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Web daddy Tim Berners-Lee: DRMed HTML least of all evils

'None of us as users' like it very much...

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Tim Berners-Lee has warned against the risk of not standardising digital rights management (DRM) in the HTML specification, saying an approach that “does the least harm” might be the best approach.

Web daddy Lee said Wednesday unless the geeks take charge and devise an acceptable standard, delivering a universal answer to DRM, then the web risks "fragmenting".

“The W3C does not and cannot dictate what browsers or content distributors can do. By excluding this issue from discussion, we do not exclude it from anyone’s systems,” Berners-Lee said here.

Berners-Lee pointed out the danger of citing "what's best for the user" in the argument on content protection, saying there are so many different parties involved – end users, browser makers and content distributors.

During discussions about adding DRM to HTML the list of new scenarios and what they might mean for "the user" has grown.

“The best solution will be one that satisfies all of them [users], and we’re still looking for that. If we can’t find that, we’re looking for the solutions that do least harm to these and other expressed wants from users, authors, implementers, and others in the ecosystem,” Berners-Lee said.

He was responding to criticism from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) after he signed off on a new charter for the W3C HTML Working Group working on HTML 5 and 5.1 that gives the group scope to work on "playback of protected content".

The working group is working on Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) – which would enable DRM playback – in the proposed standard. HTML5 standards are set to be completed in the fourth quarter of 2014 and HTML 5.1 specs should be ready for the fourth quarter of 2016, it has said.

The EEF expressed its disappointment over the working group's new charter last week, claiming Berners-Lee had surrendered control of the “user agent” to media companies and content owners.

But Berners-Lee retorted yesterday that while nobody particularly likes DRM, it’s a fact of life and said it is better if the developers running the standards process build something that’s acceptable to them and which helps preserve the web.

“No one likes DRM as a user, wherever it crops up. It is worth thinking, though, about what it is we do not like about existing DRM-based systems, and how we could possibly build a system, which will be a more open, fairer one than the actual systems which we see today.

"If we, the programmers who design and build web systems, are going to consider something which could be very onerous in many ways, what can we ask in return?,” Berners-Lee wrote.

He noted different people use the web for different, sometimes incompatible, purposes.

“Putting the user first doesn’t help us to satisfy users’ possibly incompatible wants: some web users like to watch big-budget movies at home, some web users like to experiment with code,” he said – hence the need for something that might do "least harm". ®

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