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Interview with Mark Taylor, Pres. of UK Open Source Consortium, by Sean Daly
Tuesday, October 23 2007 @ 01:22 AM EDT

Sean Daly's telephone interview with
Mark Taylor, President of the UK Open Source Consortium,
October 18, 2007

Q: This is Sean Daly, reporting for Groklaw, on the wire with Mark Taylor, who is president of the Open Source Consortium in the UK. Good morning to you.

Mark Taylor: Good morning Sean.

Q: Now, we very much appreciate that you can take a little bit of time out of your very busy day -- I know that you're travelling today -- to speak with us. Maybe we could start, you could tell us a little bit about the Open Source Consortium? How long has it existed? What is its mission? What's the membership?

Mark Taylor: Sure, I'd love to. And first of all, I'd like to say thank you very much for spending some time with me today, as well. I'm a regular reader of Groklaw, so I'm delighted to be speaking with you. The Open Source Consortium, we formed it in early 2004. So we've been around for around three years now. And what we are is, we're the trade body for open source free software companies in the UK. The reason for formation is, we have excellent organizations representing the free software community worldwide. We've got FSF, FSF Europe, the OSI. In the UK, we've got excellent organisations who are representing the community, people like the UKUUG, Schoolsforge UK, BCS, OSS Watch, we've got organizations representing the open point of view, people like ORG, the Open Rights Group, but what we didn't have was an organization representing the point of view and the interests of the emerging industry. And so the Open Source Consortium is designed for that. So we're a trade body. We comprise something like 70 to 80 members, Free Software companies of all sizes, from microbusinesses up to reasonably well-known organizations in the UK, and we represent the interests of the emerging industry around free software.

Q: I saw on your site recently that Canonical, whose project Ubuntu is really one of the leading GNU/Linux desktops, joined. Can you talk to us about that a little bit?

Mark Taylor: Sure, I'd love to. I'm sure the guys there would be happy to as well. We're delighted to rank Canonical as one of our numbers. Again, an example of a well-known free software business. Canonical are incredibly strong supporters of free software and speak about it on issues relating to the community and relating to the emerging industry, so people like Mark [Shuttleworth] get involved in the debate about software patents, and Canonical have made it very, very clear that, as a distribution, they will not be doing a deal with Microsoft, for example. (laughter) They already speak strongly on issues affecting the industry, and it was really just a natural match. A number of the OSC member companies have done some public-sector work, some public-sector business here in the UK, so it was just natural for them to get involved. They are also very much involved in our iPlayer campaign as well.

Q: Now, let's talk about the iPlayer issues.

Mark Taylor: Sure.

Q: For our readers who are not in the UK, perhaps you could explain a little bit the BBC, its nature as a public organization, the annual fee, and so forth?

Mark Taylor: Sure. The BBC is really a national institution in the UK, and one of the things that you need to understand in the strength of feeling around some of the controversies that the BBC has gotten itself involved in is that it is a national institution. It's referred -- many people in the UK -- we refer to the BBC as 'Auntie' (laughter), it's that much part of the culture. So we're used to growing up watching BBC programs, and we've been entertained and brought to tears by them, we're also very much used to hearing what we consider to be the truth from them. The BBC News has been respected, really around the world, for the integrity of its journalism. The BBC is this institution here. Moving on to the license fee, the license fee is a tax in the UK. Ultimately, the BBC is pretty much -- well, it is, it's ultimately government-controlled. And the license fee here is a tax. It's non-optional; if you have a television, then you pay the license fee. It's relatively high as well, I guess, it works out around the 200 euro mark, I think it's about 135 pounds a year, something like that.

Q: Yes, that's not cheap.

Mark Taylor: Not cheap, right.

Q: The BBC has been going through lots of changes recently, I think there was a new charter which began in January, and there was a negotiation with the government over the fees which was less than expected, and there was also an oversight board, the BBC Trust that was created, is that right?

Mark Taylor: All of which is correct, yes. The BBC Trust replaced the former board of governors and is the oversight body for it, looking out for the integrity and looking out to see that the BBC fulfills its charter. Yes, controversial issue, the allotted budget, there have been some changes in that, that's under the control of MPs, as I said the BBC is ultimately under the control of the British government. So, yes, all correct.

