Democracy at stake in the fight over our technical future

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Consumer groups and broadcasters reacted with concern over plans by Rupert Murdoch's BSkyB to introduce his own digital set-top box.

"We are disappointed with the outcome of the Broadcasting Bill," Robin Simpson, acting director of the National Consumer Council, said. "Consumers will be disappointed to find that either they are locked into an exclusive arrangement with Mr Murdoch, or they have to go to the expense of several boxes if more than one ever appears. We urge the Department of Trade and Industry to ensure in their forthcoming regulations that there is genuinely fair competition."

Sheila McKechnie of the Consumers' Association warns that consumers could make a bad investment if they buy the new digital boxes which Rupert Murdoch is commissioning, because they will not be compatible with any possible future systems.

"Whichever box you get, we're campaigning for it to be adaptable. Digital equipment will soon be on sale but it is worth waiting until the market develops before you buy it. Consumers will be taking a risk when buying equipment designed to receive digital services."

Barry Cox, director of the Independent Television Association said: "It is vital that we ensure that BSkyB does not monopolise control over the technical gateways to the home through these boxes. This means that if they control the 'conditional access' technology which enables subscribers to receive pay television services they should not also control the smart cards to that box.

"Other pay-TV broadcasters should be able, if they wish, to issue their own smart cards."

Frank McGettigan, director and general manager of Channel 4, said the broadcaster "believes it is essential that there is a common box for satellite and terrestrial digital services".

The Voice of the Listener and Viewer, the lobby group, said: "The Government can no longer ignore the interests of viewers. Unless the Government demands common standards and acts to ensure there are clear arrangements regarding inter-connectivity between services, the BBC and other public broadcasters will only be able to offer second class, marginalised services."

Granville Williams of the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom said: "The dramatic digital threat posed by BSkyB has resulted from the unwillingness of the Labour opposition to challenge the Murdoch media empire. We need a vociferous campaign to ensure that the digital set top boxes have a common interface and prevent the domination of this new technology by Murdoch."