Tiny Antennas Save Streaming Internet TV Service

An array of mini-antennas that power Aereo. Photo: Aereo

A federal judge on Wednesday refused to block a unique, antenna-based subscription service that enables the streaming of broadcast television to any internet-enabled device.

NBC, ABC, CBS, PBS, Fox and others sued Aereo, a $12 monthly subscription service that went live in New York in March. The suit claims that the upstart, backed by media mogul Barry Diller, has failed to acquire licenses from the networks who deliver their broadcasts over the air. They claimed the redistribution of the material, without a license, infringed their copyrights because it amounted to Aereo briefly buffering or copying the broadcast and “facilitating” a public performance without permission.

The case was being closely watched as many believed it could shape the manner and method by which people watch television in the future, and perhaps provide an early answer to the question of whether online television would be controlled by a stodgy industry that once shunned the VCR, or whether third-party innovators embracing technological advances have a chance to build on the openness of the public airwaves. The outcome could have ramifications in a different copyright infringement case the broadcasters brought against Dish Network, which recently unveiled a service that allows the automatic skipping of commercials.

Aereo’s New York customers basically rent two tiny antennas, each about the size of a dime. Tens of thousands of the antennas are housed in a Brooklyn data center. One antenna — unique to a customer — is used when a customer wants to watch a program in real time from a computer, tablet or mobile phone. The other works with a DVR service to record programs for later online viewing.

U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan said there were no copyright violations, and refused to shutter the service.

“Aereo’s antennas thus reinforce the significance of the copies its system creates and aid the court in finding that Aero does not create mere facilitating copies,” the judge wrote. While the ruling technically only rejects a preliminary injunction, the tone of the ruling makes clear that the broadcasters will, in all likelihood, lose the case if they choose to continue litigating against the upstart.

The broadcasters said in their suit that “no amount of technological gimmickry by Aereo — or claims that it is simply providing a set of sophisticated ‘rabbit ears’ — changes the fundamental principle of copyright law that those who wish to retransmit plaintiffs’ broadcasts may do so only with plaintiffs’ authority.”

The court, evidently, thought otherwise.

Chet Kanojia, Aereo’s chief executive, said “We said from the start that we believed that full and fair airing of the issues would reveal that Aereo’s groundbreaking technology falls squarely within the law.”

1.3M Cellphone Snooping Requests Yearly? It’s Time for Privacy and Transparency Laws

Photo: jbtaylor/Flickr

The nation’s mobile carriers weren’t kidding in April when they told California lawmakers that they were working “day and night” responding to police inquiries for subscriber information, such as locational data of where the phone was when it made and received calls.

That, they said, made them just too busy to have to report publicly how often they get such requests, and the politically powerful carriers ultimately defeated California legislation requiring them to do so.

But now it’s time for that requirement — as well as increased protection for Americans’ private data — to be made the law of the land.

On Monday, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), as part of a congressional probe, divulged statistics about the number of requests made to cellphone providers, for the first time ever revealing that the carriers assisted law enforcement an eye-popping 1.3 million times last year alone in dishing out subscriber information like text messages, location data and calling records.

There is no oversight at all of these tower dumps

And there was more disturbing information. AT&T revealed it charges a mere $75 for a “tower dump,” which tells police what mobile phones pinged a tower in a given time period, though we have no idea how often this happens or whether police store or share that data.

The nine responding companies to Markey — which reported about a 15 percent annual increase in government demands for subscriber information, did not disclose how many of these so-called tower dumps they performed. The dumps provide to law enforcement any cell phone number that has pinged a tower in a given time frame.

“There is no oversight at all of these tower dumps,” said Christopher Soghoian, a privacy expert. “We don’t know how many tower dumps, or what the government does with the data.”

The big four companies — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon — and the five others need to report how often they perform these, as thousands of innocent people, including those exercising their rights to protest, can be swept up by such an order, and there’s no warrant required to get them.