Stop the Hollyweb!

For some time now, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the non-governmental organization that governs the web has been working on a new set of standards called “HTML5”.

When done properly, standards are a good thing. Having standards means that no matter what web browser or computer you’re using, you can view and interact with content on the web.

Over the years, one of the things that has been particularly irritating, has been the requirement for computer users to install various third party browser “plug-ins” in order to view certain types of content. Often, these plug-ins, although “free of charge,” are not free in the freedom sense.

With proprietary plug-ins, nobody other than the software vendor has access to the source code of the program, which makes it extremely difficult to know what that plugin software is actually doing on your computer. For instance it’s usually impossible to tell whether or not that software is “phoning home” to the mother ship to report on what content you happen to be viewing.

More often, the plug-ins have various bugs and security flaws. When there’s a problem you have no way of knowing whether they have truly been fixed or not. You just have to trust the software vendor.

Part of the idea around HTML5 is to allow browser developers to build support for a variety of digital content right into the browser so that you no longer need third party plug-ins.

For instance if you’ve recently opened a PDF file on the web with the latest versions of the Mozilla Firefox web browser, you don’t need a program like the proprietary Adobe Acrobat Reader plug-in. Firefox just opens it. (By the way, there always were non-proprietary PDF readers).

In the development of HTML5 standards, there have been a number of skirmishes. The major battle has been over web video.

Last year there was a major dispute over whether the HTML5 standard for video should be to use free (as in freedom) non-patented video formats like Ogg Theora and Webm or to use the proprietary H.264 video format. The non-profit Mozilla Foundation and the Norwegian-based Opera Software were on the side of free media formats. On the other hand, corporations like Microsoft and Apple were on the side of proprietary formats. Google more or less sat on the fence.

In the end, the W3C gave up on establishing an HTML5 video standard and so each browser developer has gone their separate way. But if you’d like to see how video without plug-ins can work just click on this link using Firefox.

In recent weeks a fresh battle has broken out. Microsoft, Google, Netflix and the BBC have teamed up in a corporate axis of evil in an attempt to impose Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) “hooks” into HTML5 standards using a thing called “Encapsulated Media Extensions” (EME).

The EME in your web browser will in turn connect to a “content decryption module” (CDM). Each website will decide what CDM you will need in order to view video on the site. The CDM could be some proprietary third party software, it could be a particular hardware device (“You need an iThing to watch this video”), or it could be a particular component of a proprietary operating system.

During the first decade of the World Wide Web, Microsoft tried its best to lock computer users into a Microsoft-only web through its “Internet Explorer” web browser. They almost succeeded. It was only the 2004 release of the free software Firefox web browser by the non-profit Mozilla Foundation that saved us.

Nowadays, computer users can choose from a wide variety of web browsers that are both free and non-free software.

With EME and CDMs, the clock will turn backwards.

The reason that big media and big tech wants to incorporate DRM into core web standards is to placate Hollywood as video moves from traditional television to the web. As with all of these so-called copy protection schemes, it won’t stop tech savvy computer users from copying anything.

What will happen is that non-technical computer users will continue to struggle with software and hardware incompatibilities along with vendor lock-in. The cash will be extracted from the user every step of the way.

As Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight gradually fade into the digital sunset, new forms of corporate control freak proprietary software will be imposed on end users.

One “DRM in the web” booster that is particularly shocking is the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). The BBC is the world’s largest public broadcaster and is mainly funded by television licensing fees in the U.K. As a publicly funded organization, it’s supposed to act in the public interest.

However, the level of control that the BBC wants to see over computer users is just incredible!

Let’s say that you want to stream a DRM’d video that’s playing on one computer in your house to a computer in another room. The BBC wants the operating system on your computer to have the ability to refuse to stream the video to another computer on your network if the BBC decides that it doesn’t like your other computer or the software installed on it.

While locked down computer operating systems that refuse to do what you tell them to do are common in the world of proprietary software, that isn’t the case with free software operating systems like the GNU/Linux system. So, if you use free software, it’s no video for you even if you happen to be a U.K. resident who’s paid their annual licensing fee.

Science fiction author and Internet freedom activist Cory Doctorow describes this as “I can’t let you do that, Dave” computing.

The popular movie streaming service Netflix currently uses Microsoft’s Silverlight software to stream video. Even though there is a free software implementation of Silverlight called “Moonlight” that was developed by Novell, Netflix refused to support streaming over Moonlight because of DRM issues.

Since Netflix is the net’s only really important user of Silverlight, the Moonlight software project has largely been abandoned. While it’s still technically possible to run Silverlight on a free operating system like GNU/Linux, it requires more technical capability than the average computer user might have.

Google’s official corporate slogan is “Don’t be evil”. In my view, it would be more accurate for them to say “Mostly evil but not always evil”.

Google made a positive contribution to free media formats by releasing the “VP8” video codec under a free software license. This format has become known as “Webm”. They even cut a deal with Hollywood to keep webm free after being threatened with legal action.

But YouTube’s main website still requires the use of the proprietary Adobe Flashplayer plug-in in order for visitors to view video. You can watch YouTube video in webm format as well, but the HTML5 version of the site has been in experimental “trial” mode forever.

I can only assume that Google has joined the web DRM axis of evil in an effort to keep Hollywood happy.

Leading digital freedom organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Free Culture Foundation have sounded the alarm on DRM in HTML5. The FSF’s anti-DRM campaign site “Defective By Design” has an online petition to the W3C that you can sign here.

Just like the free press of old, the free and open web has embarrassed corporations and politicians all around the world. It’s even helped to bring down a tyrannical government or two. Let’s keep it that way. Say No to DRM in core web standards!

Protect Internet Freedom

Bob Chandler

Bob Chandler

Bob Chandler is a blogger and has been a labour and social justice activist his entire adult life and then some! He’s also a geek with a capital “G”! He’s so geeky...