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Web standards body constrains digital rights against members' wishes

A letter from Cory Doctorow after the World Wide Web Consortium moves to enforce a digital rights management standard without compromise, despite agreement from only 58.4% of members.

Constrained content. Pixabay. CC0.In July, the Director of the World Wide Web Consortium overruled dozens of members' objections to publishing a DRM standard without a compromise to protect accessibility, security research, archiving, and competition.

EFF appealed the decision, the first-ever appeal in W3C history, which concluded last week with a deeply divided membership. 58.4% of the group voted to go on with publication, and the W3C did so today, an unprecedented move in a body that has always operated on consensus and compromise. In their public statements about the standard, the W3C executive repeatedly said that they didn't think the DRM advocates would be willing to compromise, and in the absence of such willingness, the exec have given them everything they demanded.

This is a bad day for the W3C: it's the day it publishes a standard designed to control, rather than empower, web users.

This is a bad day for the W3C: it's the day it publishes a standard designed to control, rather than empower, web users. That standard that was explicitly published without any protections -- even the most minimal compromise was rejected without discussion, an intransigence that the W3C leadership tacitly approved. It's the day that the W3C changed its process to reward stonewalling over compromise, provided those doing the stonewalling are the biggest corporations in the consortium.

EFF no longer believes that the W3C process is suited to defending the open web. We have resigned from the Consortium, effective today. Below is our resignation letter

Dear Jeff, Tim, and colleagues,

In 2013, EFF was disappointed to learn that the W3C had taken on the project of standardizing “Encrypted Media Extensions,” an API whose sole function was to provide a first-class role for DRM within the Web browser ecosystem. By doing so, the organization offered the use of its patent pool, its staff support, and its moral authority to the idea that browsers can and should be designed to cede control over key aspects from users to remote parties.

When it became clear, following our formal objection, that the W3C's largest corporate members and leadership were wedded to this project despite strong discontent from within the W3C membership and staff, their most important partners, and other supporters of the open Web, we proposed a compromise. We agreed to stand down regarding the EME standard, provided that the W3C extend its existing IPR policies to deter members from using DRM laws in connection with the EME (such as Section 1201 of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act or European national implementations of Article 6 of the EUCD) except in combination with another cause of action.

This covenant would allow the W3C's large corporate members to enforce their copyrights. Indeed, it kept intact every legal right to which entertainment companies, DRM vendors, and their business partners can otherwise lay claim. The compromise merely restricted their ability to use the W3C's DRM to shut down legitimate activities, like research and modifications, that required circumvention of DRM. It would signal to the world that the W3C wanted to make a difference in how DRM was enforced: that it would use its authority to draw a line between the acceptability of DRM as an optional technology, as opposed to an excuse to undermine legitimate research and innovation.

More directly, such a covenant would have helped protect the key stakeholders, present and future, who both depend on the openness of the Web, and who actively work to protect its safety and universality. It would offer some legal clarity for those who bypass DRM to engage in security research to find defects that would endanger billions of web users; or who automate the creation of enhanced, accessible video for people with disabilities; or who archive the Web for posterity. It would help protect new market entrants intent on creating competitive, innovative products, unimagined by the vendors locking down web video.

Despite the support of W3C members from many sectors, the leadership of the W3C rejected this compromise. The W3C leadership countered with proposals — like the chartering of a nonbinding discussion group on the policy questions that was not scheduled to report in until long after the EME ship had sailed — that would have still left researchers, governments, archives, security experts unprotected.

The W3C is a body that ostensibly operates on consensus. Nevertheless, as the coalition in support of a DRM compromise grew and grew — and the large corporate members continued to reject any meaningful compromise — the W3C leadership persisted in treating EME as topic that could be decided by one side of the debate. In essence, a core of EME proponents was able to impose its will on the Consortium, over the wishes of a sizeable group of objectors — and every person who uses the web. The Director decided to personally override every single objection raised by the members, articulating several benefits that EME offered over the DRM that HTML5 had made impossible.

But those very benefits (such as improvements to accessibility and privacy) depend on the public being able to exercise rights they lose under DRM law — which meant that without the compromise the Director was overriding, none of those benefits could be realized, either. That rejection prompted the first appeal against the Director in W3C history.

In our campaigning on this issue, we have spoken to many, many members' representatives who privately confided their belief that the EME was a terrible idea (generally they used stronger language) and their sincere desire that their employer wasn't on the wrong side of this issue. This is unsurprising. You have to search long and hard to find an independent technologist who believes that DRM is possible, let alone a good idea. Yet, somewhere along the way, the business values of those outside the web got important enough, and the values of technologists who built it got disposable enough, that even the wise elders who make our standards voted for something they know to be a fool's errand.

We believe they will regret that choice. Today, the W3C bequeaths a legally unauditable attack-surface to browsers used by billions of people. They give media companies the power to sue or intimidate away those who might re-purpose video for people with disabilities. They side against the archivists who are scrambling to preserve the public record of our era. The W3C process has been abused by companies that made their fortunes by upsetting the established order, and now, thanks to EME, they’ll be able to ensure no one ever subjects them to the same innovative pressures.

So we'll keep fighting to keep the web free and open. We'll keep suing the US government to overturn the laws that make DRM so toxic, and we'll keep bringing that fight to the world's legislatures that are being misled by the US Trade Representative to instigate local equivalents to America's legal mistakes.

We will renew our work to battle the media companies that fail to adapt videos for accessibility purposes, even though the W3C squandered the perfect moment to exact a promise to protect those who are doing that work for them.

We will defend those who are put in harm's way for blowing the whistle on defects in EME implementations.

It is a tragedy that we will be doing that without our friends at the W3C, and with the world believing that the pioneers and creators of the web no longer care about these matters.

Effective today, EFF is resigning from the W3C.

Thank you,

Cory Doctorow
Advisory Committee Representative to the W3C for the Electronic Frontier Foundation

This letter was originally published on Boing Boing

About the author

Cory Doctorow (craphound.com) is a science fiction author, activist, journalist and blogger; co-editor of Boing Boing ( boingboing.net). He is former European director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group having been born in Toronto, but living in London up till 2015.

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