Digital Restrictions Management exists all over the world in all sorts of technologies. In addition to media files, like music and film, we can find DRM on the Web and enshrined in Web standards. As a Web standard, its use is recommended by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), making it not only easier, but expected for all media files on the Web to be locked down with DRM.
It's been a year since the the W3C voted to bring Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) into Web standards. They claimed to want to "lead the Web to its full potential," but in a secret vote, members of the W3C, with the blessing of Web creator Tim Berners-Lee, agreed to put "the copyright industry in control" of media access. The enshrinement of EME as an official recommendation is not how we envision the "full potential" of the Web at the Free Software Foundation (FSF).
EME is an approach to DRM specifically for the Web. EME encrypts media files, requiring a license/key exchange managed by (almost always) proprietary software controlled by rights holders. While EME proponents claimed they were doing away with proprietary plugins like Adobe Flash, all they did was drive the proprietary software down even deeper. Instead of plugins, users now have to install proprietary Content Decryption Modules specific to various companies -- including Adobe.
The fight for a free Web
The Free Software Foundation led a charge of grassroots activity to prevent EME from taking over the Web. People all over the world dialed up Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the World Wide Web and director of the W3C, beseeching him to not let EME become a Web standard. People organized protests. Tim Berners-Lee became the first recipient of the Obedience Award, for his deference to corporate calls for EME.
Typically, decisions made by the membership of the W3C are done by consensus, with a system in place for dissenting and raising formal objections. However, the definition of "consensus" is not fixed, and the W3C Process Document encourages the creation of "minimum thresholds of active support before a decision can be recorded." This has made it so that, in the face of serious dissent, it was possible for EME to be pushed through.
On July 6th, 2017, Tim Berners-Lee approved the proposal to enshrine EME into Web standards. In response, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), in their status as a member of the W3C, issued an official appeal of the Director's decision on EME. The Ethereum Foundation also made an official statement of objection.
A formal vote was cast -- the specific results are being kept secret, but the overwhelmingly corporate membership agreed to turn EME into a W3C Recommendation. This decision was not about freeing the Web, providing options or security to users, or protecting the rights of creators: this decision was about those monolithic companies controlling how you interact with the Web.
Members of the W3C include well-known foes of a free Web, including AT&T, Comcast, Elsevier, Microsoft, the Motion Picture Association of America, and Netflix. Membership to the W3C is for sale at exorbitant rates. Having a vote in Web standards means being able to afford the high cost -- something predominately available to large corporations.
While the W3C has nonprofit rates, the costs of membership are high and require approval. These companies are paying for control to your access in digital spaces. They can afford the high fees, and they can influence who is allowed in their club -- making it even harder for the interests of Web users to be represented alongside corporate desires.
These companies have the funding and staff to be able to have employees working on representing their interests in organizations like the W3C, while nonprofits and rights-based groups are more limited in their capacity to liaise with consortia or even join in the first place.
Where are we now?
While the Web is purportedly for all people, the ratification of EME makes it clear that the Web is for the companies who have the ability to throw money around with the goal of sacrificing your rights for their interests.
In a statement in his official capacity as CEO of the W3C, Jeff Jaffe admitted that "it was inevitable that we would face issues of conflicting values and the appropriate accommodations for commercial use of the Web."
While Tim Berners-Lee did address a number of the specific objections to EME, he fails to do so adequately. His "answers," more often than not, miss the point of the objections. Ultimately, he fails to recognize the ways in which EME is another erosion of the ideal of a free Web.
While we are disappointed in the results, we are not surprised. The W3C courted the same large companies that pushed for EME to join the Consortium in the first place. The W3C set themselves up to be financially dependent on organizations with interests that do not align with freedom in digital spaces.
Activists, concerned people, and Internet citizens around the world worked with us at the FSF to tell Tim Berners-Lee, the W3C, and the Web at large about the dangers of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) and, by extension, EME. While we didn't win this particular battle, working with all of the individuals who care about a free Web was inspiring to us.
In September, 2017, the EFF announced its departure from the W3C in response to the vote -- both the results and the secretive nature of it.
We want to thank the EFF for all the work they did within the W3C, especially over these past few months, as they rallied and worked with other Consortium members to fight EME.
We also want to thank digital rights and free software activists, our members and supporters, and everyone who stood against the W3C and EME. Your actions matter. We hope to keep hearing from and seeing you.
We're not giving up the fight against DRM or the fight for a free Web. Take action today on this year's International Day Against DRM (IDAD) by telling others the dangers of DRM, EME, and Web restrictions. Consider hosting a flyering event, a celebration of DRM-free media and technology, or sharing in a blog or on social media why you oppose DRM and EME. Changing minds is how we change policy -- and that starts with you.