On Monday, the World Wide Web Consortium published EME, a standard for locking up video on the web with DRM, allowing large corporate members to proceed without taking any steps to protect accessibility work, security research, archiving or innovation.
I spent years working to get people to pay attention to the ramifications of the effort, but was stymied by the deadly combination of an issue that was super-technical and complicated, as well as kind of boring (standards-making is a slow-moving, legalistic process).
This is really the worst kind of problem, an issue that matters but that requires a lot of technical knowledge and sustained attention to engage with. I wrote up a postmortem on the effort for Wired.
The W3C is a multistakeholder body based on consensus, and that means that members are expected to compromise to find common ground. So we returned with a much milder proposal: we’d stand down on objecting to EME, provided that the consortium promised only to invoke laws such as the DMCA in tandem with some other complaint, like copyright infringement. That meant studios and their technology partners could always sue when someone infringed copyright, or stole trade secrets, or interfered with contractual arrangements, but they would not be able to abuse the W3C process to claim the right to sue over otherwise legal activities, such as automatically analysing videos to prevent strobe effects from triggering seizures in people with photosensitive epilepsy.
This proposal was a way to get at the leadership’s objection: if the law was making the mischief, then let us take the law off the table (EFF is also suing the US government to get the law overturned, but that could take years, far too long in web-time). More importantly, if EME’s advocates refused to negotiate on this point, it would suggest that they planned on using the law to enforce “rights” that they really shouldn’t have, such as the right to decide who could adapt video for people with disabilities, or whether national archives could exercise their statutory rights to make deposit copies of copyrighted works.
But EME’s proponents – a collection of browser vendors, entertainment industry trade bodies, and companies selling products based on EME – refused to negotiate. After 90 days of desultory participation, the W3C leaders allowed the process to die. Despite this intransigence, the W3C executive renewed the EME working group’s charter and allowed it to continue its work, even as the cracks among the W3C’s membership on the standard’s fate deepened.
By the time EME was ready to publish, those cracks had deepened further. The poll results on EME showed the W3C was more divided on this matter than on any in its history. Again, the W3C leadership put its thumbs on the scales for the entertainment industry’s wish-lists over the open web’s core requirements, and overrode every single objection raised by the members.
Boring, complex and important: a recipe for the web’s dire future