The Piecemeal Privatization of Web Infrastructure

Ever since the World Wide Web went wide in 1994, film studios, music labels and publishers have tried to neuter this unparalleled communications commons.  Much of the Web’s power stems from its open technical protocols known as hypertext markup language, or HTML, which are used to build webpages.  HTML has always put users, not "content-makers," in control of content, and as a result, people could (for example) copy and save the “source code” for a webpage.  Bottom-up innovation could emerge and prevail.    

The truly dismaying news is that the official steward of technical standards for the Web – the World Wide Web Consortium, or W3C – plans to adopt a new set of standards, HTML5, that will let content owners add digital rights management, or DRM, to their web content.  As Cory Doctorow writes on BoingBoing, “the decision to go forward with the project of standardizing DRM for the Web came from Tim Berners-Lee himself [who invented the Web in the early 1990s], who seems to have bought into the lie that Hollywood will abandon the Web and move somewhere else (AOL?) if they don’t get to redesign the open Internet to suit their latest profit-maximization scheme.”

What makes the new HTML5 standards so alarming is that it kicks open the door for still other new forms of proprietary control over Web-based video, images, fonts and more.  Danny O'Brien, International Director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has a good account of the struggles to prevent this outcome at the W3C, which could lead to the piecemeal privatization of the Web infrastructure.  


A Web where you cannot cut and paste text; where your browser can’t “Save As...” an image; where the “allowed” uses of saved files are monitored beyond the browser; where JavaScript is sealed away in opaque tombs; and maybe even where we can no longer effectively “View Source” on some sites, is a very different Web from the one we have today. It’s a Web where user agents—browsers—must navigate a nest of enforced duties every time they visit a page. It’s a place where the next Tim Berners-Lee or Mozilla, if they were building a new browser from scratch, couldn’t just look up the details of all the “Web” technologies. They’d have to negotiate and sign compliance agreements with a raft of DRM providers just to be fully standards-compliant and interoperable.

O’Brien writes that the W3C, by sanctioning “content protection” as a basic protocol for the Web, is “discarding the principle that users should be in charge of user agents, as well as the principle that all the information needed to interoperate with a standard should be open to all prospective implementers…..” 

Instead, rights-holders will now have a green light to develop their own proprietary schemes for Web-related tools and content. Over time this will undermine universal open access, software interoperability and user control – the very things that make the Web the Web. 

At a time when the business strategies of large players like Google, Facebook, Netflix and others seek to leverage the power of social sharing, but then privatize and monetize the outcomes, you can be sure that we will see brazen new initiatives to privatize elements of the open Web.  As Cory Doctorow points out, your browser will be able to say, “I can’t let you do that, Dave.”  For more background on HTML5, here's a backgrounder piece by EFF.



If they want DRM, they should make their own internet, not enclose ours.

I can't image how this might make the web a better place.

Where can we voice our objections?