The DRM dilemma facing the open web

Most of us are pretty used to certain freedoms granted by the open web. Just as you can send a link for any webpage or service to a friend, you can also save an image from a page, examine its code or copy some text to quote in something you’re writing. That way of doing things may be set to change.

The blogs of large corporations are rarely worth reading unless you’re a journalist or a fan of marketing content, but on Wednesday Telefonica(s tef)’s blog carried an interesting article by Tim Berners-Lee, the father of the web and the director of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the body that formalizes new web standards.

The piece sums up all the different meanings of the word “open” in the context of the web, data, platforms and so on. It’s a pretty good primer on this stuff, so much of which is under threat these days (pleading the cause of net neutrality on a telco’s blog is pretty sweet, by the way) but it also shows what seems to be Berners-Lee — generally the greatest defender of openness out there — defending himself and the W3C against criticism coming from advocates of openness.

Protected content

My colleague Janko Roettgers has reported on this before — the problem here is the digital rights management (DRM) capabilities that are are likely to be baked into HTML5 and subsequent versions of the web language. The first move in this direction would allow encrypted video to run in a browser without the need for a DRM-friendly plugin such as Silverlight(s msft) or Flash(s adbe) — Netflix(s nflx) has already come up with ways to do this with HTML5, but its techniques are not yet part of the overall standard, which will be finalized in a year’s time.

Download FlashOn the plus side, this would mean the end for annoying playback plugins. However, as the EFF has pointed out, it also means a third party, in this case a content provider such as Netflix, gets to control some of what the user’s browser can or cannot do. And that’s anathema to advocates of openness, who fear the free platform of the web will be subverted.

Just over a week ago, the W3C signed off on a new charter that added the aim of “supporting playback of protected content.” So here’s what TimBL (as he is traditionally and respectfully known in geek circles) had to say on the matter today. It’s a bit hefty, but worth reading in detail:

“While it’s not really a feature of the Web, a concern for a lot of people is whether they can choose which apps run on their own phone or computer. An Open Platform means having the right to install and write software on your computer or device. One motivation to close off a computing platform comes from a manufacturer wanting to allow you to experience their content on your machine without being able to store it or pass it on. Some systems are very closed, in that the user can only watch a movie or play a game, with no chance to copy anything or back it up. Some systems are very open, allowing users to take copies of files and run any application they like. Many systems fall in between, letting users pay for additional material or an experience.

“The W3C community is currently exploring Web technology that will strike a balance between the rights of creators and the rights of consumers. In this space in particular, W3C seeks to lower the overall proprietary footprint and increase overall interoperability, currently lacking in this area.

“In the US particularly, the situation is aggravated by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA), two laws which allow a person who uses a computer improperly to be jailed as a felon for a long time. These unjust laws colour the debate so much in the US that some people react by saying that all platforms should be completely open, so that no one can be said to use them improperly. Hopefully these laws will be fixed through debate about how to balance the needs of creative people to be paid and the needs of consumers to be able to contribute but also to be able to rip, mix, quote and archive this material.”

In short, TimBL is describing a tradeoff that he and other high-ups in the W3C seem to think worth it. In the greater war against proprietary, walled gardens — the most threatening of which are currently iOS and Facebook(s fb) — this would involve strategically losing a technical battle over DRM. And as his argument seems to follow, even if DRM is technically allowed, maybe the laws over fair use and so on can be fixed so that users don’t lose the online freedoms they have now.

Principles vs relevance

There are really no easy answers here. On the one hand, I have to say Berners-Lee comes off as a bit… hopeful. Fixing the laws in the U.S. are a tall enough order – throw the rest of the world into the mix, and this all looks unfeasibly optimistic.

Tim Berners-LeeThen there’s the slippery slope argument. To quote the EFF: “By discarding the principle that users should be in charge of user agents, as well as the principle that all the information needed to interoperate with a standard should be open to all prospective implementers, they’ve opened the door for the many rightsholders who would like the same control for themselves.”

In that post, the EFF cited examples of people in the W3C community wanting to allow closed-source web apps, DRM-encumber photos and stop people from copying text. That would all be a very big shift and not, in my opinion, a good one at all.

But at the same time, reality bites. The shift to mobile is crucial here, so look at something like Mozilla’s Firefox OS smartphone platform. Firefox OS, which is still very new and under development, eschews the native app approach in favor of being entirely based on HTML5 – all web apps, all the way.

Now consider Firefox OS’s content conundrum. If you’re a content provider such as the BBC or Spotify or Netflix, or an ebook platform, you’re caught between two entities: the rights-holders, who all want DRM, and the users, who generally have no idea what DRM is and don’t really care. So there’s no way you will produce an app for a platform that doesn’t support DRM – the studios and labels and publishing houses simply won’t allow it, because they don’t want people to be able to freely copy the content they sell. (And yes I know there are ways around such things, but let’s stick to intentions here.)

Firefox OS may be low-cost and aimed at the emerging markets, but it’s up against cheap Android phones that support DRM, and that means it’s up against a platform that can offer users Netflix, Spotify and so on. Not being able to offer this kind of content will hinder Firefox OS’s growth, and by extension the proliferation of web apps in general.

I would dearly love to see web apps really take off. I crave the ability to pass around a link to an app in the same way you’d share a link to a webpage, where the link would work regardless of the underlying computing platform. But you’ve got to stimulate demand – people need to want it, or it will die.

So rock, meet hard place. In order for web standards to stay relevant, they need to give up some of their soul – or so the thinking appears to go. I confess I can’t identify an ideal way through here, and I suspect the W3C finds itself in the same position.

PS (Thursday 10 October) — TimBL has now posted a lengthier defense on the W3C blog. In it, he says: “It is worth thinking… about what it is we do not like about existing DRM-based systems, and how we could possibly build a system which will be a more open, fairer one than the actual systems which we see today.”