W3C DRM appeal fails, votes kept secret

The World Wide Web Consortium’s decision to keep votes about DRM secret and that it censured the EFF for “disclosing even vague sense of a vote” raises concerns.

W3C DRM appeal fails, votes kept secret

Earlier this summer, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) — the organization responsible for defining the standards that make up the Web — decided to embrace DRM (aka "EME") as a web standard. I wasn’t happy about this. I don’t know many who were.

Shortly after that, the W3C agreed to talk with me about the issue. During that discussion, I encouraged the W3C to increase their level of transparency going forward — and if there is an appeal of their DRM decision, to make that process completely open and visible to the public (including how individual members of the W3C vote on the issue).

The appeal happened and has officially ended. I immediately reached out to the W3C to gather some details. What I found out was highly concerning. I’ll include the most interesting bits below, as un-edited as possible.

“The numerical results will be published to the public shortly. Not the comments which were made in W3C Member space.” — W3C on Twitter

“Not the individual votes either which were made in W3C Member space.” — W3C on Twitter

In a nutshell, the appeal has ended, and the W3C will NOT be releasing details on the votes or comments from their membership. (As a side note, membership in the W3C carries a rather hefty price tag.)

This was clearly disappointing. So, I dug further.

“... Although the option to share their vote publicly existed, none took it up.” — W3C on Twitter

“We can't know the thinking — some may not have remembered they could make their vote public, some may have remembered but chosen not to.” — W3C on Twitter

That’s right. According to the W3C, the option to share vote information publicly was offered, but not one single member wanted to do so. Not. One. This seemed highly unlikely to me, as the EFF, an organization committed to fighting against EME/DRM to become a standard, is one of those W3C members.

So, I sought double (even triple) confirmation of this. 

“We have explained several times that all members had the explicit option to make their vote public.” — W3C on Twitter 

“It's difficult to understand the confusion here, as it's been said several times. There was a choice when voting to make the results public.” — W3C on Twitter 

“That there was a choice means it was explicit. That it was in the questionnaire members answered meant the choice was given to all members.” — W3C on Twitter

Well, that’s about as clear as you can get.

The EFF disagrees with W3C claims

Time to check in with the EFF and see if this matches their experience. I reached out to Cory Doctorow, noted author and the W3C Advisory Committee member on behalf of the EFF, to get his thoughts. 

“The W3C did not, to my knowledge as [Advisory Committee] rep, ask members whether they would be OK with having their votes disclosed in this latest poll, and if they had, EFF would certainly have been happy to have its vote in the public record. We feel that this is a minimal step towards transparency in the standards-setting that affects billions of users and will redound for decades to come.” — Cory Doctorow

The W3C says they asked all members explicitly if they wanted to make the vote details public. At least one member (the EFF) says this did not happen. 

“By default, all W3C Advisory Committee votes are ‘member-confidential.’ Previously, EFF has secured permission from members to disclose their votes. We have also been censured by the W3C leadership for disclosing even vague sense of a vote (for example, approximate proportions).” — Cory Doctorow 

That’s right. The EFF was censured — officially reprimanded sternly — by the W3C for publicly disclosing “approximate proportions” of a vote. Not details. Not specific votes of specific members — simply a “vague sense of a vote.” 

Let’s compare that to another statement the W3C made to me regarding their “openness”: 

“Even if we treat the web like a public commons, the W3C is a member org — it's clearly easy to forget that as we are unprecedentedly open.” — W3C on Twitter 

“Unprecedentedly open.” That’s how the W3C describes themselves. And yet they not only don’t disclose critical data around their decision-making process for new standards, but they censure members that even hint at the internal votes. 

In this way, the W3C is the exact opposite of open. A closed cabal (with a high price tag for participation) decides, in secret, what the future of the “free and open Web” will be. Every human being on the planet should be concerned about this. 

The EFF then went public with their personal vote: 

“For the record, we voted to appeal Tim Berners-Lee's decision and to reconvene the EME negotiations to secure a compromise over the use of W3C standards to curtail legitimate activities, including security disclosures, accessibility adaptation, archiving, and innovative new market entrants. We believe that DRM advocates at the W3C have not exhibited the spirit of consensus and negotiation that is meant to be at the heart of the multi-stakeholder process and that this bad faith was allowed to carry the day in the Director's decision this summer.” — Cory Doctorow

Update: W3C press conference, Monday, Sept. 18, 9 a.m. EST

The W3C held an online press conference this morning. Interestingly I appeared, at least at the start, to be one of only two journalists in attendance. What follows are my take-aways from this event.

The first 15 minutes were spent talking about why the W3C thinks DRM/EME is a critical standard for a free and open web.

According to the W3C, the only member that objected to beginning the initial work (back in 2013) on a DRM/EME standard was the EFF. No other W3C members objected to this work.

“[In March of this year,] we received a bunch of formal objections — many or most of them related to the topic of security researchers.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee ruled that those objections were overruled by the importance of implementing EME.

A formal appeal can be triggered if more than 5 percent of the members request one. In July 2017, there were “more than 5 percent” that requested such an appeal (exact numbers not provided). This is the first appeal in the entire history of the W3C that has been allowed to occur.

Only 185 members (out of over 400) participated in the “final poll” during the appeal. Of them, 108 supported DRM, 57 opposed it, and 20 abstained from the vote. That resulted in the W3C formalizing EME(DRM) as a standard.

During the Q&A portion of the conference, I asked about making all votes by W3C members public — and I was told, flat out, that the membership was not asked if they would like that information released. This simply never occurred, the W3C representative said (contradicting the organization’s earlier statements):

“It was decided several years ago that we don’t make individual votes public. … No one has recently proposed changing that.”

The totals for this particular vote (but not the individual votes) are being released, according to the W3C, because it was of sufficient interest. The W3C has not done this in the past and has no plans, at present, to do so in the future.

When asked if the W3C leadership would like to see voting information be made public, the response was, well, not much of a response: 

“We are mostly interested in achieving our mission.” 

The press conference ended shortly thereafter. I was the only journalist asking any questions. And there are, clearly, a lot more to ask.

Update: Sept. 19, 2017

After the publication of this article, the W3C contacted me requesting changes to the article. I have declined their request, but in the interests of complete openness and transparency, I am including the W3C's exact (unedited) list of changes they wanted me to make to this article. (See the bulleted list below.)

I have also recorded a video explaining my thoughts around each requested in change (in case you are curious why I opted to keep the article in tact as written).

  • Your title was "W3C DRM appeal fails" and the sub title included: "votes about DRM"  W3C did not vote on DRM in this appeal. Our members were asked about whether or reject or support the decision to advance EME to W3C Recommendation.
  • You noted W3C "decided to embrace DRM (aka "EME") as a web standard." EME is not about embracing DRM as a web standard. EME does not standardize DRM.
  • You said Cory was given a "strong formal rebuke" or censure. We said we politely asked him not share confidential info. There is no formal censure at W3C. We never even made the polite request in public.
  • W3C does not have votes for its specs — we have "calls for review.” The only vote on a spec in W3C's history was this appeal vote, and we shared the results. Members had the option to show their comments and votes, but none, including EFF, did so. 
  • You said, "The W3C says they asked all members explicitly if they wanted to make the vote details public. At least one member (the EFF) says this did not happen." We showed screenshots of the option all members were given to make their vote public.

Again. I thank the W3C for reaching out, but I am declining their request at this time for reasons outlined in this video (also seen below). Should additional evidence become available (from the W3C or other parties) that shows updates or corrections are necessary, I will promptly make such changes and issue an update.

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