(Mis)Uses of Technology

by Glyn Moody

Filed Under:
drm, html5, open, openness, tim berners-lee


DRM In HTML5: What Is Tim Berners-Lee Thinking?

from the what-about-the-users? dept

Back in January, we reported on a truly stupid idea: making DRM an official aspect of HTML5. Things then went quiet, until a couple of weeks ago a post on a W3C mailing announced that the work was "in scope". An excellent post on the EFF's blog explains:

This means the controversial Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) proposal will continue to be part of that group's work product, and may be included in the W3C's HTML5.1 standard. If EME goes through to become part of a W3C recommendation, you can expect to hear DRM vendors, DRM-locked content providers like Netflix, and browser makers like Microsoft, Opera, and Google stating that they can now offer W3C standards compliant "content protection" for Web video.
The same post offers a chilling glimpse of where EME could take us:
A Web where you cannot cut and paste text; where your browser can't "Save As..." an image; where the "allowed" uses of saved files are monitored beyond the browser; where JavaScript is sealed away in opaque tombs; and maybe even where we can no longer effectively "View Source" on some sites, is a very different Web from the one we have today. It's a Web where user agents – browsers -- must navigate a nest of enforced duties every time they visit a page. It's a place where the next Tim Berners-Lee or Mozilla, if they were building a new browser from scratch, couldn't just look up the details of all the "Web" technologies. They'd have to negotiate and sign compliance agreements with a raft of DRM providers just to be fully standards-compliant and interoperable.
Rather ironically, given the fact that EME may well lead to the official closing-down of much of the open Web, Tim Berners-Lee has recently written an article entitled "The many meanings of Open", which included the following section:
The W3C community is currently exploring Web technology that will strike a balance between the rights of creators and the rights of consumers. In this space in particular, W3C seeks to lower the overall proprietary footprint and increase overall interoperability, currently lacking in this area.
Techdirt readers will immediately recognize the framing here: people who use the Web are either active "creators" or passive "consumers". Since the needs and desires of those groups are in opposition, somehow they have to be "balanced". It's exactly how the copyright industry tries to present the online world as it demands rights there that can be used against the public as part of that "balance". It's curious to see Berners-Lee adopt this formulation to justify putting DRM into HTML5. The same thinking came up in a W3C blog post that Berners-Lee wrote around the same time:
So we put the user first, but different users have different preferences. Putting the user first doesn't help us to satisfy users' possibly incompatible wants: some Web users like to watch big-budget movies at home, some Web users like to experiment with code. The best solution will be one that satisfies all of them, and we're still looking for that. If we can't find that, we're looking for the solutions that do least harm to these and other expressed wants from users, authors, implementers, and others in the ecosystem.
Again, there is the idea that the desires of people who want an open Web -- the ones that want to "experiment", by examining the underlying HTML code, say -- and those who want to watch "big-budget movies at home", are somehow in opposition, and have to be "balanced". That's nonsense. The standards currently underlying the Web are open, with no direct support for DRM -- although companies can and do add it in various non-standard ways. And people are already able to watch films at home, so there is no need to destroy the open Web in order to make the latter possible. Elsewhere in the same post we learn perhaps the real reason why the Berners-Lee and the W3C want to take this step:
if content protection of some kind has to be used for videos, it is better for it to be discussed in the open at W3C, better for everyone to use an interoperable open standard as much as possible, and better for it to be framed in a browser which can be open source, and available on a general purpose computer rather than a special purpose box. Those are key arguments for the decision that this topic is in scope.
Leaving aside the dubious initial premise -- there is no evidence that DRM is necessary, and Apple's decision to drop it for music indicates quite the contrary -- this suggests that going along with demands for adding DRM to HTML5 is about the W3C's fear of becoming marginalized by Hollywood studios as they make more of their films available online.

Perhaps the W3C should worry less about its own position and more about the users it claims to put first. After all, the net effect of creating an official standard for interoperable DRM will be to make it easier for copyright companies to adopt it -- there won't even be the present barriers and friction caused by incompatible ad-hoc systems that might make them think twice about adding it. Instead, it is likely to become the default on most online products, placing more obstacles in the way of fair-use rights of users, particularly those who are visually-impaired, who will find it harder to access these materials at all if such DRM becomes commonplace.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 16 Oct 2013 @ 1:31pm

    Re: Broken Algorithms in standards make no logical sense to me

    The next step up for DRM, when it is still being broken, is to lock down user machines, which Apple is well on its way to doing, with Microsoft following along behind. This means that only Apple or Microsoft approved, and signed, programs can be run. Note this means no user programming, and handing complete control of machines, including phones, to major companies. This is what the MAFIAA want, total control over what users can consume so that they can overcharge for it.
    Also given NSA's desire for collecting data, all storage would be in the cloud so that they could look at what everyone is looking at and writing. This is the dystopian future predicted by RMS if users cannot control the software on their machines, and how their data is stored. One bright spot, the soviet union could not stop the circulation of Samizdat, you cannot stop the copying of content when it is on paper.

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