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Sunday, July 9, 2017
W3C Greenlights DRM for the Web

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards body has publicly announced its intention to publish Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), a DRM standard for web video.

EME is a standardized way for web video platforms to control users' browsers, so that we can only watch the videos under rules they set. This kind of technology, commonly called Digital Rights Management (DRM), is backed up by laws like the United States DMCA Section 1201 (most other countries also have laws like this).

The W3C announced that it would publish its DRM standard with no protections and no compromises at all.

Under these laws, people who bypass DRM to do legal things (like investigate code defects that create dangerous security vulnerabilities) can face civil and criminal penalties. Practically speaking, bypassing DRM isn't hard (Google's version of DRM was broken for six years before anyone noticed), but that doesn't matter. Even low-quality DRM gets the copyright owner the extremely profitable right to stop their customers and competitors from using their products except in the ways that the rightsholder specifies.

It's a bad idea to make technology that treats the owner of a computer as an adversary to be controlled, and DRM wrecks the fairness of the copyright bargain by preventing you from exercising the rights the law gives you when you lawfully acquire a copyrighted work (like the rights to make fair uses like remix or repair, or to resell or lend your copy).

"This will break people, companies, and projects," Cory Doctorow writes on the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)'s blog.

There are also accessibility and competitive concerns. There are no exemptions here that would allow computers to scan videos and automate work like generating subtitles and translations or identifying strobing lights to produce warnings for people with epilepsy. EME doesn't standardize decryption either, and Doctorow writes that companies developing browsers may have to license decryption components, making it harder for new browsers to enter the market.

For its part, W3C disagrees with a lot of these concerns. Web creator Tim Berners-Lee and W3C project manager Philippe Le Hegaret write that they believe EME is better for accessibility, because it complies with other web accessibility standards, and that having DRM support built into the web, instead of requiring plugins, makes life easier for browser developers. Berners-Lee also argues that EME provides more privacy protections for viewers, because it gives browsers control over how much information is sent back to the streaming provider.

The EFF dislikes DRM and, if it has to be implemented, would like to see a much more open solution. W3C seems to have decided that since DRM is going to get used anyway, the web may as well standardize and avoid security horrors like Flash.

Even though EME was approved this week, the battle isn't quite over. Doctorow says the EFF intends to appeal the W3C's decision.

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