Reflections on the EME debate

For the past several years we have engaged in one of the most divisive debates in the history of the W3C Community. This is the debate about whether W3C should release the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) Recommendation without requiring that vendors provide a covenant that protects security and interoperability researchers.

This debate is an offshoot of a larger debate in society – whether it is appropriate to protect content using Digital Rights Management (DRM) and whether it is appropriate for nations to pass law such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) which impose penalties on those that attempt to break Digital Rights Management (DRM). Since EME is an interface to Content Decryption Modules (CDMs) that decrypt content protected by DRM, the larger debate in society came into our own halls.

The debate within W3C was passionate and well informed on both sides. Supporters of EME argued that watching movies (protected by DRM) was happening on the web – and providing a common, secure, private, accessible interface from W3C was well within our mission and hence an appropriate activity for W3C. Opponents insisted that such a spec must be accompanied by a covenant that protects researchers from the overreach of DMCA. The arguments on both sides were far deeper than what I summarized above – indeed there were an intricate set of arguments with good logic on all sides of the debate.

There is potential fallout from the debate. Some on both sides of the issue complained about the intensity of the arguments on the other side. Others told me that they felt that the overall intensity of the debate was harmful to W3C. Personally, I approach this with a high degree of equanimity. I don’t think there was anything untoward in the debate itself. Only respectful passion from those who are passionate. And I feel that the intensity of the debate shows W3C in its best light. Here’s why.

First of all, I don’t think that this was a debate about W3C standards alone. This was part of a larger debate in society. W3C did not create DRM and we did not create DMCA. DRM has been used for decades prior to the EME debate. But in recent years it is a credit to the world wide web that the web has become the delivery vehicle for everything, including movies. Accordingly it was inevitable that we would face issues of conflicting values and the appropriate accommodations for commercial use of the web. I cannot envision a situation where this debate would not have erupted in our community given the larger trends that are happening in the world.

Secondly, we have had an incredibly respectful debate. The debate started years ago in the restricted-media W3C Community Group soon after EME was chartered. There were hundreds of posts with many points of view professionally stated on all sides of the issue. Each side contributed understanding to the other side. That doesn’t mean that people with passionate viewpoints were swayed. But W3C played its role as the venue for an open debate in the public square.

Third, the existence of the debate improved the specification. Critics of early versions of the spec raised valid issues about security, privacy, and accessibility. The resultant work of the Working Group then improved the spec in those dimensions. Critics might not have achieved their ultimate goal of a covenant that protected security researchers – but they did help improve security on the web nonetheless.

Finally, the deliberative process of W3C, which several times took a step back to look for suggestions and/or objections played itself out properly. At multiple places the debate caused the entire community to better scrutinize the work. All voices were heard. Not all contradictory voices could be simultaneously satisfied – but the debate was influential. And in the end, the inventor of the world wide web, the Director of W3C, Tim Berners-Lee, took in all of the diverse input and provided a thoughtful decision which addressed all objections in detail.

I know from my conversations that many people are not satisfied with the result. EME proponents wanted a faster decision with less drama. EME critics want a protective covenant. And there is reason to respect those who want a better result. But my personal reflection is that we took the appropriate time to have a respectful debate about a complex set of issues and provide a result that will improve the web for its users.

My main hope, though, is that whatever point-of-view people have on the EME covenant issue, that they recognize the value of the W3C community and process in arriving at a decision for an inherently contentious issue. We are in our best light when we are facilitating the debate on important issues that face the web.