Mozilla Backs New Cable Box Rules

Browser developer Mozilla is throwing its support to proposed new set-top-box rules that would make it easier for people to watch TV programs on tablets and smartphones.

"We believe the proposed rules will help open a technology environment that today is very closed, with the result of improved competition, greater innovation, and streamlined interoperability, all to the benefit of consumers," Mozilla's public policy head Chris Riley writes in a letter sent to the Federal Communications Commission this week.

Mozilla's filing comes as the FCC is weighing proposed regulations that would allow companies other than cable and satellite providers to develop boxes that can access pay-TV programs. If the rules go through, consumers could access over-the-top programs and pay-TV programs from a single device.

Currently, customers who purchase pay TV from cable and satellite providers typically rent set-top boxes, at an average cost of $231 a year. Many customers who also watch online video on a TV screen use separate streaming devices -- like Rokus or Amazon Fire TVs -- while people who watch TV shows on tablets or smartphones often do so via apps.

The FCC's set-top-box proposal garnered support from the White House as well as consumer groups, who say the potential regulations could save consumers money.

But cable providers, entertainment companies and the Association of National Advertisers oppose the plan. The critics raise numerous arguments, including that the proposal could deprive content owners of control over the distribution of their programs.

The U.S. Copyright Office recently opposed the proposal, arguing that it could interfere with content owners' ability to license programs and to "impose reasonable conditions" on how programs are used.

The Copyright Office added that the potential rules may allow devices by non-cable companies to "ignore" cable providers' agreements regarding channel lineups and geographic restrictions. The proposal also appears to allow device makers to replace ads, or insert new ads into the "programming stream," the Copyright Office said.

Mozilla specifically criticizes that position, arguing that the Copyright Office's views "take us down a dangerous road."

"At worst, the rules conflict with only the most maximalist copyright policy views, those that would stretch statutory interpretation and precedent to allow for indefinite downstream control by rightsholders, impeding the development of new technologies and harming consumers," Riley says. "Copyright law confers a set number of rights to rightsholders, and is not meant to convey total control."

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