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Can digital rights management and the open web coexist?

Chris Minnick and Ed Tittel | May 29, 2014
The Netflix-backed Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) proposal, and recent revelations that requirements for DRM in HTML5 are confidential, have generated furor among advocates of the Open Web. Let's cut through the hyperbole.

Given this mission, it surprised many when Tim Berners-Lee, the director of the W3C, announced in October 2013 that playback of protected media was "in scope" for the HTML Working Group. Even more surprising, and infuriating to many, was the revelation from Netflix in January 2014 that its requirements for an acceptable DRM module were confidential - leaving the W3C in the position of creating a standard to satisfy requirements that it can't know.

Recognizing that DRM is a highly contentious issue, the EME standard attempts to distance itself as much as possible from any particular DRM system. Supporters of EME emphasize that it doesn't actually implement DRM in browsers; it just lets browsers interact with DRM systems without the use of plug-ins. DRM, they argue, is already widely used on the Web.

EME makes DRM more seamless and enables the playback of protected content on devices, such as smartphones and tablets, which don't support Flash or Silverlight. With Silverlight no longer under active development and Flash no longer available for mobile devices, a more universal Web video playback method is necessary, according to major content providers.

Microsoft Internet Explorer 11 and Google Chrome already support DRM through EME. Chrome supports the Widevine Content Decryption Module, and Microsoft supports its own PlayReady DRM. The Apple Safari browser will likely support EME in the near future. Mozilla has stated its opposition to EME but has recently conceded there will be support for DRM in future Firefox versions anyway, for fear of losing users to other browsers if it doesn't play along.

Opponents Say EME Will Further Restrict Web Use

DRM opponents call the EME unprecedented, in that its purpose is to limit how people can use the Web. EME, they argue, will open the floodgates to further restrictions - preventing users from viewing Web page source code, from saving images or from inspecting and running JavaScript offline. Some of the results of such "anti-features" would be that virus detection would become nearly impossible, Web developers' jobs would become more difficult and users would have to give up the ability to choose how and when they access Web content.

As if to demonstrate that the idea of anti-features is no longer off the table, a W3C community group formed last year around the idea of hiding Web application source code. The group serves as a demonstration of just how unpopular the idea is: There's been close to no discussion within the group, and most (if not all) members are known to be opposed to the founding idea of the group.

Another popular argument in favor of DRM is that Hollywood will pack up and leave the Web if EME (or something similar) isn't implemented in browsers. However, it's also been pointed out that Hollywood needs the Web more than the Web needs Hollywood. The fact that the music and software industries have largely given up on DRM points to the possibility (and some would say inevitability) of a solution to the problem of piracy that avoids the use of plugins as well as the "baking in" of DRM into Web browsers.


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