Q: Let's talk about the iPlayer project. The initiative was widely criticized right from the start for excluding non-Microsoft computers and devices. What was your reaction when you first heard about it?

Mark Taylor: My first personal, emotional reaction was frankly, I was stunned. And it's back to this 'Auntie' analogy. As I said before, the perception of the BBC from childhood right up to adulthood is 'Everybody's Auntie'. And when you suddenly find your favorite Auntie who has been a part of your life and has always told the truth, when you suddenly find out that she's telling lies, conning money out of people -- these are all topical issues in the UK press at the moment -- and then finally, if you imagine if you walked into a room and found your Auntie performing "favors" shall we say (laughter) with shady characters who are constantly in trouble with the law, you'd feel a little bit -- kind of a bit -- what's going on here? When we started examining the issue and had a look into what was actually going on with the iPlayer project, we found that actually there's a smoking gun leading straight to Microsoft.

Q: Now, when you say a smoking gun, what exactly do you mean?

Mark Taylor: Well, the -- (laughter) -- the thing is, the iPlayer is not what it claimed to be, it is built top-to-bottom on a Microsoft-only stack, the BBC management team who are responsible for the iPlayer are a checklist of senior employees from Microsoft who were involved with Windows Media. A gentleman called Erik Huggers who's responsible for the iPlayer project in the BBC, his immediately previous job was director at Microsoft for Europe, Middle East & Africa responsible for Windows Media. He presided over the division of Windows Media when it was the subject of the European Commission's antitrust case. He was the senior director responsible. He's now shown up responsible for the iPlayer project.

Q: Now, when the BBC chose Microsoft, they must have known, I mean, how could they have made a choice that was so obviously discriminatory to other platforms?

Mark Taylor: Well, it's an excellent question. One would assume that they would know that as well. Unfortunately, it's not a question that we've found anyone who's been able to answer so far. And we've done a trail from OFCOM to the BBC Trust, and we're meeting up with the BBC management on the 24th, and we're very curious to have that question answered. So as soon as we know, we will tell you.

Q: Now, I know that you recently met with the BBC Trust on this issue, didn't you?

Mark Taylor: Yes, we did.

Q: Over the summer, and that meeting went well?

Mark Taylor: The meeting was excellent. The meeting was very, very good. The BBC Trust -- I think that the meeting for them was eye-opening. One of the points that they made to us was that they basically relied upon the information conveyed to them by the BBC management team responsible for the iPlayer and that's not something that they intend to continue doing. The BBC Trust were extremely concerned about the issue. At the beginning of the meeting, they were interested in knowing -- they were somewhat surprised about the reaction, not just from us, but the reaction in the public. We had a public, PM's [Prime Minister's] petition site which ran a petition around the iPlayer, and it had an incredibly powerful response.

Q: Yes, I saw that they closed it after it topped 16,000 signatures.

Mark Taylor: (laughter) Yes, that's right, that's right. They should have run it much longer. But yeah, it's not just that. In the consultations that the BBC Trust made, there were 10,000 responses from the public. And the overwhelming majority of them, over 80% -- which is an unheard-of figure in these kind of things -- said, we don't like the platform. We don't like it being single-platform. So it's a big issue. And the BBC Trust said to us, "Why the vehemence? Why have people reacted this way?" And I explained the 'Auntie' analogy. It's people don't expect that from the BBC. It's got this huge history of integrity, doing the right thing, standing up to bullies. (laughter) They've done this for a very long time. And people find that it's surprising. And they said, "Yeah, but," you know, the BBC guys said, "Well, trust us. This is going to be cross-platform." And we said, "Well, how? It's completely single-platform." They say that, but we haven't been able to find anyone who's been able to explain how they're going to achieve that at the moment, even though they're entirely locked into one single platform. They bought(?) it, and if you looked at the latest news reports on the BBC News site, you can see that the BBC Trust are taking a very, very firm line with the BBC management, and rightly so.

Q: Yes. Now, I can understand that the BBC Trust felt they were led down the garden path, because when I looked at their site yesterday, they explained in black and white on their site, in I guess there was a review at some stage in the project, where they said, "Well, DRM is absolutely necessary, and there's only one solution provider for DRM, and that's Microsoft." And when I saw that, my eyes popped, because, you know, even though I think many in the community feel that DRM is just a big mistake -- and not just in the community, I mean, the record companies, Wal*Mart, Amazon, iTunes --

Mark Taylor: EMI.

