Free Software Foundation attacks DRM in HTML video

In cooperation with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others, the free-software organization calls on the W3C to keep DRM out of Web standards.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
An illustration used by opponents to digital rights management technology moving to Web standards
An illustration used by opponents to digital rights management technology moving to Web standards Defective by Design

The Free Software Foundation, never a friend to digital rights management, has taken issue with its arrival in the Web standards world.

In a letter from the FSF, Electronic Frontier Foundation, Creative Commons, and other allied groups yesterday, the group called on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) to keep DRM out of the standards it defines.

"We write to implore the World Wide Web Consortium and its member organizations to reject the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) proposal," the groups said. "DRM restricts the public's freedom, even beyond what overzealous copyright law requires, to the perceived benefit of this privileged, powerful few."

It's not clear how much effect the letter and an accompanying anti-DRM petition will have, since the technology is already in use though not formally standardized. And even if the W3C balks at standardization -- after it opened up to entertainment-industry involvement in 2011 -- DRM would likely live on through other channels.

A key HTML standardization figure and outspoken DRM opponent, Ian Hickson, sees the DRM-blocking effort as unlikely to succeed in practice. In a Google+ comment, he said:

The reality is that whether the W3C publishes this or not will have no effect. If the W3C doesn't publish it, the browser vendors will just work on the spec elsewhere. Asking the W3C to do it or not is pointless. The W3C knows this, and as far as I can tell, they figure that if it's gonna happen anyway, they might as well be the venue where it happens, since that way they get to claim new members.

FSF founder Richard Stallman has long called DRM "digital restrictions management," because it limits what people can do with their computers and the data on them. Despite any number of successful circumventions of DRM, though, it remains popular in the entertainment industry as a way to try to keep people from copying TV shows, movies, books, and sometimes music.

Adobe Systems' Flash Player long has been used to encrypt streaming video, but with its fading into the sunset, allies including Microsoft, Google, and Neflix have been working on DRM-friendly Web standards.

The technology in question, called Encrypted Media Extensions, doesn't actually supply DRM but instead lets Web sites and Web browsers coordinate to call upon separate DRM software. EME is what Netflix uses for Web-based video streaming.

It's conceivable that the letter and petition could sway some people involved in the standards process. It's a contentious issue that's by no means settled in the Web standards community, which often shows an aversion to locked-down, proprietary, patented technologies.

The W3C Memes blog has made fun of the Web standards group's efforts to deal with DRM and Web video.
The W3C Memes blog has made fun of the Web standards group's efforts to deal with DRM and Web video. W3C Memes

The pointed humor of the W3C Memes Tumblr blog has poked fun at the DRM issue repeatedly of late.

Hickson has long spoken out against DRM, and he has a lot of clout in the Web standards world. He was for years the sole HTML editor, though those duties are now shared with others in a peculiar split with the W3C and a separate organization, the Web Hypertext Applications Technology Working Group (WHATWG).

But a standards group only can influence Web standards so much, because browser makers hold effective veto power. If they build support for a particular technology, Web programmers can use it, and if they don't, the programmers can't.

Google and Microsoft together account for over half of desktop browser usage.

Updated at 11:25 a.m. PT with comment from Ian Hickson.