Tim Berners-Lee just gave us an opening to stop DRM in Web standards

This week, the chief arbiter of Web standards, Tim Berners-Lee, decided not to exercise his power to extend the development timeline for the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) Web technology standard. The EME standardization effort, sponsored by streaming giants like Google and Netflix, aims to make it cheaper and more efficient to impose Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) systems on Web users. The streaming companies' representatives within the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) were unable to finish EME within the time allotted by the W3C, and had asked Berners-Lee for an extension through next year.

Berners-Lee made his surprising decision on Tuesday, as explained in an email announcement by W3C representative Philippe Le Hégaret. Instead of granting a time extension — as he has already done once — Berners-Lee delegated the decision to the W3C's general decision-making body, the Advisory Committee. The Advisory Committee includes diverse entities from universities to companies to nonprofits, and it is divided as to whether EME should be part of Web standards. It is entirely possible that the Advisory Committee will reject the time extension and terminate EME development, marking an important victory for the free Web.

EME (full text) is a proposed technological standard for Web-based DRM, digital handcuffs that video-streaming services use to micromanage users' access to legitimately obtained media. As Web users asserted while protesting the W3C's meetings in March and September, DRM is coercive, disempowering and insulting to users. It also causes broad collateral damage to the health of our digital society. DRM's dark history — from the Sony rootkit malware to draconian anti-circumvention laws — demonstrates that integrating it into Web standards would be nothing but bad for Web users. EME is predicted to stymie security research, curtail privacy, freedom, and accessibility, and set back the interoperability that is necessary for innovation on the Web.

Berners-Lee has, until now, given EME his stamp of approval every time the W3C process required it. His choice to cede decision-making to a divided Advisory Committee suggests that the protests, articles, and signatures mobilized by the Internet freedom community are finally getting through to him.

Members of the W3C Advisory Committee now have a real chance to nix Encrypted Media Extensions, with a high degree of confidence that Berners-Lee will not override their decision. We call on all members of the Committee to take the following pledge:

My organization/company will:

  • Reject any extension of the charter for the HTML Media Extensions Working Group unless the charter is modified to end work on Encrypted Media Extensions immediately.
  • Reject Encrypted Media Extensions if it comes to the Advisory Committee for approval as a W3C Recommendation.
  • Reject any other proposed W3C standard that specifies DRM or a system designed specifically to interface with DRM.

W3C member organizations wishing to join the campaign against EME are invited to contact Defective by Design at info@defectivebydesign.org. Concerned individuals can take action by signing Defective by Design's petition or adding a protest selfie to the growing gallery.