Earlier this month, the Worldwide Web Consortium announced that it will be working on standards that may lead to the inclusion of digital rights management in HTML 5.1. While W3C has no formal status as a standards body and browser manufacturers are free to ignore their recommendations, it seems likely that in the future we’ll see digital rights management included in the HTML video standards via the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME).
As you might expect, the news that DRM is finally making its way into the HTML standard met with a mixed response. Most people agree that something needs to be done about the current state of video streaming, which offers a poor experience to users. Big media companies and online media streaming services like Netflix feel that digital rights management is necessary to protect their content. Whether that’s true or an effective approach is up for debate — most DRM is quickly circumvented, and DRM in HTML5 is likely to prove no exception — but, it seems unlikely that media producers will change their position in the near future. The DRM requirement leaves media streaming services with limited options, forcing them to use browser plugins like Adobe’s Flash or Microsoft’s Silverlight, which do provide digital rights management, but often fail to offer an acceptable user experience, particularly on mobile devices.
If DRM were to be introduced into the HTML standard and implemented by browser developers, media companies would be able to deliver their content without the use of proprietary plugins whose development is under the control of third-party companies— although they would need to use the “binary blobs” that enable encryption via EME to work.
On the other side of the debate are activist organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, who object to the use of EME and digital rights management on the web. At the heart of their objection is the idea that DRM hands over control of web clients (usually browsers) to media producers. They also argue that the job of the W3C is to maintain the openness of the web, and that the inclusion of digital rights management for video is the beginning of slippery slope that could lead to other forms for content, like text, being protected in this way.
The WC3 is in the unenviable position of walking a line between these two positions and appears to have decided that the content streaming services have a point. Their contracts impose a duty on them to use DRM, and currently there is no way to do that within the HTML framework.
We’re likely to see a lot of back and forth on the issue over the coming months and years as the standard wends its way through the development process.
Is DRM in the HTML standard good for the online ecosystem? Let us know what you think in the comments.