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You are here: Home Bulletins 2013 spring Stop the Hollyweb

Stop the Hollyweb

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Nov 14, 2013 05:11 PM

The World Wide Web Consortium's (W3C) mission statement includes, "Web for All: The social value of the Web is that it enables human communication, commerce, and opportunities to share knowledge. One of W3C's primary goals is to make these benefits available to all people, whatever their hardware, software, network infrastructure, native language, culture, geographical location, or physical or mental ability."1

But the World Wide Web is in real danger of being encircled and ultimately extinguished by proprietary software. The Free Software Foundation, through our Defective by Design campaign, is working to stop the attempted takeover, and we need your help.

The Web is yours. In multiple senses, it is powered by free software. Most Web sites are served and run using free software. WordPress and Drupal, both distributed under the GNU General Public License, are premier choices in the field of Web publishing systems. The standardized technologies underlying the Web must by rule be implementable without licensing, so free software browsers are on equal footing with their proprietary counterparts when engaging anything considered an "official" part of the Web.

As a result, this part of the Web experience is fundamentally consistent with the ethical values of the free software movement. The nonstandard "unofficial" parts of the Web, on the other hand, have always been hostile territory for free software users and their values. Countless times, we've been unable to do simple things like look at restaurant menus or watch funny videos because they required Adobe Flash. We couldn't stream videos on Netflix or watch the Olympics because doing so required Silverlight.

The definition of the Web does not disallow such proprietary warts; it just says those unfortunate additions aren't actually part of the Web. Browsers aren't expected to support them out of the box. Separate programs need to be installed, and users need to be convinced that doing so is worth it.

While ubiquitous in some ways, these proprietary plugins are also notorious for crashing systems, for causing compatibility headaches, for making media inaccessible to screen readers and search engines, and for increasingly being not worth it.

The fact that companies have had to be responsible for providing support for their own use of these problematic extensions has served as some kind of check on any possibility that they would take over the Web. Being responsible for them means modifying code for multiple operating systems, and multiple browsers. This job has gotten harder, as more operating systems are in use now than ever before in the Web's history, given the (unfortunate) growth of OS X, the (better) growth of GNU/Linux, and the proliferation of mobile platforms.

If you were a company maintaining a system using one of these plugins, having to handle all the accompanying angry customer complaints and software bugs, what would you do? You'd try to get someone else to take the heat off you, in a way that smoothed the operation without giving up any of your control. You'd try to convince the primary organization responsible for safeguarding the Web -- the W3C -- to take your side and declare these proprietary plugins part of the official Web culture.

That's exactly what Netflix, Apple, Microsoft, and Google are trying to do, through a proposed addition they call Encrypted Media Extensions (EME). They are operating in an alliance with Hollywood, to turn the official Web into the Hollyweb.

Stop the Hollyweb

In the Hollyweb, proprietary media plugins are used to enforce Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) schemes. Even though my earlier examples were restaurants and entertainment, the value of the freedom at stake here is immense. DRM schemes control every aspect of how computer users interact with media. They can prevent visually impaired people from having texts read aloud, they can prevent the hearing impaired from having subtitles, they can prevent scholars from extracting clips to critique, they can prevent budding artists from collaging the media that surrounds them into new forms, and much more.

Given their mission statement, one would reasonably expect anyone proposing such a system to the W3C to be unceremoniously shown the door. There is nothing about DRM that is compatible with the "Web for All."

We were shocked to instead find the W3C warmly inviting these efforts in for dinner. CEO Jeff Jaffe, in response to our delivery of over 22,500 signatures opposing EME, adopted the skewed language of those who seek endorsement for their plan to restrict Web users: "Therefore, while the actual DRM schemes are clearly not open, the Open Web must accommodate them as best possible, as long as we don't cross the boundary of standards with patent encumbrances; or standards that cannot be implemented in open source."2

The organization responsible for keeping the Web free has declared that bending over backward to accommodate companies restricting the freedom of individuals somehow makes the Web more free. Jaffe is right that EME isn't itself proprietary -- but its sole purpose is to provide an easy, unified way for proprietary DRM plugins to operate. EME doesn't "cross the boundary of standards with patent encumbrances," it just builds a nifty bridge right over it. Endorsing this kind of shim makes the W3C mission a sham.

We need your help to make the Web not just "open," but as free as the software that powers it. There are multiple ways you can help:

  • Financially support our work on your behalf, by joining as an associate member or contributing what you can.

  • Make sure you are not financially supporting those working against you -- cancel your Netflix streaming subscription, and avoid related Microsoft, Apple, and Google products until they stop pushing DRM.

  • Make your position known, by signing our petition against the Hollyweb. While you're at it, join the mailing lists for this effort in order to stay up-to-date and become part of the momentum for change.

The W3C standards approval process is a long one. We are in the early stages of this conflict, and these measures are only the first steps. The air of defeatism expressed by the leadership of the W3C at this moment in time is disheartening, but we needn't take it to heart. We have eliminated DRM in many contexts, and we can do it here too. But even just forcing companies to continue bearing the full responsibility and cost for deploying their own DRM systems would be a huge victory. It would add to the momentum we've seen against plugins like Flash and Silverlight toward HTML-based media players using free media formats, while also preserving the moral authority of the Web's principles. Tell the W3C to stay strong, and say no to the Hollyweb.

2 Jeff Jaffe's response

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