Tim Berners-Lee Endorses DRM In HTML5, Offers Depressingly Weak Defense Of His Decision

For the last four years, the Web has had to live with a festering wound: the threat of DRM being added to the HTML 5 standard in the form of Encrypted Media Extensions (EME). Here on Techdirt, we’ve written numerous posts explaining why this is a really stupid idea, as have many, many other people. Despite the clear evidence that EME will be harmful to just about everyone — except the copyright companies, of course — the inventor of the Web, and director of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), Sir Tim Berners-Lee, has just given his blessing to the idea:

The question which has been debated around the net is whether W3C should endorse the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) standard which allows a web page to include encrypted content, by connecting an existing underlying Digital Rights Management (DRM) system in the underlying platform. Some people have protested “no”, but in fact I decided the actual logical answer is “yes”. As many people have been so fervent in their demonstrations, I feel I owe it to them to explain the logic.

He does so in a long, rather rambling post that signally fails to convince. Its main argument is defeatism: DRM exists, the DMCA exists, copyright exists, so we’ll just have to go along with them:

could W3C make a stand and just because DRM is a bad thing for users, could just refuse to work on DRM and push back wherever they could on it? Well, that would again not have any effect, because the W3C is not a court or an enforcement agency. W3C is a place for people to talk, and forge consensus over great new technology for the web. Yes, there is an argument made that in any case, W3C should just stand up against DRM, but we, like Canute, understand our power is limited.

But there’s a world of difference between recognizing that DRM exists, and giving it W3C’s endorsement. Refusing to incorporate DRM in HTML5 would send a strong signal that it has no place in an open Internet, which would help other efforts to get rid of it completely. That’s a realistic aim, for reasons that Berners-Lee himself mentions:

we have seen [the music] industry move consciously from a DRM-based model to an unencrypted model, where often the buyer’s email address may be put in a watermark, but there is no DRM.

In other words, an industry that hitherto claimed that DRM was indispensable, has now moved to another approach that does not require it. The video industry could do exactly the same, and refusing to include EME in HTML5 would be a great way of encouraging them to do so. Instead, by making DRM an official part of the Web, Berners-Lee has almost guaranteed that companies will stick with it.

Aside from a fatalistic acceptance of DRM’s inevitability, Berners-Lee’s main argument seems to be that EME allows the user’s privacy to be protected better than other approaches. That’s a noble aim, but his reasoning doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. He says:

If put it on the web using EME, they will get to record that the user unlocked the movie. The browser though, in the EME system, can limit the amount of access the DRM code has, and can prevent it “phoning home” with more details. (The web page may also monitor and report on the user, but that can be detected and monitored as that code is not part of the “DRM blob”)

In fact there are various ways that a Web page can identify and track a user. And if the content is being streamed, the company will inevitably know exactly what is being watched when, so Berners-Lee’s argument that EME is better than a closed-source app, which could be used to profile a user, is not true. Moreover, harping on about the disadvantages of closed-source systems is disingenuous, since the DRM modules used with EME are all closed source.

Also deeply disappointing is Berners-Lee’s failure to recognize the seriousness of the threat that EME represents to security researchers. The problem is that once DRM enters the equation, the DMCA comes into play, with heavy penalties for those who dare to reveal flaws, as the EFF explained two years ago. The EFF came up with a simple solution that would at least have limited the damage the DMCA inflicts here:

a binding promise that W3C members would have to sign as a condition of continuing the DRM work at the W3C, and once they do, they not be able to use the DMCA or laws like it to threaten security researchers.

Berners-Lee’s support for this idea is feeble:

There is currently (2017-02) a related effort at W3C to encourage companies to set up “bug bounty” programs to the extent that at least they guarantee immunity from prosecution to security researchers who find and report bugs in their systems. While W3C can encourage this, it can only provide guidelines, and cannot change the law. I encourage those who think this is important to help find a common set of best practice guidelines which companies will agree to.

One of the biggest problems with the defense of his position is that Berners-Lee acknowledges only in passing one of the most serious threats that DRM in HTML5 represents to the open Web. Talking about concerns that DRM for videos could spread to text, he writes:

For books, yes this could be a problem, because there have been a large number of closed non-web devices which people are used to, and for which the publishers are used to using DRM. For many the physical devices have been replaced by apps, including DRM, on general purpose devices like closed phones or open computers. We can hope that the industry, in moving to a web model, will also give up DRM, but it isn’t clear.

So he admits that EME may well be used for locking down e-book texts online. But there is no difference between an e-book text and a Web page, so Berners-Lee is tacitly admitting that DRM could be applied to basic Web pages. An EFF post spelt out what that would mean in practice:

A Web where you cannot cut and paste text; where your browser can’t “Save As…” an image; where the “allowed” uses of saved files are monitored beyond the browser; where JavaScript is sealed away in opaque tombs; and maybe even where we can no longer effectively “View Source” on some sites, is a very different Web from the one we have today.

It’s also totally different from the Web that Berners-Lee invented in 1989, and then generously gave away for the world to enjoy and develop. It’s truly sad to see him acquiescing in a move that could destroy the very thing that made the Web such a wonderfully rich and universal medium — its openness.

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Author: Glyn Moody

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