An excellent editorial by Simon St. Laurent on O'Reilly Programming asks what the open Web has gained from the World Wide Web Consortium's terrible decision to add DRM to Web-standards. As St Laurent points out, the decision means that programmers are now under threat of fines or imprisonment for making and improving Web-browsers in ways that displease Hollywood -- and in return, the W3C has extracted exactly zero promises of a better Web for users or programmers.
After acknowledging that, however, he goes on to define an open web as a marketplace, something that is “universal in that it can contain anything”, rather than being universal in that its content can be read by anyone. It seems painfully clear in his discussion of user priorities that the users who matter most in this universal marketplace are the ones who “like to watch big-budget movies at home”. The rest of us – including those who worry about “the danger that programmers will be jailed” are extremely welcome to “weigh into the discussion thoughtfully and with consideration”.
The saddest part of that discussion, however, is the question. What are we users – and what is the W3C – getting from building the risk of programmers being jailed into the core infrastructure of the Web? I have no doubt that browser vendors eager to cut deals will incorporate DRM into their offerings. Does that make it a good idea for the W3C to offer its name, its facilities, its intellectual property agreements, and its umbrella from antitrust prosecution to such a project? Why not leave the companies to pursue their own directions, and take on the risk of legal action themselves?
I’m left, however, with Berners-Lee’s failure to answer his own question, and his strange expectation that users can “ask” for something in return and hope to see it. I have too many memories of decade-old conversations with Microsoft employees after they had, for a time, won the Browser Wars. It was clear that the users I cared about, whether developers or individuals who just couldn’t make things work, were not the users they cared about. Our roles was just to create an ecosystem in which Microsoft could make a lot of money. (Microsoft is far from alone in that view – I only single them out for that past history.)