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DRM will unravel the Web

By Christopher Lemmer Webber on Mon 18 September 2017

I'm a web standards author and I participate in the W3C. I am co-editor of the ActivityPub protocol, participate in a few other community groups and working groups, and I consider it an honor to have been able to participate in the W3C process. What I am going to write here though represents me and my feelings alone. In a sense though, that makes this even more painful. This is a blogpost I don't have time to write, but here I am writing it; I am emotionally forced to push forward on this topic. The W3C has allowed DRM to move forward on the web through the EME specification (which is, to paraphrase Danny O'Brien from the EFF, a "DRM shaped hole where nothing else but DRM fits"). This threatens to unravel the web as we know it. How could this happen? How did we get here?

Like many of my generation, I grew up on the web, both as a citizen of this world and as a developer. "Web development", in one way or another, has principally been my work for my adult life, and how I have learned to be a programmer. The web is an enormous, astounding effort of many, many participants. Of course, Tim Berners-Lee is credited for much of it, and deserves much of this credit. I've had the pleasure of meeting Tim on a couple of occasions; when you meet Tim it's clear how deeply he cares about the web. Tim speaks quickly, as though he can't wait to get out the ideas that are so important to him, to try to help you understand how wonderful and exciting this system it is that we can build together. Then, as soon as he's done talking, he returns to his computer and gets to hacking on whatever software he's building to advance the web. You don't see this dedication to "keep your hands dirty" in the gears of the system very often, and it's a trait I admire. So it's very hard to reconcile that vision of Tim with someone who would intentionally unravel their own work... yet by allowing the W3C to approve DRM/EME, I believe that's what has happened.

I had an opportunity to tell Tim what I think about DRM and EME on the web, and unfortunately I blew it. At TPAC (W3C's big conference/gathering of the standards minds) last year, there was a protest against DRM outside. I was too busy to take part, but I did talk to a friend who is close to Tim and was frustrated about the protests happening outside. After I expressed that I sympathized with the protestors (and that I had even indeed protested myself in Boston), I explained my position to my friend. Apparently I was convincing enough where they encouraged me to talk to Tim and offer my perspective; they offered to flag them down for a chat. In fact Tim and I did speak over lunch, but -- although we had met in person before -- it was my first time talking to Tim one-on-one, and I was embarassed for that first interaction would me to be talking about DRM and what I was afraid was a sore subject for him. Instead we had a very pleasant conversation about the work I was doing on ActivityPub and some related friends' work on other standards (such as Linked Data Notifications, etc). It was a good conversation, but when it was over I had an enormous feeling of regret that has been on the back of my mind since.

Here then, is what I wish I had said.

Tim, I have read your article on why the W3C is supporting EME, and that I know you have thought about it a great deal. I think you believe what you are doing what is right for the web, but I believe you are making an enormous miscalculation. You have fought long and hard to build the web into the system it is... unfortunately, I think DRM threatens to undo all that work so thoroughly that allowing the W3C to effectively green-light DRM for the web will be, looking back on your life, your greatest regret.

You and I both know the dangers of DRM: it creates content that is illegal to operate on using any of the tooling you or I will ever be able to write. The power of DRM is not in its technology but in the surrounding laws; in the United States through the DMCA it is a criminal offense to inspect how DRM systems work or to talk about these vulnerabilities. DRM is also something that clearly cannot itself be implemented as a standard; it relies on proprietary secrecy in order to be able to function. Instead, EME defines a DRM-shaped hole, but we all know what goes into that hole... unfortunately, there's no way for you or I to build an open and interoperable system that can fit in that EME hole, because DRM is antithetical to an interoperable, open web.

I think, from reading your article, that you believe that DRM will be safely contained to just "premium movies", and so on. Perhaps if this were true, DRM would still be serious but not as enormous of a threat as I believe it is. In fact, we already know that DRM is being used by companies like John Deere to say that you don't even own your own tractor, car, etc. If DRM can apply to tractors, surely it will apply to more than just movies.

Indeed, there's good reason to believe that some companies will want to apply DRM to every layer of the web. Since the web has become a full-on "application delivery system", of course the same companies that apply DRM to software will want to apply DRM to their web software. The web has traditionally been a book which encourages being opened; I learned much of how to program on the web through that venerable "view source" right-click menu item of web browsers. However I fully expect with EME that we will see application authors begin to lock down HTML, CSS, Javascript, and every other bit of their web applications down with DRM. (I suppose in a sense this is already happening with javascript obfuscation and etc, but the web itself was at least a system of open standards where anyone could build an implementation and anyone could copy around files... with EME, this is no longer the case.) Look at the prevelance of DRM in proprietary applications elsewhere... once the option of a W3C-endorsed DRM-route exists, do you think these same application developers will not reach for it? But I think if you develop the web with the vision of it being humanity's greatest and most empowering knowledge system, you must be against this, because if enough of the web moves over to this model the assumptions and properties of the web as we've known it, as an open graph to free the world, cannot be upheld. I also know the true direction you'd like the web to go, one of linked data systems (of which ActivityPub is somewhat quietly one). Do you think such a world will be possible to build with DRM? I for one do not see how it is possible, but I'm afraid that's the path down which we are headed.

I'm sure you've thought of these things too, so what could be your reason for deciding to go ahead with supporting DRM anyway? My suspicion is it's two things contributing to this:

  1. Fear that the big players will pick up their ball and leave. I suspect there's fear of another WHATWG, that the big players will simply pick up their ball and leave.
  2. Most especially, and related to the above, I suspect the funding and membership structure of the W3C is having a large impact on this. Funding structures tend to have a large impact on decision making, as a kind of Conway's Law effect. W3C is reliant on its "thin gruel" of funding from member organizations (which means that large players tend to have a larger say in how the web is built today).

I suspect this is most of all what's driving the support for DRM within the W3C. However, I know a few W3C staff members who are clearly not excited about DRM, and two who have quit the organization over it, so it's not that EME is internally a technology that brings excitement to the organziation.

I suppose at this point, this is where I diverge with the things I could have said in the past and did not say as an appeal to not allow the W3C to endorse EME. Unfortunately, today EME made it to Recommendation. At the very least, I think the W3C could have gone forward with the Contributor Covenant proposed by the EFF, but did not. This is an enormous disappointment.

What do we do now? I think the best we can do at this point, as individual developers and users, is speak out against DRM and refuse to participate in it.

And Tim, if you're listening, perhaps there's no chance now to stop EME from becoming a Recommendation. But your voice can still carry weight. I encourage you to join in speaking out against the threat DRM brings to unravel the web.

Perhaps if we speak loud enough, and push hard enough, we can still save the web we love. But today is a sad say, and from here I'm afraid it is going to be an uphill battle.

EDIT: If you haven't yet read Cory Doctorow / the EFF's open letter to the W3C, you should.