Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, star of the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, and one of the best-known tech celebrities outside of Silicon Valley, believes he is powerless.
Well, at least when it comes to keeping Web users free and safe.
On Monday, he published a blog post defending his recent decision to override objections to streaming and browser companies' plan to enshrine insecure, freedom-defying DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) in the technical standards that underly the Web. The plan, known as EME (Encrypted Media Extensions), would grant perceived legitimacy to these digital handcuffs and energize the long-standing campaign to incorporate them ever deeper into the digital world.
As director of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), Berners-Lee has the ability to block EME from ratification as an official Web standard. Nevertheless, he defended his decision not to do so, arguing that "[i]f the Director Of The Consortium made a Decree that there would be No More DRM in fact nothing would change. Because W3C does not have any power to forbid anything."
This argument relies on a false dichotomy between wiping DRM from the face of the Earth, and giving it his stamp of approval. Of course, a refusal to ratify could not immediately stop the use of DRM, but it could meaningfully weaken the position of DRM in the court of public opinion, and put EME proponents Netflix, Microsoft, Apple, and Google on notice that a very prominent figure was willing to stand up to them on behalf of users. Changes in society's technological infrastructure require political movements, not just technological arguments, and political movements benefit greatly from the support of prominent figures.
Berners-Lee's refusal to take up the mantle of his own power for the benefit of users is disappointing. And it appears somewhat selective. He is known for his positions in other technology policy struggles over which he has less direct control, making strong statements in favor of net neutrality and against DRM anti-circumvention laws (such as the US's Digital Millennium Copyright Act §1201), which give legal teeth to DRM.
Portraying DRM as a necessary evil, Berners-Lee goes on to argue that it must be welcomed into the Web through enshrinement in official standards. If it is not, he fears that Hollywood will take its movies to other platforms—such as proprietary applications and set-top boxes—which will spy on users more than the DRM that mediates Web-based streaming. But it is dubious how much better Web-based DRM really is for users, considering that the W3C can only suggest that companies implement it in a way that spies on users less, and there is little incentive for companies to heed that suggestion, regardless of the streaming medium.
Berners-Lee's distinction between EME and proprietary apps is also spurious. EME requires a Content Decryption Module (CDM) to work. All CDMs currently in use and expected to be used are proprietary. Berners-Lee and the W3C leadership keep trying to sweep this fact under the rug—EME does not get us away from requiring proprietary apps to participate in media on the Web. EME is a proprietary app.
Berners-Lee's piece appears to have been published somewhat hastily, sporting punctuation errors and an incorrect date (it was published on February 27th, dated February 28th). This slipshod quality is unfortunate, considering what is at stake. As Web users have attested through in-person protests and our anti-EME selfie campaign, DRM is coercive, disempowering and insulting to users. DRM's dark history—from the Sony rootkit malware to draconian anti-circumvention laws—make it unrealistic to argue that adding it to Web standards will be good for users. Ratifying EME would roll back privacy, freedom, and accessibility, and set back the interoperability that is necessary for disruptive innovation on the Web.
Berners-Lee seems to agree with the general premise that DRM is bad, or at least agree that it is suboptimal. But he does not seem interested in using his bully pulpit to move us towards a world where users truly have control over their computers. As usual, it will fall to those most affected by a proposed harmful policy to advocate for themselves.
We urge individuals and W3C member organizations to take a stand against DRM in Web standards. The movement to save the free Web from DRM continues to grow, and we still have a chance to bog down EME in dissent so thoroughly that it cannot reach ratification.