Posted by: John Erickson | January 10, 2014

What’s all this about a W3C DRM standard?

Over the past few days there has been renewed discussion of the controversial W3C Encrypted Media Extension proposal with the publication of a revised draft. (07 Jan 2014). Today I’d like to provide a bit of background, based on my long experience in the digital rights management “game” and my familiarity with the W3C process.

Who are the players? The primary editors of the W3C EME draft are employed by Google, Microsoft and Netflix, but corporate affiliation really only speaks to one’s initial interest; W3C working groups try to work toward concensus, so we need to go deeper and see who is actually active in the formulation of the draft. Since W3C EME is a work product of the HTML Working Group, one of the W3C’s largest, the stakeholders for EME are somewhat hidden; one needs to trace the actual W3C “community” involved in the discussion. One forum appears to be the W3C Restricted Media Community Group; see also the W3C restricted media wiki and mailing list. A review of email logs and task force minutes indicates regular contributions from representatives of Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Apple, Adobe, Yandex, a few independent DRM vendors such as Verimatrix, and of course W3C. Typically these contributions are highly technical.

A bit of history: The “world” first began actively debating the W3C’s interest in DRM as embodied by the Encrypted Media Extension in Octover 2013 when online tech news outlets like Infoworld ran stories about W3C director Tim Berners-Lee’s decision move forward and the controversy around that choice. In his usual role as anti-DRM advocate, Cory Doctorow first erupted that Ocober, but the world seems to be reacting with renewed vigor now. EFF has also been quite vocal in their opposition to W3C entering into this arena. Stakeholders blogged that EME was a way to “keep the Web relevant and useful.”

The W3C first considered action in the digital rights management arena in 2001, hosting the Workshop on Digital Rights Management (22-23 January 2001, INRIA, Sophia Antipolis, France), which was very well attended by academics and industrial types including the likes of HP Labs (incl. me), Microsoft, Intel, Adobe, RealNetworks, several leading publishers, etc.; see the agenda. The decision at that time was Do Not Go There, largely because it was impossible to get the stakeholders at that time to agree on anything “open,” but also because in-browser capability was limited. Since that time there has been a considerable advancements in support for user-side rendering technologies, not to mention the evolution of Javascript and the creation of HTML5; it is clear that W3C EME is a logical, if controversial, continuation in that direction.

What is this Encrypted Media Extension? The most concise way to explain EME is, that it is an extension to HTML5’s HTMLMediaElement that enables proprietary controlled content handling schemes, including encrypted content. EME does not specify a specific content protection scheme, but instead allows for vendor-specific schemes to be “hooked” via API extensions. Or, as the editors describe it,

“This proposal allows JavaScript to select content protection mechanisms, control license/key exchange, and implement custom license management algorithms. It supports a wide range of use cases without requiring client-side modifications in each user agent for each use case. This also enables content providers to develop a single application solution for all devices. A generic stack implemented using the proposed APIs is shown below. This diagram shows an example flow: other combinations of API calls and events are possible.”

A generic stack implemented using the proposed APIs
A generic stack implemented using
the proposed W3C Encrypted Media Extension APIs

Why is EME needed? One argument is that EME allows content providers to adopt content protection schemes in ways that are more browser- and platform-independent than before. DRM has a long history of user-unfriendliness, brittle platform dependence and platform lock-in; widespread implementation could improve user experiences while given content providers and creators more choices. The dark side of course is that EME could make content protection an easier choice for providers, thereby locking down more content.

The large technology stakeholders (Google, Microsoft, Netflix and others) will likely reach a concensus that accomodates their interests, and those of stakeholders such as the content industries. It remains unclear how the interests of the greater Internet are being represented. As an early participant in the OASIS XML Rights Language Technical Committee (ca 2002) I can say these discussions are very “engineer-driven” and tend to be weighted to the task at hand — creating a technical standard — and rarely are influenced by those seeking to balance technology and public policy. With the recent addition of the MPAA to the W3C, one worries even more about how the voice individual user will be heard.

For further reading:

John Erickson is the Director of Research Operations of The Rensselaer IDEA and the Director of Web Science Operations with the Tetherless World Constellation at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, managing the delivery of large scale open government data projects that advance Semantic Web best practices. Previously, as a principal scientist at HP Labs John focused on the creation of novel information security, identification, management and collaboration technologies. As a co-founder of NetRights, LLC John was the architect of LicensIt(tm) and @ttribute(tm), the first digital rights management (DRM) technologies to facilitate dialog between content creators and users through the dynamic exchange of metadata. As a co-founder of Yankee Rights Management (YRM), John was the architect of Copyright Direct(tm), the first real-time, Internet-based service to fully automate the complex copyright permissions process for a variety of media types.

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