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The EFF Withdraws From the W3C Over Support for DRM

Cory Doctorow, in an open letter from the EFF to the W3C:

In our campaigning on this issue, we have spoken to many, many members’ representatives who privately confided their belief that the EME was a terrible idea (generally they used stronger language) and their sincere desire that their employer wasn’t on the wrong side of this issue. This is unsurprising. You have to search long and hard to find an independent technologist who believes that DRM is possible, let alone a good idea. Yet, somewhere along the way, the business values of those outside the web got important enough, and the values of technologists who built it got disposable enough, that even the wise elders who make our standards voted for something they know to be a fool’s errand.

I’m no fan of DRM. Who is? But I am a fan of practicality, and there are practical reasons why web browsers should be able to play DRM-protected content without using proprietary plugins. Netflix, for example, is never going to serve video without DRM. Or perhaps better put, movie and TV studios wouldn’t allow Netflix to do that. Nor would professional sports leagues or the Olympics.

So either you can watch Netflix in a web browser or you can’t. If your web browser doesn’t support DRM natively, then you have to use plugins. And plugins are rapidly going the way of the dodo bird, because they suck. Even Flash’s end-of-life has been announced. iOS and Android don’t even support browser plugins anymore — and together they dominate real-world usage.

I love the EFF and will continue to support them, but I’d rather see a world where Netflix and all the other DRM-protected streaming services still work in standards-based web browsers than a world where they don’t but where the W3C can claim a moral victory. If you think the open web is losing ground to native app-based platforms now, think about how bad it would be if you couldn’t watch Netflix or live sports.

I also think it’s silly to say DRM doesn’t work. It’s not perfect, and can be worked around, but it’s harder to pirate DRM-protected content than it is non-DRM-protected content. Just making it harder is “working” to at least some degree.

Update: In a series of tweets, Doctorow clarifies that it was the W3C’s refusal to seek compromises over the DMCA, not support for DRM in general, that led to the EFF’s decision to leave:

Significantly, refusal from DRM advocates to promise not to use the DMCA against security researchers, accessibility workers, archivists […] is an ominous sign that they want to reserve the right to execute exactly that power. Publishing EME after the refusal to deal on this is recklessness embodied: when someone tells you they plan to use the power you’re giving them, you should believe them.

I’ll leave the original post as-is, because I think it expresses well my thoughts on why the W3C should support DRM, but this DMCA issue is important, and now I’m uncertain how to feel about the EFF’s decision to leave. The DMCA is an odious — and I think unconstitutional — law. DRM should be protected by its encryption and longstanding copyright law. Anything that’s “fair use” under copyright law should be “fair use” with DRM content if the DRM can be circumvented.

Monday, 18 September 2017