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You are here: Home Blogs RMS The W3C's Soul at Stake

The W3C's Soul at Stake

by Richard M. Stallman Contributions Published on May 02, 2013 11:43 AM
The World Wide Web consortium is considering a proposal to specify standards for HTML extensions to implement Digital Restrictions Management (DRM). The proposal is supported by Netflix, Microsoft, Google and the BBC.

HTML was initially designed to describe the semantics of text and give control to the browser over how to present it. Since it became common for companies to have web sites, they have steered the development of HTML towards precise control over what the user sees and the behavior of the page -- arguably going in the wrong direction, but not an injustice ... until now.

Of course, the W3C cannot prevent companies from grafting DRM onto HTML. They do this through nonfree plug-ins such as Flash, and with nonfree Javascript code, thus showing that we need control over the Javascript code we run and over the C code we run.

However, where the W3C stands is tremendously important for the battle to eliminate DRM. On a practical level, standardizing DRM would make it more convenient, in a very shallow sense. This could influence people who think only of short-term convenience to think of DRM as acceptable, which could in turn encourage more sites to use DRM.

On the political level, making room for DRM in the specifications of the World Wide Web would constitute an endorsement in principle of DRM by the W3C. Standardization by the W3C could facilitate DRM that is harder for users to break than DRM implemented in Javascript code. If the DRM is implemented in the operating system, this could result in distribution of works that can't be played at all on a free operating system such as GNU/Linux.

The arguments for standardizing DRM aim to avoid hypothetical minor inconveniences. For instance, some say that not standardizing DRM would result in putting more data and works in formats that cannot be searched. I doubt that claim; video sites that use Flash have plenty of information in searchable HTML about the videos. Standardized DRM could just as easily harm searchability, if it leads to more use of DRM. However, the main point is that that's a side issue either way. It is insignificant compared with the importance of discouraging DRM.

Another argument is that the W3C needs to obey the wishes of these companies to remain "relevant" -- in other words, to be in a position to influence events. However, it makes no sense to preserve that influence for some later decision that will be less important than this one. And is it even real influence? "Influence" maintained by obeying a master is more self-delusion than reality. Now is when the W3C should use the influence it has built up, saying, "DRM: Not in our name!"

Proprietary software is an injustice since users can't control it, and it commonly carries other injustices with it. The proprietary plugins or kernels required to view media under this standard, like proprietary software in general, could never merit users' trust. Once they harbor one malicious functionality, the digital handcuffs of DRM, there is no reason to suppose they won't have back doors and spyware as well.

Existing HTML features are already employed in various ways to mistreat users — for example, sites use cookies and third-party images for surveillance, and employ Javascript to disable normal browser functionality. Indeed, we are modifying a browser to block these forms of mistreatment.

However, these Web page features were not added for the sake of abuse, and they do have legitimate uses. The W3C is now considering a proposal that would, for the first time, standardize a feature intended solely and explicitly for mistreatment of users.

We therefore call on the W3C to reject any and all proposals for catering to DRM in World Wide Web standards. Please sign the petition at to join us.

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Filed under: W3C, DRM

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