A battle rages for the future of the Web
Should the WWW be locked down with DRM? Tim Berners-Lee needs to decide, and soon.
By J.M. PORUP
Feb 13 2017
The W3C, led by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, looks set to standardise DRM-enabling Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) in browsers, a move that betrays the founding principles of the open Web.
When Berners-Lee invented the Web, he gave it away. His employer at the time, CERN, licensed the patents royalty-free for anyone to use. An open architecture that supported the free flow of information for all made it what it is today.
But that openness is under assault, and Berners-Lee’s support for standardising EME, a browser API that enables DRM (digital rights/restrictions management) for media playback, has provoked a raging battle within the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), the organisation that sets the standards for how browsers work.
The stakes could not be higher, to hear both sides tell it. On the one hand, Hollywood is terrified of online piracy, and studios insist that video streaming providers like Netflix use DRM to stop users from pirating movies. On the other hand, a long list of security experts argue that DRM breaks the Web’s open architecture, and damages browser security, with cascading negative effects across the Internet.
As the director of W3C, Berners-Lee shepherds the future of the Web, and is under intense pressure from both camps. While the W3C has no governing power to mandate a solution—in fact, many browsers, including Chrome, ship with EME already—what the W3C does have is TimBL.
And both sides want his blessing.
The Web has upended earlier ways of publishing, and charging for, copyrighted material. Creators of movies, songs, books, and newspapers still struggle to adapt to a new world in which anything can be copied at nearly zero cost, and shared around the world in nearly no time.
In desperation, many creators have turned to DRM in an attempt to limit consumers’ ability to copy and share what are, at the end of the day, just ones and zeroes traversing the Internet. But DRM is trivially circumvented, and so companies rely on the legal muscle of the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) §1201 in the US, and its counterparts in other countries around the world, including the European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD), which make it a felony to break it. This turns violating copyright law, a minor offence, into a serious crime punishable by prison time.