On Encrypted Video and the Open Web
There has been a lot of response to the announcement that W3C considers content protection for video as in-scope for discussion in the HTML Working Group. In this post I can touch on some of the arguments.
We hear the outburst of criticism (and some support) for W3C's recent rechartering of the HTML Working Group that put content protection for video in-scope for discussion. We hear that criticism as a signal that many people value W3C's voice, and feel betrayed by this decision. I want to make it clear that I and all the staff at W3C are as passionate as ever about the open Web. Also, none of us as users like certain forms of content protection such as DRM at all. Or the constraints it places on users and developers. Or the over-severe legislation it triggers in countries like the USA.
We're together in wanting a robust, rich, open Web. We want a Web open to inventors and tinkerers, to media-makers and cultural explorers. We want a Web which is rich in content but also a two-way, read-write Web. We want a Web which is universal in that it can contain anything. As Michael Dertouzos, one-time head of the Lab for Computer Science here at MIT, used to say, an Information Marketplace, where people can buy, sell or freely exchange information. To be universal, the Web has got to be open to many different sorts of businesses and business models.
The HTML Design Principles give helpful guidance on the priority of constituencies: "In case of conflict, consider users over authors over implementers over specifiers over theoretical purity. In other words, costs or difficulties to the user should be given more weight than costs to authors; which in turn should be given more weight than costs to implementers; which should be given more weight than costs to authors of the spec itself, which should be given more weight than those proposing changes for theoretical reasons alone. Of course, it is preferred to make things better for multiple constituencies at once."
So we put the user first, but different users have different preferences. Putting the user first doesn't help us to satisfy users' possibly incompatible wants: some Web users like to watch big-budget movies at home, some Web users like to experiment with code. The best solution will be one that satisfies all of them, and we're still looking for that. If we can't find that, we're looking for the solutions that do least harm to these and other expressed wants from users, authors, implementers, and others in the ecosystem.
The arguments about whether content protection for video, and EME in particular, should be in scope for W3C discussion and standardization are many and varied. When we discussed the issue in the W3C Technical Architecture Group earlier this year I noted on the whiteboard a list of related arguments, then already quite long, and that list has not grown any shorter with time. Many of the arguments involve what different parties, the users, the browser makers, the media content distributors, and so on, would do under different new scenarios -- things which we can opine on but in the end only guess. Many of these arguments involve comparing very different types of things -- the smoothness of a user interface and the danger that programmers will be jailed. So there will not be an end to much of this argument for a long time. I would like to thank everyone who has weighed into the discussion thoughtfully and with consideration, and I hope you will continue to do so.
Let me just pick up a few elements, by no means a comprehensive set.
W3C is a place where people discuss possible technology. The HTML Working Group charter is about the scope of the discussion. W3C does not and cannot dictate what browsers or content distributors can do. By excluding this issue from discussion, we do not exclude it from anyone's systems.
Some arguments for inclusion take this form: if content protection of some kind has to be used for videos, it is better for it to be discussed in the open at W3C, better for everyone to use an interoperable open standard as much as possible, and better for it to be framed in a browser which can be open source, and available on a general purpose computer rather than a special purpose box. Those are key arguments for the decision that this topic is in scope.
No one likes DRM as a user, wherever it crops up. It is worth thinking, though, about what it is we do not like about existing DRM-based systems, and how we could possibly build a system which will be a more open, fairer one than the actual systems which we see today. If we, the programmers who design and build Web systems, are going to consider something which could be very onerous in many ways, what can we ask in return?
The conversation has just started. The Restricted Media Community Group is one forum for discussing this. The firstname.lastname@example.org list is good for general Web architecture, and there is the HTML Working Group and a Web Copyright Community Group. And there are comments to Jeff's posting or this post though I may not be able to answer them all.
Let us all continue to pursue creation of a powerful Web platform that is built on open standards. The use case of protected video content is a challenging one. We think this discussion will help get us there, but there is much more to do to achieve the level of openness I have personally sought for 25 years, and that W3C has pursued since its inception.