Developer: DRM Locked Me Out of Making My Own Web Browser

DRM and big tech are being blamed for preventing developers from making their own web browsers. It could mean an era of open Internet is over.

In the 90’s and 2000’s, the web was a much more open place. If you were a developer, you could theoretically develop your own web browser. The only barrier to entry was whether or not your browser could handle various web code and markup languages such as HTML, CSS, and Javascript to name a few examples. It allowed browsers to get a foothold in the market such as Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, FireFox, and Safari.

Unfortunately, a serious change occurred in 2017. That was when the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) went against digital rights advocacy and open source organizations to greenlight Internet DRM. The move ultimately marked a significant shift away from an open Internet and moved it closer to a locked down browsing experience held by major corporations. At the time, many dismissed these concerns as being overblown and that it would only affect a small number of vendors. Still, concerns were raised at the time. Here’s what the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) said at the time:

EFF objects to DRM: it’s a bad idea to make technology that treats the owner of a computer as an adversary to be controlled, and DRM wrecks the fairness of the copyright bargain by preventing you from exercising the rights the law gives you when you lawfully acquire a copyrighted work (like the rights to make fair uses like remix or repair, or to resell or lend your copy).

But EFF understood that the W3C had members who wanted to make DRM, so we suggested a compromise: a covenant, modeled on the existing W3C member-agreement, that would require members to make a binding promise only to use the law to attack people who infringed copyright, and to leave people alone if they bypassed DRM for legal reasons, like making W3C-standardized video more accessible for people with disabilities.

This was a very popular idea. It was endorsed by Unesco, by the Internet Archive, by the creator of the W3C’s existing membership agreement, by hundreds of top security researchers, by the competition expert who coined the term “Net Neutrality”, and by hundreds of human rights organizations and activists from the global south. The Open Source Initiative amended its definition of “open standard” so that DRM standards could only qualify as a “open” if they protected legitimate activity.

Now, it’s fair to say that the W3C’s DRM advocates didn’t like the idea. After a perfunctory discussion process (during which some progress was made), they walked away from the negotiations, and the W3C decided to allow the standardization work to continue despite their unwillingness to compromise.

But other W3C members did like the idea. On March 12, the final vote for publishing EME closed, and members ranging from the German National Library to the UK Royal National Institute for Blind People to the cryptocurrency startup Ethereum, to Brave, a new entrant to the browser market — along with dozens more—rejected the idea of publishing EME without some protections for these equities (the numbers in the vote are confidential by W3C’s own membership requirements, but all the members mentioned here have given permission to have their votes revealed.)

It was the most controversial vote in W3C history. As weeks and then months stretched out without a decision, another W3C member, the Center for Democracy and Technology, proposed a very, very narrow version of the covenant, one that would only protect security researchers who revealed accidental or deliberate leaks of data marked as private and sensitive by EME. Netflix’s representative dismissed the idea out of hand, and then the W3C’s CEO effectively killed the proposal.

Today, the W3C announced that it would publish its DRM standard with no protections and no compromises at all, stating that W3C Director Tim Berners-Lee had concluded that the objections raised “had already been addressed” or that they were “overruled.”

In the years since, larger companies continued to consolidate audiences and further gain a grip on the market for various wide-ranging audiences. After DRM standards emerged, it became clear that having an all-purpose browser had to be OKed by a major tech company first. That is the complaints being made by Samuel Maddock. Maddock is the developer for a web browser known as MetaStream. After doing the legwork for developing the browser, the last stage ultimately became the currently novel concept of gaining approval for a DRM standard. That is where he ran into problems. From Maddock’s blog:

Ultimately there are two potential options: Widevine or PlayReady.

With Widevine we’ll be stuck waiting for an indefinite amount of time without certainty of whether they’ll agree to provide their solution.

With PlayReady we can expect to have to pay $10,000 upfront.

Since the introduction of EME to web standards, the ability for new browsers to compete has become restricted by gatekeepers, which goes against the promises of the platform.

Using the Open Web Platform, everyone has the right to implement a software component of the Web without requiring any approvals or waiving license fees.

Yes, the EME standard can be implemented by anyone, but it’s moot when the requirement of a CDM says otherwise.

The barriers of DRM have affected a number of browser-related applications. A few of which are listed below:

  • Brave—Widevine communication delays.
  • ElectronPlayer—Widevine unresponsive.
  • Fenêtre—Widevine unresponsive.
  • Metastream—Widevine rejection.
  • Min
  • Pennywise
  • Wexond—Widevine unresponsive.

This new reality would easily be mind blowing to web developers just 10 years ago. The idea that you have to go running to tech giants and beg for permission to develop a web browser goes so far against the concept of the open Internet, it is barely even comprehensible. Unfortunately, since the introduction of online DRM, that is now the reality for web browser developers hoping to enter the market in this day and age.

Still, this does shed light on why it’s so hard for new web browsers to emerge these days. Control over who wins and who loses is gradually being consolidated to a handful of companies who are now acting as gate keepers. All this simply does not bode well for innovation in this sector to say the least.

What’s more is that this is giving reason for critics to point to the monopolistic controls companies are gaining over the Internet that would otherwise be unheard of just 5 years ago. Thanks to DRM, that is now becoming increasingly the norm these days.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Facebook.

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