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New internet DRM standard approved by W3C in ‘compromise’ that critics say favours content providers

The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) has approved a new standard for digital rights management (DRM) that could be incorporated into forthcoming internet standards – a move that has been met with opposition by online and privacy groups. 

Encrypted media extensions (EME), which have been on the drawing board for five years, will enable DRM systems to hook directly into browsers without having to use plug-ins. But the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is concerned that the new tech will give the browser makers and content providers too much power (though it’s worth noting that the EFF objects to DRM outright).

“It’s a bad idea to make technology that treats the owner of a computer as an adversary to be controlled, and DRM wrecks the fairness of the copyright bargain by preventing you from exercising the rights the law gives you when you lawfully acquire a copyrighted work (like the rights to make fair uses like remix or repair, or to resell or lend your copy).”

The EFF, in common with a number of other organisations, had wanted a “covenant”, meaning the rules would come down heavy on those who by-passed it for gain, but ignored those that circumvented for legitimate reasons such as those described above – citing particularly the specific needs to change or reformat content for accessibility or disability compliance.

For years, Firefox refused to use DRM at all, but eventually, reluctantly complied after it started to lose market share when Netflix and iPlayer began to take off. 

The EFF warns that it believes that what has actually passed, which has no caveats, is no better than having no standard at all, warning

“This will break people, companies, and projects, and it will be technologists and their lawyers, including the EFF, who will be the ones who’ll have to pick up the pieces.”

Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee, in his capacity as director of W3C, has argued that the accessibility issues are addressed by the lack of plug-ins or additional equipment, with a statement saying: “After consideration of the issues, the director reached a decision that the EME specification should move to ‘W3C Recommendation’ status.

“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.”

Regardless of the merits, or otherwise, of HTML5 coupled with EME, it would at least mean the end, once and for all, for Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight. 

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