The fight for HTML5: 'Keep DRM out' lobby steps up standards battle

A group of 27 organisations - including the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation - have written to the web standards body W3C urging it to reject proposals that would make it easier to support DRM-protected media in HTML5-based sites.
Written by Nick Heath, Contributor

The web standards body W3C is being petitioned by a consortium of 27 organisations to reject proposals that would make it easier to support DRM-protected media in HTML5-based sites.

The draft Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) specification would apply to video, audio or interactive content  marked with HTML5 media element tags. The specification defines an API that would interact with a DRM or simple encryption system when the media was played. 

In a letter (PDF) addressed to inventor of the HMTL specification Sir Tim Berners Lee the consortium, which includes notable free software advocates such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Free Software Foundation, calls the proposed specification "disastrous" and claims it "would change HTML, the underlying language of the web, to make it accommodate and encourage" DRM.

The consortium opposes the adoption of the proposed specification on the basis that it would "harm interoperability, enshrine non-free software in W3C standards and perpetuate oppressive business models". W3C has made a public commitment to openness when developing web standards. The organisation's mission statement includes the pledge "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".

The letter expresses concerns that the specification would encourage the proliferation of closed-source DRM plug-ins that would be required to view media and that each DRM plug-in could impose arbitrary restrictions on the type of hardware and software that could play media. The BBC raised the possibility of a content decryption module working with EME blocking the ability of an OS to forward an online video stream to a third party device in its submission supporting encrypted media extensions earlier this year.

The EME proposal states that "implementation of Digital Rights Management is not required for compliance with" the specification. It says that sites that don't wish to protect content with DRM needn't do so, and can instead rely on the ability of the browser, or other user agent, to provide an unencrypted key to play the media.

The letter argues that saying that EME is not a DRM scheme in itself is disingenuous, stating: "EME has no purpose other than providing a hook in HTML on which to hang digital restrictions".

It also refutes the notion that if people are comfortable renting videos or borrowing books from a library, then they shouldn't have a problem with DRM.

"Applying such restrictions to streaming media may seem less harmful now, when 'ownership' of most media is still possible by storing it on a personal hard drive. It is quite possible, however, that this option will disappear as companies create a system in which media is only available via streaming," it states.

The editors who drafted the initial EME spec are employees of Microsoft, Google and Netflix, and the letter closes by saying that adopting the proposal as a web standard would elevate their business interests over the greater good.

"Ratifying EME would represent the narrow interests of entrenched software firms with strong ties to the entertainment industry. Though it is not in the W3C's power to prevent these companies from implementing DRM on the web, endorsing EME would constitute an abdication of responsibility to the core goals of the W3C and the web-using public," it states.

EME has been published by the HTML working group as an editor's draft and is yet to be endorsed by the W3C.

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