Last week, we wrote about the MPAA joining the W3C
almost certainly as part of its ongoing effort to push for DRM to be built into HTML5
. Cory Doctorow has a beautifully titled blog post about all of this, saying that "we are Huxleying ourselves into the full Orwell."
It's a great way to think about it, and Cory's quite pessimistic about the outcome:
Try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling that 2014 is the year we lose the Web. The W3C push for DRM in all browsers is going to ensure that all interfaces built in HTML5 (which will be pretty much everything) will be opaque to users, and it will be illegal to report on security flaws in them (because reporting a security flaw in DRM exposes you to risk of prosecution for making a circumvention device), so they will be riddled with holes that creeps, RATters, spooks, authoritarians and crooks will be able to use to take over your computer and fuck you in every possible way.
While I am quite frequently in agreement with Cory, I'm at least marginally more optimistic than he is about the eventual result here. Putting DRM into HTML is
monumentally stupid, and he's right that it will create massive security and legal liabilities for almost everyone. But the history of DRM has shown, over and over again, that it gets broken to bits in minutes once released, and even if there is legal liability involved in such things, it always happens. It will happen again here, and there will be "patches" made pretty quickly. It will be a tremendous waste of resources on pretty much everyone's part, but I'm not convinced that it will be effective
in making things that much more unsafe.
That said, the larger point that Cory raises reminds me of the key point that I'm still at a loss to understand here. Why the W3C and others who support this proposal seem to be so willing to kowtow to Hollywood on this. Yes, as Cory explains, it's really Netflix driving the bus here, but it's the Hollywood studios that are out there telling Netflix they need DRM:
And it’s basically all being driven by Netflix. Everyone in the browser world is convinced that not supporting Netflix will lead to total marginalization, and Netflix demands that computers be designed to keep secrets from, and disobey, their owners (so that you can’t save streams to disk in the clear).
But here's the thing: the internet wasn't built to be the next broadcast medium for big Hollywood blockbusters. It was built as a computing and communications platform. That's what made it special and it's why so many people have flocked to it. It's why it's "the internet." Hollywood came late to the party and has been trying to redesign the web in its own image ever since -- and that means locking it down so it's more about a broadcasting model, in which the "professionals" in Hollywood get to determine what you, the peons, get to do.
But there's a reason Hollywood so desperately wants to control the internet: because all the people are here
. And that's an important point. Hollywood (and, by extension, Netflix) need the internet much more than the internet needs Hollywood. Sure, the Hollywood folks like to claim that the reason the internet is so popular is because of professional content, but there's little to no evidence to support that. Yes, people like
to have access to that content, but it's never been the driving force for why people want to be online.
And we've seen this game before. The record labels demanded DRM from online music stores for years... until they realized that this was a complete waste of time and money for no benefit. And they finally agreed to what the public wanted: no DRM. There's no reason for the W3C to make this same mistake. The studios and Netflix can resist all they want. They can stick with their proprietary Silverlight players no matter how annoying and technologically backwards they might be. But, in the end, they'll come around to better, more open technologies like HTML5 because that's where the people are
and that's what the people want.
So, the W3C has a serious choice to make here, and it's been betting on the wrong horse. Sure, Netflix will resist HTML5 for a while. Because that's what it feels it needs to do. But it won't last. Because it can't. History has shown over and over again that companies will eventually follow the will of the public and it will happen again here. There's no reason to go through a stupid, shortsighted and wasteful process of DRMing everything, only to see it cracked and broken within hours of being launched. Just drop the DRM, focus on building a system that better provides what the public wants... and Hollywood and Netflix will get there eventually as well.