It’s time to scrap the licence fee, and the BBC has nothing to fear

This article originally appeared on United Politics.

From September 1, users of the BBC’s iPlayer will need to have a TV licence. Currently anyone who watches live TV needs one, but they can go without if they only use on demand services. This loophole reportedly costs the BBC £150m a year, and is to be closed as part of the deal which will see the corporation shoulder the burden of free licences for pensioners.

In order to enforce this new law, the Telegraph has reported that new ‘sniffer vans’ will spread out across the country. One computer expert has suggested that these detector vans could use a technique known as ‘packet sniffing’. Dr Miguel Rio said that licence-fee inspectors could view encrypted ‘packets’ of data travelling over a home Wi-Fi network, and by controlling the size of the packets the iPlayer uses, allow them to establish if devices at homes without television licences were accessing BBC content.

This is an incredibly invasive move which privacy campaigners are rightly worried about. Thankfully, the BBC have denied that they will be using packet sniffing technology, stating ‘While we don’t discuss the details of how detection works for obvious reasons, it is wrong to suggest that our technology involves capturing data from private Wi-Fi networks.’ This raises the question though of what techniques the BBC is employing to hunt down non-licence fee payers.

The comptroller and auditor general of the National Audit Office, Sir Amyas Morse, described in his latest report how  ‘where the BBC suspects that an occupier is watching live television but not paying for a licence, it can send a detection van to check whether this is the case. Detection vans can identify viewing on a non-TV device in the same way that they can detect viewing on a television set. BBC staff were able to demonstrate this to my staff in controlled conditions sufficient for us to be confident that they could detect viewing on a range of non-TV devices.’ This would be targeted surveillance under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, but it still doesn’t address how the BBC identifies occupiers it suspects aren’t paying the licence for surveillance in the first place.

All of this seems rather moot. The entire licence fee system is incredibly antiquated in the internet ready, 21st century. The most obvious solution to the iPlayer problem seems to be to tie in the TV licence with a username and password that gives you access to the on demand services. The ‘Netflixification’ of the iPlayer is the simplest option and doesn’t involve the need for surveillance vans with complicated and expensive technology. The only reason one suspects the BBC is averse to this move is that it puts them on the path to a subscription based service that for some reason the corporation seemingly wants to avoid at all costs.

But why? Proponents of the licence fee often crow about what great value for money it is. I couldn’t agree more. Auntie makes, and has made, great content over the years. From it’s brilliant documentaries, fronted by the likes of Sir David Attenborough, to hit dramas such as Downtown Abbey and light entertainment shows like Great British Bake Off. It has franchises such as Top Gear and Doctor Who that bring in huge audiences, not just in the UK, but across the globe, and has a rich history of developing brilliant comedy shows.

This writer originally only got interested in politics as a young teenager so that I would understand the jokes and references on Dead Ringers (the last series of which was the best one in years). It has it’s detractors sure, but generally speaking the Beeb has a sterling reputation for providing great television and great radio. There is nothing to suggest that that quality would disappear in moving to a subscription service.

Netflix may operate on a much smaller scale, but it is still producing some of the greatest TV shows out there right now, why should the BBC be any different? Indeed, with a greater emphasis on the carrot rather than the stick, it could well end up producing even better content than it does now, enticing even more viewers. The current coercive funding model is incredibly illiberal, and an anachronism in this day and age. It’s time to scrap it and force the BBC to compete on a commercial level. I have no doubt that it would flourish.

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