in a distinct manner (or if it allowed users to set identity strings as they wished -- a common feature in some browsers), it seems likely that Google TV viewers could look like users of ordinary PCs that aren't being blocked. Of course, Google providing such a feature would likely be considered a provocative action by the very networks involved in this dispute.

Even more bizarrely in this respect, many conventional PCs (both tower and laptop) now include outputs (e.g. HDMI) that permit users to view Web programming on large TV monitors without even needing to obtain DVI adapters -- and there'd be no indication to the networks that viewers weren't using smaller displays. That's all most TVs are now from a display standpoint -- just generally larger versions of the same technology that we use at our PCs, or in our laptops -- every day!

My assumption is that ultimately Google will come to terms with the various networks involved in this dispute -- but by all rights Google shouldn't have to make any sorts of deals for users of Google TV to have the same access to Web sites as any other Web users.

If we continue to allow this bullying of viewers -- by networks trying to micromanage the hardware that we use to access their Web sites -- it is likely to only get worse over time with escalating demands for ever more control.

And then all of us -- the viewers -- will really be ... toast.


Blog Update (November 24, 2010): How to *Bypass* the Blocking of Google TV by Hulu and Other Networks

Posted by Lauren at October 22, 2010 01:31 PM | Permalink
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