The FCC has requested comment on a request by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which is seeking an "expedited permanent waiver" of the Commission’s prohibition against the use of "selectable output control" (SOC) for set-top boxes. That prohibition was put in place by the Commission in 2003; you can find it in Section 76.1903 of the Rules. You can find a copy of the FCC’s public notice here.
SOC technology enables multi-channel video programming distributors (MVPDs) – mainly, cable operators – to remotely shut-off a particular output or connector on a consumer’s set-top box, thereby funneling incoming content through only authorized outputs or connectors. The primary benefit of SOC is that it would allow the MVPD to discourage, if not prevent, consumers from pirating incoming programming by assuring that such programming was available to the consumer only through outputs designed to protect against unauthorized recording and copying. That benefits the MVPD by enabling it to attract limited-release or early release program content, such as recent theatrical movies, because the SOC would permit the MVPD to provide the program distributors assurances of extra security against the piracy of their content.
Some consumer groups objected to SOC because they view it as an ad hoc imposition that interferes with the functionality of their equipment.
In 2003 the Commission determined that MVPDs already had plenty of security mechanisms and that SOC was unnecessary. The FCC also figured that consumer concern about SOC might slow the progress of the DTV transition. Hence the prohibition.
According to the MPAA, the availability of SOC would "facilitate" partnerships between MPAA members (i.e., the movie industry) and MVPDs which would result in the provision of copy-protected, high definition feature films directly to subscribers prior to the films’ prerecorded media release dates. According to the MPAA, such partnerships would benefit the public by "expanding the timeliness and quality of consumers’ in-home viewing choices."
The Commission seeks comment on this proposal. The comment period is very abbreviated: comments are due on June 25 (less than three weeks after the FCC’s notice inviting the comments); reply comments are due July 7.
An observation on semantics: while MPAA has couched its request as one for an "expedited permanent waiver", it seems that it might be characterized more accurately as one for the de facto, if not de jure, elimination of the prohibition. After all, a "permanent waiver" would completely trump the rule being waived – so while the rule might still technically remain on the books, it would be a nullity, at least as far as anyone subject to the permanent waiver would be concerned. But by seeking a waiver, rather than a formal change in the rule, the MPAA may be looking to avoid the procedural formalities – and consequent delays – inherent in the rulemaking process.