W3C Advances Controversial HTML5 Copyright Protection Plans

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The W3C has published a first public draft of a controversial proposal that would make it easier for encrypted video to be distributed using HTML5

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) on Friday published the first public draft of the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME), a specification that allows developers to distribute encrypted media using HTML5, potentially for copyright protection purposes.

The move came amidst protest against digital rights management (DRM) technology led by digital rights groups such as the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

EME, developed by Google, Microsoft and Netflix, does not itself include encryption technology, but allows developers to invoke such technology contained in a separate Content Decryption Module (CDM) that can take the form of a browser plug-in or be build into a browser.

Encryption strategy for copyright

The strategy is similar to that adopted by the W3C for video – HTML5 allows developers to invoke video content, without specifying a particular video codec. HTML5 is now widely used to build video players, but until now companies distributing encrypted video have continued to use proprietary technologies such as Adobe’s Flash or Microsoft’s Silverlight.

W3C participationIt isn’t necessary for EME to become part of the HTML5 standard for it to be used to distribute encrypted content. Google has already integrated the technology into its Chrome browser, and Netflix, which relied on Silverlight in the past, is using it to power its current browser-based video player.

However, standardisation is intended to encourage wider use of HTML5 by developers looking to distribute encrypted video, according to the W3C, which argued that these developers would otherwise move away from web technology altogether in favour of stand-alone video players, of the kind that are already common on smartphones.

“The web should be capable of hosting all kinds of content and… it must be possible to compensate creative work,” wrote W3C chief executive Jeff Jaffe in a blog post. “Without content protection, owners of premium video content – driven by both their economic goals and their responsibilities to others – will simply deprive the Open Web of key content.”

Those opposing the incorporation of EME into HTML5 argue the move compromises the integrity of the web, opening the door to its control by media companies.

‘Irreversible step backward’

“EME would be an irreversible step backward for freedom on the web,” wrote the FSF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Creative Commons and other organisations in an open letter to the W3C last month. “It would endorse and enable business models that unethically restrict users, and it would make subjugation to particular media companies a precondition for full Web citizenship.”

These organisations, which back the anti-DRM campaign Defective By Design, argue the technology would encourage a proliferation of DRM plug-ins and could allow media companies to require proprietary player software.

“It is willful ignorance to pretend otherwise just because the proposal does not mention particular technologies or DRM schemes by name,” the open letter stated. The campaign has so far accumulated more than 25,000 signees to its petition.

Seeking consensus

Jaffe emphasised that EME standardisation is still in the early stages and said the W3C will seek to move ahead based on a “consensus”.

“It is typical at this early stage of development for there to be issues; EME is an early draft not a final Recommendation,” he stated. “The HTML Working Group will publish revisions, seek comment, respond to issues, and pursue consensus decisions, all part of the usual W3C process.”

He said that all W3C specifications are developed under the group’s patent policy, which has the goal of assuring that the final standards can be implemented on a royalty-free basis – something important for open source implementations.

Jaffe said interested parties can now review the working draft, and may join the HTML Working Group if they wish to submit alternate proposals.

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