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W3C Publishes DRM as a Recommendation

After a divided vote, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has adopted Encrypted Media Extensions as a full recommendation.

On July 6, 2017, Tim Berners-Lee, the W3C Director and inventor of the World Wide Web, wrote his decision to move the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) specification to a W3C Recommendation. In doing so he wrote:

The Encrypted Media Extensions specification remains a better alternative for users than other platforms, including for reasons of security, privacy, and accessibility, by taking advantage of the Web platform. While additional work in some areas may be beneficial for the future of the Web Platform, it remains appropriate for the W3C to make the EME specification a W3C Recommendation.

EME is designed to allow browsers to play DRM content using the native HTML5 video element. EME works alongside a Content Decryption Module (CDM) that is the focus of the debate. By necessity, this CDM is closed-source, proprietary software, a fact that some consider anathema to the open web.

In 2014, Mozilla wrote that "the W3C EME specification only describes the JavaScript APIs to access the CDM. The CDM itself is proprietary and is not specified in detail in the EME specification."

In 2013, when they heard the W3C was taking up DRM, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) became a full member of the group specifically to "challenge DRM in the group's future work". After Berners-Lee wrote his decision, the EFF formally appealed that decision saying that a compromise related to the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act and Canada's Copyright Modernization Act was necessary to protect certain parties such as security researchers from prosecution.

On the face of it, the decision comes down to formalizing DRM into a W3C specification vs. requiring consumers to use plug-ins to view the content they want. From a practical perspective, mainstream browsers such as Chrome, Edge, Firefox, Safari, and Opera already support EME. Consumers won't see any changes and can continue using media services such as Netflix without the need for a specialized plug-in.

John Gruber wrote that he'd rather see native DRM than need to use plug-ins:

Netflix, for example, is never going to serve video without DRM. Or perhaps better put, movie and TV studios wouldn’t allow Netflix to do that. Nor would professional sports leagues or the Olympics. So either you can watch Netflix in a web browser or you can’t. If your web browser doesn’t support DRM natively, then you have to use plugins.

After publication of the recommendation, the EFF resigned from the W3C. Doctorow wrote that the EFF had "agreed to stand down regarding the EME standard, provided that the W3C extends its existing IPR policies to deter members from using DRM laws in connection with the EME". This appeal was not adopted and, according to a back-and-forth on Twitter, the W3C said that the "appeal decision was a majority vote by only members whether they wanted to proceed or not". 58.4% of members voted to proceed.

EME is debated within the W3C's HTML Media Extensions Working Group. The group's charter specifies that the group maintains an HTML Working Group Decision Policy. This policy states that a call for consensus is made, but that if a clear consensus is not found, the working group chairs may poll the members.

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