Battle for the web

The World Wide Web Consortium just had its biggest controversy ever

At issue was how to support copyright-protected video in web browsers.
In the end, the consortium caved to what Netflix, Microsoft, and Google wanted.
Now, people are questioning the motives of the organization, which is supposed to make the web better for everyone, not just big corporations.
Battle for the web

Netflix, Microsoft, and Google just quietly changed how the web works

The organization that sets standards for the web just failed to beat back a stupid, greedy technology.

This week the World Wide Web Consortium, the non-profit that debates and sets the standards that make all the web’s browsers and websites compatible, held its most contentious vote in history.

The proposed standard that was voted on is called Encrypted Media Extensions, or EME. Basically it standardizes parts of how copyrighted video is delivered within a browser. The most obvious effect of this will be that users will never have to download the Microsoft Silverlight or Adobe Flash add-ons in order to watch a copyright protected video from an authorized source like Netflix. This transition began in 2012 but is now set in stone.

Opponents, who include net neutrality father Tim Wu and stakeholders like the Ethereum Foundation, say this change will make the web less secure, less open, less accessible for people with hearing and vision impairment, and harder to archive. Proponents, who include large media companies like Netflix, argue it would actually make the web more secure, more open, more accessible, and, okay, more difficult to archive, but let’s not dwell on that. If you boil down the reason why EME was contentious, it’s because some people saw it as a gift to large corporations that would make the web worse for users, and extrapolated from there that the web’s most important organization is now in the pocket of Big Capitalism.

The consortium, also know by the awkward acronym W3C, does not normally share the breakdown of its votes. But because this vote was so controversial, it did. Out of the consortium’s 463 members, which include stakeholders from academia to nonprofits to major Silicon Valley corporations, 108 voted yes, 57 objected, 20 abstained, and the rest didn’t participate. The fact that just 185 out of 463 members voted or explicitly abstained may sound like a low turnout, but it was in fact historically high. “We’ve never had such a high percentage in my recollection,” said Jeff Jaffe, the consortium’s CEO.

What is also unusual is that after the vote took place, and the consortium officially endorsed the new standard, one of its members — Electronic Frontier Foundation, a San Francisco-based digital civil rights group that joined as a full member in 2013 expressly to fight EME— resigned in protest. No member has quit the consortium in protest before, Jaffe said. At least one staff member, Harry Halpin, resigned in protest as well.

“Our mission is to lead the web to its full potential.”
Jeff Jaffe, CEO of the World Wide Web Consortium

There is no consensus on how bad EME will actually be for users. But what’s potentially more concerning is the perception that the organization that architects the world wide web has been colonized by big business. The World Wide Web Consortium was started at MIT in 1994 by Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, in collaboration with the CERN science center in Geneva with support from DARPA and the European Commission. It has always maintained that it is a “neutral forum.” From early press releases: “The Consortium is neutral forum, and no member has a priori a greater say than another.” “The Consortium is vendor-neutral.” Now, the passage of EME is fueling the perception that the consortium is in the pocket of its large corporate members. The consortium’s press release announcing EME included laudatory statements from the MPAA, the RIAA, and the cable industry. “Thanks for handing the internet to the media corporations,” went a typical response on Twitter. “I sincerely hope that a competitor to your mafia arises and takes control.”

We talked about this story on our daily podcast, The Outline World Dispatch. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen.

It’s unavoidable that on the internet, the interests of users and corporations will collide. Preserving personal privacy is at odds with serving advertising. Making websites equally fast and accessible no matter what their content is or who owns it — also known as net neutrality — is at odds with Comcast’s bottom line. But the most frequent flashpoint in the users-versus-corporations conflict seems to be copyright.

So many fun things about the internet, like memes and mashups and Let’s Plays and GIFs of the Olympics and videos of Lenny Kravitz’s dick, are subject to be removed at any moment by copyright holders and their creators punished. The whims of copyright holders also outweigh, by default, the need for public awareness of a security flaw in a website or application that, say, millions of people may use. If a security researcher finds a vulnerability, the burden is suddenly on them to figure out how to act on it without ending up in jail for violating copyright law.

