Commentary: Hulu's Secret? It Doesn't Really Care About Browser Blocking

Is Hulu giving itself a black-eye or what?

The fast-rising online video giant, which streams network programming from NBC, Fox, and ABC, has already blocked its content from Boxee and the PS3. Now, it's also blocking wee little Kylo, recently put out by Hillcrest Labs. The thing these three have in common is that they’ll all designed to show online programming on a television set.

People running Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, or any other desktop browser are free to watch as much Hulu content as they like. It’s only people trying to watch Hulu on TV that will have a problem, and that doesn’t seem fair.

But fair and legal don’t always go hand-in-hand.

Whyshould Hulu be able to decide what browsers can play content that’s freely available to anyone who wants it?

Because there’s no law against it, says Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. People providing goods or services can arbitrarily limit them almost anyway they want. If Hulu was a larger and more powerful company, it might face antitrust accusations, but failing that it’s all legal.

What interests von Lohmann is whether or not end users have the right to circumvent those efforts. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act says that it’s illegal to use technology to bypass the protections on a copyrighted work. It’s ambiguous whether or not that applies here. The DCMA was trying to prevent illegal copying. Hulu seems to have a different goal in mind.

What's really at the real heart of the Hulu hassle isn't protecting copyright, but appeasing the pay TV providers. You see, they’re deathly afraid of the “cord-cutters.” It keeps them up at night, the idea that you might ditch your pricey cable or satellite bill and, instead, stream all the content you want.

I don’t think many people want to cut the cord. I think most people are happy with a mix of paid and streaming, since it gives them all the variety they want, and all the convenience, too. But the pay TV people think that a tsunami of cord-cutting is coming, and they’re trying to prevent it. They’re launching walled garden approaches that they hope will satisfy your demand for streamed content, and they’re putting pressure on Hulu to block TV browsers.

How do we know? Look at how little Hulu is actually doing. Boxee can still access Hulu content using its built in browser. True, it’s using the side-door approach of accessing Hulu’s RSS feeds, but Hulu hasn’t blocked that. It could. And von Lohmann says Kylo users are easily tweaking the browser so that it identifies as a different approved desktop browser. Hulu could add captchas, he said, or require log-ins. There are a variety of things it could do to make couch viewing either impossible or a huge nuisance.

Escalating the problem, though, would be a terrible idea. If Hulu really wanted to prevent its content from reaching TVs, it would have to keep creating roadblocks, which would then be breached. No one wants to get into a shoving match with every hacker on the planet; that's a losing battle. Still, if Hulu really wanted to block TV access, that’s what it would have to do.

But it isn’t going that route at all. Why is that? Because the people at Hulu don’t really care where you watch their content. Project it on the side of a building; project it on the moon. As long as you’re watching the included ads, they’re happy.

No, they’re putting in those weak roadblocks just to keep the cable and satellite people happy. The pay TV people are going to fight hard anything that threatens their money supply, so freedom of access isn’t exactly on their priority list. If they cared about customer satisfaction or convenience, they would have offered a la carte channel selection years ago. As you’ve noticed, they haven’t.

So it’s in all our best interest to just tell the pay TV visionaries that the roadblocks are working. We can only see Hulu on the web, we’ll say. We have no interest in watching anything on our TVs but your wonderful programming.

Yes, Hulu is giving itself a black eye, but it's doing it for you. That's the price of being pragmatic.

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