Home Technology Regulation EFF quits W3C over decision to accept EME as Web standard

EFF quits W3C over decision to accept EME as Web standard

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has resigned from the World Wide Web Consortium after the latter announced it was accepting the published Encrypted Media Extensions as a Web standard.

The W3C began the process of formally ratifying the EME standard in March.

EME is an API that allows plugin-free playback of protected (encrypted) content in Web browsers and works on all major platforms. The W3C's Media Source Extensions provide the API for streaming video while its companion EME provides the API for handling encrypted content. 

The combination of MSE and EME is the most common practice today that allows Web developers to stop using plugins to deliver commercial quality video over the Web.

The EFF had objected to the acceptance of EME, a task which the W3C took on in 2013. EME was accepted by the W3C on Monday.

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"EME is already widely adopted as a direct result of broad collaboration in W3C among major organisations such as Google, Microsoft, Netflix, Mozilla, Apple, CableLabs, Adobe, and has significant implementation across Web browsers," said Philippe Le Hégaret, W3C project lead.

In a vote by W3C members, 108 supported the decision by W3C director Sir Tim Berners-Lee to advance EME to W3C Recommendation, while 57 opposed it and 20 abstained.

In the EFF letter withdrawing from the W3C, well-known activist Cory Doctorow wrote that that the organisation had been disappointed to learn that the W3C had taken on the project of standardising EME "whose sole function was to provide a first-class role for DRM within the Web browser ecosystem".

"By doing so, the organisation offered the use of its patent pool, its staff support, and its moral authority to the idea that browsers can and should be designed to cede control over key aspects from users to remote parties," he wrote.

Doctorow said that when it became evident that the W3C was wedded to this change, the EFF had proposed a compromise: "We agreed to stand down regarding the EME standard, provided that the W3C extend its existing IPR policies to deter members from using DRM laws in connection with the EME (such as Section 1201 of the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act or European national implementations of Article 6 of the EUCD) except in combination with another cause of action."

He said this would have allowed the W3C's large corporate members to enforce their copyrights. "Indeed, it kept intact every legal right to which entertainment companies, DRM vendors, and their business partners can otherwise lay claim. The compromise merely restricted their ability to use the W3C's DRM to shut down legitimate activities, like research and modifications, that required circumvention of DRM."

Doctorow said the W3C had always operated on consensus, but in this case the organisation had made it plain that even though the increased opposition to EME was growing, "the director decided to personally override every single objection raised by the members, articulating several benefits that EME offered over the DRM that HTML5 had made impossible".

However, he pointed out, those benefits depended on the public being able to exercise rights they lost under DRM law — "which meant that without the compromise the director was overriding, none of those benefits could be realised, either. That rejection prompted the first appeal against the director in W3C history". 

Doctorow said the W3C would regret its decision on EME. "Today, the W3C bequeaths an legally unauditable attack-surface to browsers used by billions of people. They give media companies the power to sue or intimidate away those who might re-purpose video for people with disabilities," he said.

"They side against the archivists who are scrambling to preserve the public record of our era. The W3C process has been abused by companies that made their fortunes by upsetting the established order, and now, thanks to EME, they’ll be able to ensure no one ever subjects them to the same innovative pressures."


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.