Keep The Web DRM-Free

The World Wide Web Consortium is moving ahead with support for digital locks for content in the HTML specification. Pray the group reconsiders.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

October 3, 2013

4 Min Read

The primary Web standards organization, the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C, has approved a new charter that could fundamentally change the nature of the Web.

The standards body this week said that its director, Tim Berners-Lee, affirmed that content protection technology, in the form of the Encrypted Media Extension (EME) proposal, could continue to be part of the W3C HTML Working Group's new charter.

Assuming content protection remains part of the HTML specification and survives objections, technological content locks -- often referred to as digital restriction management, or DRM -- could become part of the HTML5.1 standard.

If that happens, it will be the beginning of the end of the open Web.

[ What is Google up to? Read Google's Flutter Buy: Big Gesture?. ]

The Electronic Frontier Foundation characterized the move as a dangerous step that will lead DRM vendors, providers of high-value content and browser vendors to support W3C-compliant content protection for Web video.

"By approving this idea, the W3C has ceded control of the 'user agent' [the term for a Web browser in W3C parlance] to a third-party, the content distributor," the EFF said in a blog post on Thursday. "That breaks a -- perhaps until now unspoken -- assurance about who has the final say in your Web experience, and indeed who has ultimate control over your computing device."

Consumer control of media has been under siege since home taping and video cassette recorders began altering the content industry's revenue model. The shift to digital technology in the 1980s stoked industry fears, leading to futile efforts to keep digital audio recording out of the hands of consumers, to software protected by hardware dongles and other copy protection schemes, like the video industry's CSS. None of that really worked.

In 2009, when Apple formally abandoned DRM in iTunes, Creative Strategies' Tim Bajarin declared, "I think the writing was on the wall, both for Apple and the labels, that basically consumers were not going to put up with DRM anymore."

But the content industry sees the writing on the wall as graffiti and keeps painting it over in whitewash. DRM, the fundamentally futile concept of trying to protect that which must at some point exist in a copyable form to be consumed, just will not die. The EFF is too charitable in suggesting that user control online is only now being challenged. It has been under siege since Martin Luther, if not before.

Lately, the tech industry has learned that most consumers will trade control for convenience. Apple's iOS offered consumers usability, commerce and security without the burden and benefit of control that traditional computer users expect. The shift toward streaming media and cloud services has pushed content consumption and software usage away from ownership toward a rental model.

More recently, Google began offering Chrome Apps, Web apps that come packaged with a browser runtime so they operate as if they were desktop apps, outside of the user's Web browser. But there's a price: The inability to easily view the HTML and Javascript source code of the app and the inability to alter client-side content with an extension, like AdBlock Plus or Greasemonkey. It's the Web, but made for TV.

The Web gives users the power to alter Web content and presentation. That may not last much longer. The EFF argues that with standardized DRM, it may not be long before Web sites disable the ability to save images locally, to view source code, to copy and paste Web page text, to access fonts, or perform other useful computing functions. The Web would become like a PDF file, locked down and parceled out by permission.

In a blog post, W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe defended Web DRM back in May. "Without content protection, owners of premium video content -- driven by both their economic goals and their responsibilities to others -- will simply deprive the Open Web of key content," he wrote. "Therefore, while the actual DRM schemes are clearly not open, the Open Web must accommodate them as best possible."

But you can't have it both ways. Either the Web is open or it is closed. Either the user has control or the user is controlled. There's no middle ground. You cannot serve two masters in this context, as much as Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft might wish otherwise.

To the content industry, I say, "Please deprive us of your precious content. Begone!" There's always cable TV, Blu-Ray discs and HDMI for those who have to have Hollywood. The Web thrived in the mid-90s before you arrived and will survive your absence, for as long as you can afford to hide behind your DRM and your pay walls. Judging by the dwindling demand for DRM platforms like Microsoft Silverlight, that won't be very long.

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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