One frustrating offshoot of this endless copyright war is a sub-war over digital rights management, or DRM. The term DRM is pretty broad, but it usually refers to a software lock that prevents a song from being copied or video from being downloaded or a printer from using unauthorized ink. If you’re a 90s kid, you may remember the great DRM debate that flamed up around Napster. People were rampantly pirating music, and the music industry wanted to stop them. Someone proposed that the problem could be solved with technology, and companies started plunging money into DRM.

The trouble with DRM is that it’s sort of ineffective. It tends to make things inconvenient for people who legitimately bought a song or movie while failing to stop piracy. Some rights holders, like Ubisoft, have come around to the idea that DRM is counterproductive. Steve Jobs famously wrote about the inanity of DRM in 2007. But other rights holders, like Netflix, are doubling down. The prevailing winds at the consortium concluded that DRM is now a fact of life, and so it would be be better to at least make the experience a bit smoother for users. If the consortium didn’t work with companies like Netflix, Berners-Lee wrote in a blog post, those companies would just stop delivering video over the web and force people into their own proprietary apps. The idea that the best stuff on the internet will be hidden behind walls in apps rather than accessible through any browser is the mortal fear for open web lovers; it’s like replacing one library with many stores that each only carry books for one publisher. “It is important to support EME as providing a relatively safe online environment in which to watch a movie, as well as the most convenient,” Berners-Lee wrote, “and one which makes it a part of the interconnected discourse of humanity.” Mozilla, the nonprofit that makes the browser Firefox, similarly held its nose and cooperated on the EME standard. “It doesn’t strike the correct balance between protecting individual people and protecting digital content,” it said in a blog post. “The content providers require that a key part of the system be closed source, something that goes against Mozilla’s fundamental approach. We very much want to see a different system. Unfortunately, Mozilla alone cannot change the industry on DRM at this point.”

So is the World Wide Web Consortium carrying water for corporate interests? Jaffe says absolutely not. He pushed back on the idea that the consortium has become more like an industry group or trade association, a characterization I’ve seen pop up more and more recently. “Our mission is to lead the web to its full potential,” he said. “I think roughly a third of our members are not for profit in one fashion or another. So we are a very broad multi stakeholder group that is concerned about the evolution of the technology for the world wide web.”

It’s true that pretty much anyone can become a member of the World Wide Web Consortium as long as they have a demonstrated stake in web technologies and can pay their dues. Membership fees are assigned according to a rate table that accounts for revenue and country of origin, so that powerful players pay more than small ones. The fees for the U.S., for example, range from $2,250 to $77,000. It’s a noble impulse, but it’s actually regressive. The top tier, $77,000, is for companies making more than $1 billion. In 2016, Google had a profit of $89 billion. That means while a small company might pay a palpable percentage of its revenue, Google will pay a percentage that is virtually 0.

It’s hard to argue that Goliath didn’t win this last round against David

Still, Jaffe says the membership of the consortium is still populist. Fewer than 100 members are for-profit companies with revenue of $50 million or more per year, Jaffe said. “More than 75 percent of our membership is NGOs, academic institutions, startups, small and medium companies, so I think within our membership there is certainly ample number of companies that are not large commercial companies,” he said. While we don’t know which members voted in favor of EME, because that’s still confidential, the fact that it passed with just 108 votes suggests that a caucus of just the $50 million-plus companies would still be quite powerful. A caucus of $50 million companies plus smaller companies with ambitions to become $50 million companies, even more so.

It’s hard to argue that Goliath didn’t win this last round against David. Corporate interests won not just because they had the votes at the consortium, but because they created conditions in the real world that the consortium had to adapt to in order to remain relevant. YouTube and Netflix dominate the market for videos that people want to watch; if they want to lock up those videos with DRM, they have a lot of leverage to do so. By the time Mozilla rolled over, Google, Microsoft, and Apple had already implemented EME into the other three major browsers. “As a result, the new implementation of DRM will soon become the only way browsers can provide access to DRM-controlled content,” Mozilla wrote. The deal was sealed.

Before the EFF quit, the organization offered a compromise that would have forced rights holders to sign a covenant saying they would not use copyright law to sue people who interacted with their soon-to-be standardized DRM in the course of doing security research or accessibility work. It was a nonstarter; by all accounts, the members representing rights holders were not open to compromise. In isolation, supporting EME in the browser in order to facilitate a stupid, greedy technology is not the end of the web as we know it. But this vote marks a significant milestone in the history of the World Wide Web Consortium: the moment the users fought back and lost.

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