Saturday, January 11, 2014

Cory Doctorow Dons Chicken-Little Suit to Fight DRM in HTML5, Why?

©The Simpsons
Holy smokes, Cory Doctorow thinks The End is Near! We are Huxleying ourselves into the full Orwell.
I can’t shake the feeling that 2014 is the year we lose the Web. -Cory Doctorow
Either Doctorow knows something we don't, or he's been infected with Chicken-Little virus and believes the sky is falling. But Doctorow is not so easily dismissed. In fact, we like and admire him and his works. He writes smart stuff and he understands the Web. He's seriously concerned with the free and open sharing of ideas and information, and he's not greedy.

Doctorow is the sworn enemy of DRM, Digital Rights Management, and is an active, articulate, and vociferous leader for a DRM-free world. When the "W3C green-lights adding DRM to the Web's standards," Doctorow responds: "I can't let you do that, Dave."

To make matters even scarier, no less than Tim Berners-Lee is openly supporting the W3C's decision! This feels to many like a betrayal, as if TB-L cares more about streaming his favorite Hollywood movies over Netflix, than about genuine Net Neutrality and Openness. (Though one wonders if TB-L ever watches movies.)

But we must take a step back and reflect again on Doctorow's contention that this has anything to do with "losing the Web." What's really happened and what are the implications?

On September 30, 2013, the W3C announced that W3C content protection for video is "in-scope" for discussion in the HTML Working Group. This is a euphemism for the inclusion of Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) in HTML5, a form of DRM that the movie industry has been lobbying for.

The HTML5 standard includes the necessary video tags to support streaming media within browsers, including encryption. But vendors who wish to enforce their copyrights must turn to browser plug-ins for DRM.

EME would provide a Web Standard platform for plug-ins, like Flash, which may or may not make a huge difference to end-users, but might make life a little more transparent for developers. But this is hardly the issue.

As much as we're sympathetic to Doctorow and the forces for an open Web, it's hard to see the W3C's decision as a threat to the Web's survival.

TB-L, never at a loss for detailed explanations, says:
if content protection of some kind has to be used for videos, it is better for it to be discussed in the open at W3C, better for everyone to use an interoperable open standard as much as possible, and better for it to be framed in a browser which can be open source, and available on a general purpose computer rather than a special purpose box.
We concur: 2014 will not be the end of the Web, including some kind of EME platform within HTML5 will not create an opaque experience for users and developers (as Doctorow claims), and the sky is not falling.

We also support Doctorow's quest for a DRM-free world, but can't how the W3C's pragmatic support for DRM will bring about the end of the world. In the inimitable words of Science Officer, Spock, "It's not logical."

-Professor Walrus

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