It is looking increasingly likely that the world wide web's regulatory body will include some form of digital rights management (DRM) in future versions of HTML, opening the way for sites like YouTube and Netflix to display protected video content in web browsers but angering open-web advocates.
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), based in Geneva, agreed in early October that the playback of protected content was within the scope of its charter and stated that some form of DRM for achieving protected playback would likely be included in the next incarnation of the web's primary coding language, HTML5.1.
This move drew widespread derision from advocates of an open web, including the Electronic Frontiers Foundation (EFF). The EFF said on its Deeplinks blog on October 2 that it was "deeply disappointed... By approving this idea, the W3C has ceded control of the "user agent" (web browser) to a third party, the content distributor. That breaks an… assurance about who has the final say in your web experience".
The standard for protected content playback in HTML5.1, known as the Encrypted Media Extension (EME), has existed as a working document for months. A new draft was released yesterday, October 22, including new sections on both security considerations and privacy considerations for the end user.
The security considerations section exists as a placeholder, with text noting that staff have agreed that the section should exist but not what it should contain. Privacy considerations include notes on fingerprinting and tracking, suggesting that the standard introduces the possibility of companies and content providers colluding to track users' habits across multiple websites.
Critics say that implementing EME in HTML5.1 gives control of the web, traditionally an open forum where coders and developers are free to investigate and tinker with code and content as they like, to media companies and international corporations.
Despite that, W3C director and internet inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee wrote an opinion piece in mid-October where he said, "The W3C community is currently exploring web technology that will strike a balance between the rights of creators and the rights of consumers."
Critics say that achieving DRM-protected playback of web video, such as a new-release movie streaming through a distributor's website to the end user, should not be reliant on a DRM scheme embedded in the coding language of websites themselves. US streaming giant Netflix currently uses Microsoft's Silverlight plug-in to enable protected content delivery but also delivers unprotected video over HTML5 to Chromebook laptops. A DRM standard within HTML5.1 would allow protected video to be more easily delivered, but other options also exist.
The W3C is not ignoring dissenting views, though; on October 9, Berners-Lee penned a blog on the W3C website, saying that he and the W3C staff were "passionate about the open web", but that the future of the HTML standard would have to hit a compromise between different users' wishes.
"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. The best solution will be one that satisfies all of them, and we’re still looking for that."
The most recent update of the EME working document may go some small way to addressing critics' concerns.