Q: EMI, they're finally getting the picture.

Mark Taylor: Yeah, you got it.

Q: But, I mean, when I think about DRM being absolutely necessary, I took a look at the MPEG-4 spec, and there's a chapter for DRM which can be completely platform-independent and in fact, there was even a small project, I think, called OpenIPMP which was started a few years ago --

Mark Taylor: Sure, there are several.

Q: So, you know, this is so at odds with the statements from the BBC and on the BBC Trust site that I felt somebody was misled.

Mark Taylor: Yes, it really is a remarkable situation. It wasn't what we specifically asked the BBC Trust to address, although the subject did come up. What we're specifically focusing on is the cross-platform issue, that a number of other organizations, notably people like ORG, the Open Rights Group, who are working on the Digital Restrictions Management issue, and the Free Software Foundation came over to the UK as part of their Defective by Design campaign a month or so ago, and were working on the issue as well. But there's two things here, there's cross-platform and there's DRM. Let's take a moment with DRM. And you're absolutely right, it's not just that one project, there are multiple projects which provide DRM, if one accepts that DRM is necessary. Now, the thrust in the industry is of increasing acceptance that not only doesn't it work, but it's not necessary and even if it were, it doesn't work, you can subvert it very easily as well. So there's that whole issue. There's also the issue of why Microsoft DRM. And we have found nobody who's able to give a convincing explanation, nothing that doesn't sound hollow. It's almost as if the requirements list that the BBC say -- or the BBC's management say that they have -- is a checklist for the features of Microsoft DRM. Now, isn't that remarkable given all the different products? (laughter) It's a remarkable coincidence.

Q: Yes, it's another one of those "remarkable coincidences".

Mark Taylor: Yes, it's another one of those "remarkable coincidences".

Q: Now, I've read on line in several places that it's possible to record BBC television right off the air, right onto your hard disk if you want.

Mark Taylor: Sure.

Q: It seems to me that there were also questions about beaming off of satellites encrypted or not, and the decision was made to not to be encrypted.

Mark Taylor: Exactly right.

Q: So why no DRM, except online?

Mark Taylor: Exactly right, and this is another one of the hollow arguments that we've heard. And again, we've found nobody so far -- and we hope maybe that the BBC management may be able to help us with this one -- Ashley Highfield and Erik Huggers -- who's been able to convincingly explain this. Some of the arguments we've heard is that the rights-holders insisted that they use Microsoft DRM -- sorry, DRM with these particular characteristics --

Q: Right.

Mark Taylor: But the BBC, as you pointed out, have stood up to far more powerful rights holders in the past. And stood up for integrity, and stood up for the consumers, which is their job. So it beggars belief that they suddenly lost their nerve this time round.

Q: Let's talk a little bit about the technical aspects of the iPlayer. I saw an analysis online which described the way it works in detail.

Mark Taylor: Oh dear. (laughter)

Q: Saying that it's a Verisign Kontiki architecture, it's peer-to-peer, and in fact one of the more worrying aspects is that you have no control over your node. It loads at boot time under Windows, the BBC can use as much of your bandwidth as they please (laughter), in fact I think OFCOM, you know, made some kind of estimate as to how many hundreds of millions of pounds that would cost everyone [Ed: see this video interview with Verisign Kontiki executive, and this one], there is a hidden directory called "My Deliveries" which pre-caches large preview files, it phones home to the Microsoft DRM servers of course, it logs all the iPlayer activity and errors with identifiers in an unencrypted file. Now, does this assessment agree with what you've looked at?

Mark Taylor: Yes.

Q: What are the privacy implications for an implementation like this?

Mark Taylor: Well, just briefly going back to the assessment thing, yes it does log precisely RSS and stuff like that and more importantly, anyone technically informed who's had a look at it -- even more importantly, the user's assessment as well and -- frankly horrified if you go and spend some time in the BBC iPlayer forums, it's eye-opening to see the sheer horror of the users, some of them technically not -- you know, relatively early-stage users -- but when it gets explained to them by some of the longer-using users of it, it's concentrated misery. (laughter)

Q: I looked at the End User License Agreement online yesterday.

Mark Taylor: Yes.

