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Mixed Reactions Greet Mozilla Plans to Add HTML5 DRM in Firefox

by James Chesters on May 20, 2014 |

Mozilla has announced this week that it is adding DRM to Firefox, joining the ranks of Microsoft, Google, and Apple who have all implemented the system in their respective browsers.

In her article "DRM and the Challenge of Serving Users", Mitchell Baker -- executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation -- announced that Mozilla found itself in a difficult position regarding the introduction of a new mechanism for deploying DRM. The Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) specification defines how to play back DRM content using the HTML5 <video> element, rather than using traditional plugins such as Flash or Silverlight. Baker said that despite Mozilla's dislike of DRM, they believe Firefox needs to provide a mechanism for people to watch DRM-controlled content.

Commenting on the announcement in his article "Reconciling Mozilla’s Mission and W3C EME" Mozilla CTO Andreas Gal said if the company did not implement the W3C EME specification then Firefox users would have to switch to other browsers to watch content restricted by DRM, thereby calling into question Firefox's relevance as a web browser. He said:

This makes it difficult for Mozilla to ignore the ongoing changes in the DRM landscape. Firefox should help users get access to the content they want to enjoy, even if Mozilla philosophically opposes the restrictions certain content owners attach to their content.

This is a difficult and uncomfortable step for us given our vision of a completely open Web, but it also gives us the opportunity to actually shape the DRM space and be an advocate for our users and their rights in this debate. The existing W3C EME systems Google and Microsoft are shipping are not open source and lack transparency for the user, two traits which we believe are essential to creating a trustworthy Web.

Directly addressing the conflict between open source and DRM, Gal emphasised that Mozilla continues to believe in an open Web centred around the user, and putting the user in control of their online experience. Instead of DRM schemes that "go against" the principles behind an open web, Gal said Mozilla has long advocated "for more modern approaches to managing content distribution such as watermarking" and that Mozilla "would have preferred to see the content industry move away from locking content to a specific device, and worked to provide alternatives."

Mozilla has selected Adobe to provide the key functionality of allowing Firefox users to watch DRM-controlled content. Baker said that this functionality had already been present in Flash for some time, and reinforcing Gal's own assurances, said Mozilla wants to protect the interests of individual users as much as possible.  

Features among the proposed mechanism would give users the ability to choose whether or not to activate the DRM implementation, as well as working to maintain user privacy by wrapping the Content Decryption Module (CDM) in what Gal refers to as "an open-source sandbox". This way, Mozilla aims to ensure that the CDM can not access the user’s hard drive, with the sandbox instead providing the CDM only with the mechanisms for receiving encrypted data and displaying the results.

The reaction from around the web was one of mixed emotions. John Sullivan, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, said the FSF condemned the partnership between Mozilla and Adobe, describing Adobe as being "hostile to the free software movement and to Mozilla's own fundamental ideals."

The Free Software Foundation is deeply disappointed in Mozilla's announcement. The decision compromises important principles in order to alleviate misguided fears about loss of browser marketshare.

We recognize that Mozilla is doing this reluctantly, and we trust these words coming from Mozilla much more than we do when they come from Microsoft or Amazon. At the same time, nearly everyone who implements DRM says they are forced to do it, and this lack of accountability is how the practice sustains itself. Mozilla's announcement today unfortunately puts it -- in this regard -- in the same category as its proprietary competitors.

To see Mozilla compromise without making any public effort to rally users against this supposed "forced choice" is doubly disappointing. They should reverse this decision. But whether they do or do not, we call on them to join us by devoting as many of their extensive resources to permanently eliminating DRM as they are now devoting to supporting it.

Former CEO Brendan Eich was asked on Twitter by Openwall founder Alexander Peslyak "Do you support Mozilla's DRM move, given the circumstances? Would it be same with you as CTO or CEO? (People are speculating.)"

Eich replied: "I supported this least-worst EME plan when I was at Mozilla," and that he was still working on a "no-DRM solution". An article written by Eich in 2013 directly addressed the proposed CDM for HTML5, set to replace the existing plugins such as Silverlight. Eich said the team were "working to get Mozilla and all our users on the right side of this proposed API" in a way that wouldn't mean losing market share.

Debate continues to rage in the community whether Firefox could have done more to oppose W3C, and if it would lose or gain supporters if it was to reject allowing EME content. The famously anti-DRM Cory Doctorow commented in an article for the Guardian that while "Mozilla has taken some admirable pains to minimise the harms from its DRM" he considered it "not unreasonable" to hold mission-driven nonprofits such as Firefox to a higher standard than its commercial counterparts.

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