Robin Berjon

Austening ourselves to the full Brontë

Please Bring Me More Of That Yummy DRM Discussion

Disclaimer: personal opinion. If you plan to lynch anyone over this, it's just me. I live in Montreuil, France, and I really do look this sexy.

Allow me, Dear Reader, to kick off with a remarkable statement that will no doubt keep you astonished for days to come: I really, really don't like DRM. I want a third party to be allowed to control my ownership of my books, movies, and music just as much as I wish Ikea were allowed to come reclaim tables and cupboards from my home, Uniqlo to snatch clothes off my hunky pecs, or Tanziti Abdelfattah (the baker around the corner) to grab his baguette right out of my toaster.

Commerce is an activity that since times of yore has been carried out through mutual trust. I know of only two exceptions: drug lords and the entertainment industry.

Mostly, though, I've refrained from entering the fray about W3C's foray into DRM. That's primarily because I only have so much time for 386ing, be it about simple misunderstandings like W3C has endorsed DRM to entirely inane claims of W3C has created a group to work on hiding source code. But the renewed resurgence of interest in this topic brought about by the MPAA joining the W3C as a member has now culminated with Cory Doctorow taking subtle inflexions of impending doomsday annihilation to a wholly dark new level of désespoir, calling 2014 the year we lose the Web, and claiming that We are Huxleying ourselves into the full Orwell.

Yes Cory. And from the HTML Working Groups's bosom shall spawn armies of bug-eyed, blood-thirsty zombies merging into an attack of deranged mutant killer monster goons that will sweep through the Earth spreading sheer desolation, plucking the stars out of the celestial spheres, hailstorming boiling beads of quicksilver unto all who have watched kittens, and chanting Céline Dion karaokes.

Before I move on to heavier considerations, allow me to describe the MPAA-W3C situation in three easy facts:

  1. Anyone can become a W3C member simply by filling out some forms and wiring some money.
  2. My understanding is that, in fact, the W3C cannot legally be in any way selective as to who it accepts as Members.
  3. The MPAA has filled out some forms and wired some money in such a manner that they have become W3C members.

That is, in truth, all there is to it. Is it worrying? I do not think so. Maybe the MPAA is joining in order to lobby for more DRM on the Web. People have been trying to do that since the Napster era. If that is the case, I don't see that they have any hope of success. (If you're wondering how that statement squares out with EME, read on.) Or maybe they learnt from their failure with SOPA that they have to change mentality, and are joining to listen and learn. That might sound foolishly optimistic but I have no grounds on which to rule it out. Evolution would, in fact, be a smart thing for them to do.

In any case, the MPAA story simply does not matter. It has no impact, today or tomorrow, on DRM on the Web.

Don't get me wrong: I am, in many ways, delighted with the uproar. Beyond the stridency of some of the participants, it is truly heartening that so many care so strongly about the Web, about the Open Web. That is a strength, and one I would not want to go without.

The way in which this strength is being deployed does, however, remind me altogether too much of something else.

I spent my tender teenage and student years in France. Over here, we have this ritual we carry out on a rather regular basis. It starts with the government announcing something unpleasant. After much sabre-rattling and a frightful lot of variously misinformed articles in the press thousands of us will take to the streets where we loudly chant well-rehearsed slogans that have been slightly adapted to the event's theme. Sometimes we'll do that for a few weeks in a row. Then the government will dutifully withdraw the unpleasantness. And at some point in early August the same year, while everyone is busy basking in the sun and drinking pastis, it will pass into law.

Over the years I have come to regard this as a joyous, uplifting, and almost uniquely useless manner of effecting political change in the world. W3CMemes — the official news agency for the W3C community at large — seems to have reached a similar conclusion.

We can all tweet until we're blue in the fingertips that we are Kafkaing ourselves into the full Ayn Rand, perhaps even that we are we are Philip K. Dicking ourselves into the full Burgess but it won't make the slightest difference unless it also comes with a concrete, pragmatic plan for change that goes beyond self-righteous moral indignation.

So. Is all lost? I don't think so. I won't claim to have a plan, but I can see ways in which one could emerge.

At this point, it is important to understand that W3C has not, in any way, manner, or form, ratified or accepted or shipped its current DRM-related specification, aka EME. All that W3C has officially done on DRM is state that it is in scope for the HTML WG to work on content protection. That is all and everything that it says — including the vagueness.

There are three sides to this: the proximal cause, a more distant cause, and a potential consequence.

The proximal cause, what brought DRM to the HTML WG and led it to be declared in scope despite years spent ruling it out, is that browser vendors — Chrome and IE first and foremost — were going to ship it anyway. If these vendors were to back out of DRM/EME you can be sure that W3C won't pursue the matter on its own, out of a sense of delirious fun and desire to be hated by all. If you're one of those people who's publicly ranting high and loud about DRM on the Web but are using Chrome or IE as your primary browser on any of your devices, you puzzle me. I mean, sure, they're great browsers, but are you one of those people who vents loud on Twitter but does not in fact care enough to switch browsers? Do you think that there may be others who share your opinion and are using the same browser? Do you think that browser vendors might pay attention if they started losing marketshare?

But maybe you think that the problem lies not with browser vendors — they might simply be trying to bring about a world in which the Web can fully replace so-called native technology — and the fault lies even less down the line on W3C, but falls on the more distant cause that is the legal and political systems that make DRM seem like the way viable, legit companies carry out their business. If that is so, maybe you will consider that there are more effective actions than venting on Twitter. There's a great example of this starting just tomorrow Jan 11, to commemorate Aaron's death.

As Rich Tibbett put it recently: The main problem I now see with the invention of the Internet is that we didn't simultaneously install a legal system capable of running it.. Maybe it's time to run an install party — maybe even the Install Party?

Finally, there is also an interesting consequence from the fact that the W3C has deemed content protection in scope for HTML: it opens up a playing field for solutions in this space. Right now, the only proposal is EME. That does not make for much in the way of competition. But if an alternative solution were to be proposed, then the group would have to contrast it with EME and make up its mind as to which it ought to prefer. I'm just a JavaScript hacker, I have nowhere near the understanding required for such a proposal, but I wonder: why has this not happened? Brendan keeps dropping tantalising hints that he might have something but so far nothing has surfaced.

Note that it says content protection. It doesn't say DRM. Would something like WOFF work?

There is, of course, no guarantee in the end that such an alternative option would carry the day. EME has, in fact, already deployed on some systems. But it would stand a chance. I won't get into a discussion of the technical merits of EME (independent of what it actually does) but it does have one major issue that I strongly doubt it could progress without addressing. So an alternative option would stand a chance. There is precedent for relatively widely deployed solutions being phased out before they pass the point of no return; WebSQL is a good example.

So, no, not everything is doom and gloom. The Web turns 25 this year; it's going to live to fight through many more birthdays.

UPDATE: subsequent to this blog post, I was interviewed by the ineffable Jeffrey Zeldman on his Mule Radio “The Big Web Show”. You can listen to it there, the episode is Bring Me The Head Of Tim Berners-Lee.