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Web's gatekeepers embrace DRM for next HTML5 standard

Ian Paul | Oct. 7, 2013
Universal content protection methods make sense, but the EFF argues that embracing DRM goes against the philosophy of the open Web.

The Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) formally accepted a big change recently that could affect future Web standards—a decision that will either change nothing or destroy the Web forever. It all depends on your point of view.

On Monday, the W3C's HTML Working Group said it would continue working on digital rights management for video for possible inclusion in the upcoming HTML 5.1 standard. The W3C is the group charged with defining guidelines for Web technologies.

The end result could mean that one day, companies like Amazon and Netflix won't need to rely on third-party plugins like Flash and Silverlight to deliver copy-protected movies and TV shows to your browser. Instead, these companies will be able to use a capability built right into the fabric of the Web itself called Encrypted Media Extensions (EME).

For users, it means no more needing to download a special plugin to view video content. Just fire up your browser, log in to your favorite online streaming video provider, and go. (Assuming providers embrace EME, naturally.)

The inclusion of EME in HTML 5.1 seems to make a lot of sense for the modern Web thanks to the popularity of video streaming services such as Amazon, Hulu, Netflix, and MLB.TV. There's just one problem: Current Web standards favor complete openness and don't allow for major corporations to prevent their content from being copied.

"Most people would agree that individuals and institutions in general should have the right to limit access to proprietary information, or charge for access to content they own," W3C CEO Jeffrey Jaffe wrote in May when HTML-based DRM was first publicly proposed for acceptance by the HTML Working Group. "Against this backdrop, the W3C Director [Tim Berners-Lee] has established that work on content protection for the Web is in scope for the HTML Working Group."

The EFF's slippery slope
Groups that oppose DRM are not happy about the change. Leading the EME opposition is The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights advocacy group. The EFF fears that EME could lead to a slippery slope where all kinds of other content protection schemes get included in HTML.

The group notes there is already a W3C community group pushing to make a Website's source code impossible to read, thereby making it much harder for someone to copy a specific site's design or front-end functionality. Currently, looking at a site's source code is as easy as clicking on Tools>View Source in your Web browser. This ease of use has been instrumental in helping people learn how to create Websites by copying and understanding the design decisions of others.

The EFF is also concerned that even text and images in HTML could one day be locked down. In other words, no more cut-and-paste functionality online making it much harder to do research on the Web.


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