This coming Thursday (13 April 2017), the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the international body responsible for developing web standards, is set to recommend Digital Rights Management in the form of Encrypted Media Standards, become an official part of HTML5. Here’s a quick run-down of why this matters and what you can do to stop it happening.
What’s going on at the W3c?
Over on the EFF’s website you can find a complete overview of the situation:
The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is a standards body: they work to create open standards, rules for connecting up the web that anyone can follow, guaranteeing that anyone can make a web browser, web server, or website.
In 2013, the W3C gave in to pressure from a few entertainment companies and big tech companies to make a new kind of standard: a standard for limiting how people could use the videos that they watched in their browser. These controlling technologies are called “Digital Rights Management” (DRM), and the W3C’s DRM standard is called “Encrypted Media Extensions” (EME).
Why should you care about DRM in web standards?
Once a company uses DRM in its product, it can threaten anyone who opens up that product in ways they don’t like. The exact boundaries of DMCA 1201 are contested, with prosecutors, rightsholders, and some courts arguing for a very expansive scope. Because the penalties for losing a DMCA claim are so scary — in some commercial circumstances it could mean a $500,000 fine and a 5-year prison sentence for a first offense! — few people want to operate in the gray area threatened by DMCA 1201.
There are three important groups in the web ecosystem who will lose their rights thanks to EME:
Competitors: these are the intended targets of EME. Companies, free software projects, and individuals who want to let people do more with the videos in their browsers will need permission from the Netflixes of the world in order to develop their tools. It’s a first for the W3C: a standard that’s designed to stop people from improving the web in lawful ways.
Security whistleblowers: these are an unintended — but welcome (for some companies) — target for EME. DRM advocates have said that merely disclosing defects in products that use DRM violates Section 1201 of the DMCA. The thinking goes like this: “When you tell people about the errors we made in designing our products, you also show them where the weak points in our DRM’s armor is.” Security researchers are routinely stopped from going public when they discover high-risk defects in widely used products because their institutions fear reprisal under DMCA 1201. Rather than protecting the right of these researchers to make truthful statements about defective products, the W3C is crafting voluntary guidelines to help its members to decide when to censor reports of defects in their products.
People with disabilities: these are also an unintended target of EME. EME includes many adaptations to help those with disabilities enjoy videos, but there are plenty of ways this could be improved. Normally, adapting technology to accommodate disabilities is all about writing code, but because these adaptations would require bypassing DRM, accessibility toolsmiths will need to clear a thicket of permissions before they start work (or risk criminal and civil penalties).
Email the W3C to stop DRM becoming part of web standard
Defective by Design, a US-headquartered grassroots campaign to expose and eliminate DRM-encumbered technology is encouraging supporters to #DialUp Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the Head of the W3C, and tell him to oppose DRM in web standards.
Although it’s possible to phone Tim’s telephone number from the UK, an easier option is to send an email to Susan Davies, the officer manager for W3C in the UK and Ireland. We’ve spoken to the office manager and she assures us she will pass on all the emails she receives about DRM in web standards to Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
Please send your emails to Susan Davies using the address firstname.lastname@example.org
Here’s a sample message to give you an idea of what to say but remember, your message will carry more weight if you take the time to use your own form of words. And as always. remember to be friendly and polite in the cause of digital rights!
Please tell Sir Tim Berners-Lee to prevent Encrypted Media Extensions becoming a W3C recommendation