EFF has appealed the W3C's decision to make DRM for the web without protections

[[Update, July 13: After consultation with W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe on timing, we've temporarily withdrawn this appeal, for one week, for purely logistical purposes. I am teaching a workshop all next week at UC San Diego and will re-file the objection at the end of the week, so that I will be able to devote undivided attention to garnering the necessary support from other W3C members. -Cory]]

Five days ago, the World Wide Web Consortium announced that it would go ahead with its project of making DRM for web-video, and that the Director, Tim Berners-Lee had overruled or decided not to act further on all objections about the dangers this posed to legitimate and important activities including security audits, accessibility adaptation and competition.

The W3C has an appeals process, which has never been successfully used in W3C history. If 5 percent of the members appeal a decision by the Director, all members are entitled to vote, and if there's a majority in favor of overulling the Director, the decision is unmade.

Today, I formally initiated that appeal process in my capacity as W3C Advisory Committee representative for the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Our appeal is based on two premises:

1. That the supposed benefits of standardizing DRM at the W3C can't be realized unless there's protections for people who engage in lawful activity that DRM gets in the way of; and

2. That the W3C's membership were never polled on whether they wished to institute such protections as part of the W3C's DRM standardization project.

This is uncharted territory for the W3C, so we're not sure what happens next. In our submission to W3C CEO Jeff Jaffe and W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee, we asked for their guidance on how to proceed. I'll keep you updated as we learn more.

1. The enhanced privacy protection of a sandbox is only as good as the sandbox, so we need to be able to audit the sandbox.

The privacy-protecting constraints the sandbox imposes on code only work if the constraints can't be bypassed by malicious or defective software. Because security is a process, not a product and because there is no security through obscurity, the claimed benefits of EME's sandbox require continuous, independent verification in the form of adversarial peer review by outside parties who do not face liability when they reveal defects in members' products.

This is the norm with every W3C recommendation: that security researchers are empowered to tell the truth about defects in implementations of our standards. EME is unique among all W3C standards past and present in that DRM laws confer upon W3C members the power to silence security researchers.

EME is said to be respecting of user privacy on the basis of the integrity of its sandboxes. A covenant is absolutely essential to ensuring that integrity.

2. The accessibility considerations of EME omits any consideration of the automated generation of accessibility metadata, and without this, EME's accessibility benefits are constrained to the detriment of people with disabilities.

It's true that EME goes further than other DRM systems in making space available for the addition of metadata that helps people with disabilities use video. However, as EME is intended to restrict the usage and playback of video at web-scale, we must also ask ourselves how metadata that fills that available space will be generated.

For example, EME's metadata channels could be used to embed warnings about upcoming strobe effects in video, which may trigger photosensitive epileptic seizures. Applying such a filter to (say) the entire corpus of videos available to Netflix subscribers who rely on EME to watch their movies would safeguard people with epilepsy from risks ranging from discomfort to severe physical harm.

There is no practical way in which a group of people concerned for those with photosensitive epilepsy could screen all those Netflix videos and annotate them with strobe warnings, or generate them on the fly as video is streamed. By contrast, such a feat could be accomplished with a trivial amount of code. For this code to act on EME-locked videos, EME's restrictions would have to be bypassed.

It is legal to perform this kind of automated accessibility analysis on all the other media and transports that the W3C has ever standardized. Thus the traditional scope of accessibility compliance in a W3C standard -- "is there somewhere to put the accessibility data when you have it?" -- is insufficient here. We must also ask, "Has W3C taken steps to ensure that the generation of accessibility data is not imperiled by its standard?"

There are many kinds of accessibility metadata that could be applied to EME-restricted videos: subtitles, descriptive tracks, translations. The demand for, and utility of, such data far outstrips our whole species' ability to generate it by hand. Even if we all labored for all our days to annotate the videos EME restricts, we would but scratch the surface.

However, in the presence of a covenant, software can do this repetitive work for us, without much expense or effort.

3. The benefits of interoperability can only be realized if implementers are shielded from liability for legitimate activities.

EME only works to render video with the addition of a nonstandard, proprietary component called a Content Decryption Module (CDM). CDM licenses are only available to those who promise not to engage in lawful conduct that incumbents in the market dislike.

For a new market entrant to be competitive, it generally has to offer a new kind of product or service, a novel offering that overcomes the natural disadvantages that come from being an unknown upstart. For example, Apple was able to enter the music industry by engaging in lawful activity that other members of the industry had foresworn. Likewise Netflix still routinely engages in conduct (mailing out DVDs) that DRM advocates deplore, but are powerless to stop, because it is lawful. The entire cable industry -- including Comcast -- owes its existence to the willingness of new market entrants to break with the existing boundaries of "polite behavior."

EME's existence turns on the assertion that premium video playback is essential to the success of any web player. It follows that new players will need premium video playback to succeed -- but new players have never successfully entered a market by advertising a product that is "just like the ones everyone else has, but from someone you've never heard of."

The W3C should not make standards that empower participants to break interoperability. By doing so, EME violates the norm set by every other W3C standard, past and present.

Notice to the W3C of EFF's appeal of the Director's decision on EME [Cory Doctorow/EFF]