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Internet freedom groups urge W3C to keep DRM out of HTML

'Disastrous' proposals said to violate core web principles

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A coalition of organizations led by the Free Software Foundation has petitioned the Worldwide Web Consortium (W3C) to reject the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), a proposed expansion of the HTML spec that would create a standard digital rights management (DRM) mechanism for the web.

In an open letter addressed to W3C director Tim Berners-Lee, dated April 24, the groups described the EME proposal as "disastrous," saying that the very idea of adding DRM to the web flies in the face of core W3C principles.

"Ratifying EME would be an abdication of responsibility; it would harm interoperability, enshrine nonfree software in W3C standards and perpetuate oppressive business models," the letter states.

The EME proposal is largely the work of giant online companies that have big stakes in streaming media. Its three co-editors hail from Google, Microsoft, and Netflix, respectively.

"These companies have been promoting DRM both for their own reasons and as part of their close relationships to major media companies," the FSF's letter claims.

It's hard to argue that's not the case. Earlier this month, Netflix said that it was planning to move away from its current Silverlight-based streaming technology to one based solely on web standards, but that it would only do so once EME and other DRM-related proposals were ratified by the W3C.

Speaking at the Linux Collaboration Summit in San Francisco earlier this month, Netflix cloud architect Adrian Cockroft told the audience that the company wasn't interested in developing a version of its service that could work without digital content restrictions.

"Right now what we're basically doing is giving billions of dollars to Hollywood to buy the content, so that they can afford to build more content," Cockroft said. "That's basically the business we're in."

But according to the FSF and its cosigners, attempting to back such a business model by enshrining DRM in W3C standards would inevitably erode individual freedoms.

"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," the letter to the W3C explains. "It is quite possible, however, that this option will disappear as companies create a system in which media is only available via streaming – where they are able to control who views what when with which software."

Furthermore, the FSF contends, because DRM schemes for the web are invariably implemented via proprietary browser plugins – such as the Silverlight plugin currently employed by Netflix – ratifying EME would pressure more users to accept non-free software in order to play media.

What's more, because various content providers are likely to use various encryption schemes for their media – and therefore each would require a different plugin – EME will lead the web to a "more fractured state" in which web content is no longer universally interoperable, something the FSF says goes against the W3C's explicit global interoperability commitment.

The list of cosigners to the FSF's letter is rather telling. In addition to Creative Commons, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Free Culture Foundation, and the various global branches of the FSF, it also includes the Canadian Pirate Party, Germany's Junge Piraten, Pirate Parties International, Pirate Party of Sweden, and the UK Pirate Party.

In addition to its open letter to the W3C, the FSF has declared Friday, May 3, 2013 the "International Day Against DRM" and has organized a petition in opposition to the tech. The group says its goal is to amass 50,000 signatures by May 3, which it will then deliver to the W3C as part of the protest event. ®

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