W3C embraces DRM—puts itself on the wrong side of history

The W3C’s endorsement of the DRM-like Encrypted Media Extensions is a terrible move. The EME spec restricts what can be viewed on web browsers.

W3C embraces DRM—puts itself on the wrong side of history

Last week, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—the organization with the purpose of standardizing aspects of the "Web"—voted to endorse DRM on the web. It’s a move that is in direct opposition to the W3C's mission statement—and puts them squarely on the wrong side of history.

Specifically, what the W3C is approving is a specification called Encrypted Media Extensions (EME)—an extension to existing HTML to make implementing playback restrictions a "standard" across all web browsers. 

Contradictory statements from the W3C

These sorts of restrictions (DRM) are, by definition, created for the sole purpose of making it harder for people to see/hear/consume some piece of content—a movie, a song, a book, an image, etc. —often based on their hardware, software or geographical location.

Now,  let's compare that to part of the mission statement for the W3C:

"The social value of the Web is that it enables human communication, commerce, and opportunities to share knowledge. One of W3C's primary goals is to make these benefits available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability."

Note that the mission of the W3C is, in essence, the exact opposite of the purpose of DRM. Yet, here we are. We now live in a dystopian future where the W3C is fully embracing DRM and making it an officially blessed and endorsed standard.

Why EME is a problem

The Web was designed, initially, as a set of hypertext content open to all—a way of publishing information and content so that every man and woman on the planet can consume and share it. The Web is open. The Web is free.

Past efforts to push anything closed on the Web has had semi-disastrous results. Remember Flash and Shockwave? Anything that restricts what can be viewed on web browsers on various platforms is, straight up, a bad thing. And this new Encrypted Media Extension spec from the W3C does exactly that. By design.

The Free Software Foundation is against it.

Creative Commons is against it.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is against it.

LibreOffice is against it.

The list goes on and on. If an individual or organization is pro-end-user rights, they are most likely strongly opposed to EME. In fact there appear to be only three organizations that seem to be supportive of EME: Google, Microsoft and Netflix.

And—surprise, surprise—the EME was written entirely by ... Google, Microsoft and Netflix.

The future with DRM'd content

There are a few problems here.

First: Creating a fully blessed standard for locking down content (based on location, software or any other variable) encourages more locked down content. Make it easier to drive a car, more people will drive cars. Make it easier to use a computer, more people will use computers. Make it easier to implement DRM'd content, and more DRM'd, restricted content will be made.

Second: The more DRM'd content that exists, the more locked into specific platforms (software and hardware) people will become. Browsers that don't implement EME (which includes all older versions) will quickly become unusable. Platforms and operating system outside of the traditional ones (Win/Mac/etc.) will likely find themselves having a harder and harder time viewing content as well. This is a bad thing. Not only does it make the user experiences terrible, but it also limits adoption of new, cutting-edge systems from new players in the industry.

Third: People remember the final, bad thing you do. What is President Nixon remembered for? Most people (at least nowadays) often don’t even remember his accomplishments; they remember how his presidency ended. The same will be true of Sir Tim Berners-Lee—a man who has accomplished many amazing things and created so much goodness and openness in the world. Now, history will remember him as the guy that "implemented DRM across the Web and locked everything down." 

This is the sort of move that ruins a legacy—but for Sir Tim and the entire W3C.

I only hope they reconsider this disastrous move.

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