If there's one thing that the Mozilla Foundation hasn't quite yet mastered, it is the art of staying out of hot water.
Hot on the heels of the controversy surrounding their appointment of Brendan Eich to the CEO spot – a move which prompted boycotts of Mozilla software (specifically Firefox) in many corners of the Internet – they've now done something that is sure to kick the hornet’s nest again.
Mozilla has decided to include DRM in Firefox.
That's right. The foundation whose very reason for existing is “openness” – specifically "The Open Internet" – has decided that it simply must support and, by proxy, endorse Digital Right Management in their Open Source web browser.
To put this in perspective, here is a statement from Brendan Eich (who is no longer CEO) on DRM and the Open Web from back in October of last year:
"We see DRM in general as profoundly hostile to all three of: users, open source software, and browser vendors who aren’t also DRM vendors."
That's a pretty clear statement. So what has changed in the last half year? Why is Mozilla now looking to adopt (and embrace) DRM in Firefox?
This quote from Andreas Gal, Mozilla's current CTO, might shed some light on that question:
"This [implementing DRM in Firefox] is a difficult and uncomfortable step for us given our vision of a completely open Web, but it also gives us the opportunity to actually shape the DRM space and be an advocate for our users and their rights in this debate."
When I asked for further clarification from the folks at Mozilla, I was told:
"denying users access to content would drive them away from Firefox to other browsers and reduce our ability to advocate for openness across the whole Web."
In other words, they felt that not having DRM within Firefox would result in fewer people using Firefox. So they adopt DRM. And, by adopting DRM, Mozilla seems keen on helping guide what happens with DRM. This does make a certain amount of sense to me. At first blush, this seems a fairly practical approach. But what exactly do they hope to accomplish with the DRM implementation in Firefox that will benefit users? Here are examples given by Mozilla's Executive Chairwoman, Mitchell Baker:
"- Each person will be able to decide whether to activate the DRM implementation or to leave it off and not watch DRM-controlled content.
- We have surrounded the closed-source portion with an open-source wrapper. This allows us to monitor and better understand the scope of activities of the closed-source code."
Both of these points sound like a bit of a stretch to me.
End users can already enable and disable plugins on their own. So that first point is a bit moot.
And Firefox itself is Open Source. It is effectively already an “Open Source wrapper” around any Closed Source plugins, which means the second point is moot as well. I call that a double mooting.
To me, one thing seems clear - Mozilla was worried about people getting upset that they wouldn't be able to watch some DRM'd content in Firefox and would jump ship to other web browsers. So Mozilla did a bit of a 180 on their past stance (and against their core mission) in order to try to keep their user numbers higher.
That last paragraph reads a bit damning, I know. But, here's the thing: this is Mozilla we're talking about. I love Mozilla. They are, in many ways, the guardian of the Open Web. They are held to a higher standard, a standard to which they usually hold themselves. But, in this case, they have failed.
And that bums me the heck out.