Letter from the Just Net Coalition, representing internet users in the Global South, to Tim Berners-Lee, director of internet standards body W3C

Global South: What used to be called ‘developing countries’ or ‘the Third World’. Includes all of Africa and much of Asia, South America, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.

W3C: World Wide Web Consortium. From Wikipedia: The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is the main international standards organization for the World Wide Web (abbreviated WWW or W3). Founded and currently led by Tim Berners-Lee, the consortium is made up of member organizations which maintain full-time staff for the purpose of working together in the development of standards for the World Wide Web.

All of the main web browsers (such as Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera and Safari) work according to W3C standards, while apps generally do not.

DRM: Digital Rights Management. Refers to software and hardware which makes sure you can only use media (like music or videos) in certain ways, and also to laws which make it illegal to circumvent the DRM software or hardware in order to use media in ways the manufacturer doesn’t want.

From the Electronic Frontier Foundation:
Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies attempt to control what you can and can’t do with the media and hardware you’ve purchased.
— Bought an ebook from Amazon but can’t read it on your ebook reader of choice? That’s DRM.
— Bought a video game but can’t play it today because the manufacturer’s “authentication servers” are offline? That’s DRM.
— Bought a smartphone but can’t use the applications or the service provider you want on it? That’s DRM.
— Bought a DVD or Blu-Ray but can’t copy the video onto your portable media player? That’s DRM.

EME: Encrypted Media Extensions. It’s a potential new standard specification the W3C has been considering. If approved it would make DRM part of the W3C’s internet standards. Since all the major web browsers implement the W3C’s standards, this would mean that DRM would quickly be included in new versions of web browsers, and therefore DRM would quickly part of natural of the web itself; every website could have DRM, allowing website owners to control when and how users can or can’t watch, play, stream, or save their content. It is feared that this would fundamentally change the internet’s open and democratic character.

app: Short for ‘software application’. Any piece of end-user software that works on a mobile phone can be called an ‘app’; for example there are calendar apps, email apps, and game apps.

But ‘app’ is sometimes used more narrowly to mean an application that a company uses instead of a website, so they can have complete control over when and how users can read, view, stream, play, or otherwise access their content. Some examples are: the iTunes Store app, Netflix apps, the Pandora Radio app, Google Play Books, FaceTime, WhatsApp, SnapChat.

The letter:

The Just Net Coalition strongly objects to the recommendation of Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) by the World Wide Consortium (W3C) because of the danger it poses to the interests of the billions of people… DRM (Digital Rights Management) is a technical means to remotely control what a user can or cannot do on her own device… Although this seems to be an obscure issue of standardization, the spread of DRM represents a clear challenge to social justice.

People, in particular in the Global South, are struggling for access to information and the W3C, with its global mandate, has the responsibility to enable access to information for all rather than for helping build financial and technical walls to this information on behalf of a few large and wealthy private sector content providers. Simply put, DRM code in a browser hands control over a user’s screen to this cabal of content providers, technically enforcing their ability to extract payment, ignoring any sovereign rights of the user or of the nation where they reside.

The Web is larger than North America and Europe, and certainly larger than the corporations represented [at the W3C]. Currently, DRM functions only to preserve and enhance the profit margins of a few powerful mostly USA-based, corporations including Hollywood content syndicates such as the Motion Picture Association of America and the newer digital overlords of content such as Google’s YouTube and Netflix, while simultaneously preventing the fair use and free sharing of information by ordinary people.

In its response… the W3C states:

“The alternative to EME allowing interaction with copyrighted content in Web browser plugins is abandoning the Web. Without in-browser decryption ability, content providers would use their own native application, which will have much more leeway to spy on the user, and possibly infect their machine.”

In other words, W3C appears to be concerned that without EME-DRM on the web, many movies and traditional TV style commercial content may get taken off the open web, and be provided through apps. In our view, we should not be afraid of that. Let copyright owners take their content where they wish to take it. The Internet and the web were never originally intended to broadcast copyright material. Even if that material “goes away”, we will have saved the open Internet/web for what it was originally meant for: peer-to-peer (p2p) sharing and communication. The open Internet/web also allows content businesses to use it, as long as their interests do not triumph over those of the common person. Content businesses can use the open Internet/web by employing business models that work with the open web. If not, then they can go ahead and develop private channels to the consumers – that is their right.

But we should not be intimidated by their threats. We should not change the Internet/web for them. We know that the big content providers want to use the web and not native apps, because the latter leaves them at a disadvantage. Such a disadvantage is a natural and just consequence of their attempt to control our means of communication, and so let them suffer it.

… And do not heed the threats from commercial interests. They are not aligned with what people want.

– Exerpted from Open letter from Just Net Coalition to Sir Tim Berners-Lee seeking his urgent intervention to stop acceptance of
Encrypted Media Extensions as a W3C standard
, published by the Just Net Coalition. The full letter is available here.