Microsoft Edge and Netflix — testing new restrictions by locking out competing browsers?

Microsoft made the news last week when it announced that its Edge Web browser could deliver a better Netflix streaming experience than the other three most popular browsers. On Windows 10, Edge is the only one that can play Netflix's video streams — which are encumbered with Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) — in 1080p high definition. A PCWorld article confirmed the claim, but no one writing online has been able to give a clear explanation for the discrepancy. Following the tone of Microsoft's announcement, most writers seem content to imply that Edge's "edge" in Netflix playback on Windows derives from technical superiority, and that intelligent Netflix users should switch to Edge.

But this explanation doesn't seem to hold water. Other than the particular category of browsers running on Windows 10 and playing Netflix, modern browsers are in general technically capable of playing DRM-encumbered 1080p streams. Amazon Prime, for example, already indicates that it allows all major browsers to access DRM-encumbered streams in 1080p on Windows and Apple OS X. Rather than Edge being technically superior, it seems more likely that it can stream Netflix at a higher resolution because Netflix used its DRM to give Microsoft exclusive cryptographic permission to do so, and locked out other browsers. This anti-competitive arrangement would help Microsoft Edge win more Microsoft Windows users away from Chrome and Firefox, which appears to be a major goal for the company.

DRM itself is the problem

Let's zoom out for a minute. Would the situation be remedied if Netflix told its DRM to allow 1080p streaming to Chrome and Firefox on Windows? No — the problem here is not that Netflix chose Microsoft unfairly, it's that Netflix is able to use DRM to limit interoperability at all. Even setting interoperability aside, it's a problem for any company to use DRM in any circumstance, because its direct effects on users are even worse than its effects on markets. Non-comprehensively, DRM has been known to: punch holes in users' privacy and security, lock out those that wish to use free software, make it difficult for people with disabilities to access media, and make media that customers have already paid for suddenly inaccessible at the whim of the company that controls the DRM.

The technology that Microsoft and Netflix appear to be using to deliberately limit interoperability is a particularly far-reaching and ambitious system of standardized, cooperating DRM systems, called Encrypted Media Extensions, or EME. EME is a project of software and media companies (including none other than Microsoft and Netflix) working within the framework of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C). The W3C is a membership-based organization which sets official technical standards for the Web, and recently DRM-promoting companies have been able to steer it towards DRM.

Pulling the plug on EME

Even though EME is already implemented by Netflix, Edge, and some other browsers and streaming sites, the W3C has yet to fully ratify it as the first official Web standard for DRM. It's currently classified as a Candidate Recommendation (full text). If we allow EME to be ratified, we're likely to see even more uptake of DRM by other sites and browsers, leading to more anticompetitive behavior and, worse, a step back in Web users' privacy and other rights. History shows us that ratifying EME would also energize long-simmering campaigns by the DRM lobby to more deeply embed their coercive technology in other standards, like those for the display of text and static images, and protocols used by display cables and lower-level Internet infrastructure.

The W3C's rules of process mean that we can still prevent EME from being ratified — if we can demonstrate how many people oppose it. Stand with the dissenters in the W3C by signing our petition against EME or adding a protest selfie to the growing gallery. You can make an even stronger statement by respectfully requesting a meeting with one of the body's regional contacts and expressing your concerns in person.