If Johnny Cochrane is the go-to lawyer for guilty “celebs,” the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is the go-to advocacy group for copyleftists. This summer EFF went off the deep end in claiming the much-unloved DMCA indirectly prevents censorship of TV captioning. Yes, EFF blames the DMCA for preventing the censorship of captioning.

EFF alleged that the DMCA and another U.S. laws are preventing TVGuardian from selling a set-top box that would filter out obscenities from digital TV programming. Since I actually own a TVGuardian analogue caption decoder and know a thing or two, I call bullshit.


Why can’t TVGuardian get access to CC data after the digital TV transition? The real reason is not that the television programming is digital, but that a large portion of it (including satellite TV and much of pay-cable service) will be encrypted, and the DMCA will prohibit TVGuardian from circumventing that encryption in order to read the captioning.

As I explained to the author of the blog entry (via electronic mail, which he dutifully replied to via top-posting), TVGuardian’s analogue-TV censorship methods rely on analogue-TV captioning procedures: Captions are transmitted alongside the picture, but only come into being inside your TV set when you ask for them. You ask for them by turning on your caption decoder. Captions, then, are postprocessed.

The TVGuardian adds a level of post-postprocessing, as it reads the captions and creates an expurgated version. That is what you see, finally and at long last. The sequence is TV signal → caption decoding → caption expurgation → TV display.

Digital-TV captions aren’t postprocessed; they are integrally intermingled with the signal. They are transmitted with the picture and not on a line of the television screen that sits above the picture. (Of course everything gets its own defined data stream, but all data streams are transmitted together.)

Hence digital-TV caption decoding is just another kind of of processing that your display undertakes just to make the picture visible. Digital-TV captions are not postprocessed. The sequence is TV signal → TV display.

[There is a significant exception here in the case of analogue TV shows broadcast digitally, which must retain old analogue captions in exactly the same place (typically a duplicate of the intermingled caption data). But the EFF posting discussed only digital television, so this is a distinction without a difference.]

To make TVGuardian work on digital television, censorship has to happen in the same place that decodes the whole picture including captions. It isn’t the last step of the process, it’s one of the steps before the final step.

So I don’t know what EFF is complaining about. For digital TV, TVGuardian needs to sell its technology to equipment-makers, not to home users. If the company can’t do that, them’s the breaks. It has nothing to do with the DMCA.

EFF has, of course, failed to update its posting with any of these facts. It’s the EFF; when it comes to the DMCA, they always know what they’re talking about, correct?

I also wonder why EFF is advocating for in-home censorship. Americans are picky about that word, pedantically insisting it isn’t censorship unless the government does it. Nobody actually believes that, but it is a longstanding American myth. Here EFF is willing to go to bat for censorship because it lets them take another swing at the DMCA, thereby reinforcing the cherished prejudices of the EFF base.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2009.09.08 14:40. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:

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None. I quit.

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