Q: And I found some of the conditions just incredible and perhaps the most incredible one is that a change can be posted online without actually informing any of the fee-payers, and it becomes active immediately.

Mark Taylor: Yes, it's malware.

Q: I mean, I'm not sure anyone who actually read through it would agree to that kind of thing.

Mark Taylor: I'm sure you're absolutely right. I'm sure you are right. And it's a remarkable thing with them as well, there's a lot of pain going on in the user forums, and some of the main technical support questions in there are "how do I remove Kontiki from my computer?" See, it's not just while iPlayer is running that Kontiki is going, it's booted up. When the machine boots up, it runs in the background, and it's eating people's bandwidth all the time. (laughter) In the UK we still have massive amounts of people who've got bandwidth capping from their ISPs and we've got poor users on the online forums saying, "Well, my internet connection has just finished, my ISP tells me I've used up all of my bandwidth."

Q: It uses up their quota, but they can't throttle it, they can't reduce it --

Mark Taylor: No, they can't throttle it. It really is. It's malware as well as spyware. But the privacy implications are frankly obvious, aren't they? The stuff it's doing.

Q: Now, the EU passed a directive in 1995 regarding digital privacy. This was transposed locally in the EU countries, in the UK in 1998 and 2000. Do you think the iPlayer as it exists today operates within the law?

Mark Taylor: This is around the data protection legislation and if iPlayer software tries to access personal data on the computer and process it without the owner's consent, then it falls foul of the data protection legislation. One thing I would like to say is, that's one area of questionable legality. It's not, in our view, the most important area of questionable legality, and that is the area of the BBC's relation to the government. In the view of many more clever people than myself, the BBC's iPlayer actually represents something called illegal state aid, which is where a government-controlled organization is promoting the interests in a market-distorting way of a particular company, in this case of an abusive monopolist.

Q: The EU Directorate General for Competition publishes a press release every three days about how they are intervening to prevent state aid [Ed: see here, and here, and here.]

Mark Taylor: Yes, exactly right. It's an incredibly important topic, and the BBC's iPlayer has got it stamped all over it.

Q: Now, let's talk about costs for a moment, because I saw on the BBC's site yesterday [October 17, ndlr] and this morning that many people at the BBC are concerned about keeping their jobs --

Mark Taylor: Sure, they're axing thousands.

Q: There's talk about selling one of the production sites, combining television and radio teams, redundancy, et cetera. Now I saw a number -- I don't know if it's accurate or not -- that said that there were 130 million pounds spent to develop the Windows-only iPlayer over the past four years. [PJ: Times Online confirms the figure.]

Mark Taylor: Yes.

Q: I mean, how do they justify not using faster and cheaper standards-based free open source software instead?

Mark Taylor: Again, it's one of the questions that we have not found anyone able to answer so far. If you consider what could be done for a free software solution to this, a one-time once-and-for-all open standards based free software solution to it, if you consider what could be done for 130 million pounds, that's remarkable. Picking up on some of the points you made, absolutely true, part of the wider controversy surrounding the BBC -- and I'd like to point out that the trust in the BBC brand is at an all-time low, not just because of iPlayer but because of multiple controversies in the area of integrity at the moment. I was reading in the Financial Times a couple of days ago that they're selling one of their prime locations in central London, one of the sort of landmark BBC sites, and the estimation of its value is between 100 and 200 million. Now, the iPlayer has cost them one of their landmark head offices.

Q: (laughter) Well, we'll have to see how that plays out. (laughter) To wrap up, what's the next step? If the BBC maintains its exclusion of non-Microsoft platforms and says "full-speed ahead, we're going to do the iPlayer, and we'll offer partial streaming access to the others, and too bad for you" - I mean, where can you take this, can you take this to the EU?

Mark Taylor: Well -- Yes, is the short answer (laughter). We were hoping, picking up on some of those points, that the BBC Trust themselves have already made it clear to BBC management that their streaming solution is not sufficient for the requirements that the BBC Trust had set for them. We were very much hoping that the UK regulatory authorities would deal with the issues satisfactorily, not just to our satisfaction, but to the thousands and thousands of excluded license payers. If they won't, then we're left with no recourse other than going to the European Commission, of course.

Q: All right. Well, Mr. Taylor, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

Mark Taylor: Sean, it's been a pleasure, thank you.

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