If you're worried about Net Neutrality, you should be worried about web DRM, too

Yesterday's smashing Net Neutrality campaign showed that people have finally woken up to the risks of the highly concentrated telcoms sector using its commercial muscle to decide what kinds of services can flourish in the online world — but Big Internet doesn't confine its efforts to control the future to playing around with packets.

Even if we have an open, neutral network we're still at risk from big incumbents using choke-points to decide what legal activities are and are not acceptable on the web. These companies have lobbied the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) into standardizing DRM for video in a way that makes a handful of giant companies into judge, juror and executioner for new services and tools online.

These companies lobbied Congress to make breaking DRM illegal regardless of why you're doing it. That means that these companies can use the rights that standardized, easy-to-deploy DRM gets them to choose which legal new services will be allowed to launch — banning the same kinds of activities that they used to launch their own successful products.

For example, Comcast only exists today because it defied the broadcasters wishes for retransmitting TV signals; Apple's flagship product started off with a music-ripping tool that the record industry tried to kill; and Netflix is still in the business of mailing around DVDs, in defiance of the film industry.

Neutrality-hating ISPs say that anyone can start a service, provided they get permission from a telco first. DRM advocates say that anyone can start a new service, provided they get permission from the entertainment industry first.

It's the same problem — heck, it's even the same companies a lot of the time.

Don't take my word for it: Tim Wu, who coined the term "Net Neutrality," sent Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the W3C, an open letter in which he explained that we won't have an open net unless we defang DRM.

I think more thinking need be done about EME's potential consequences for competition, both as between browsers, the major applications, and in ways unexpected. Control of chokepoints has always and will always be a fundamental challenge facing the Internet as we both know. That's the principal concern of net neutrality, and has been a concern when it comes to browsers and their associated standards. It is not hard to recall how close Microsoft came, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to gaining de facto control over the future of the web (and, frankly, the future) in its effort to gain an unsupervised monopoly over the browser market.

EME, of course, brings the anti-circumvention laws into play, and as you may know anti-circumvention laws have a history of being used for purposes different than the original intent (i.e., protecting content). For example, soon after it was released, the U.S. anti-circumvention law was quickly by manufacturers of inkjet printers and garage-door openers to try and block out aftermarket competitors (generic ink, and generic remote controls). The question is whether the W3C standard with an embedded DRM standard, EME, becomes a tool for suppressing competition in ways not expected.

Net Neutrality Won't Save Us if DRM is Baked Into the Web [Cory Doctorow/EFF]