Technical Standards: The Hard Part of Making Everyone Happy

A recent controversy involving the group that sets the rules of the road for the web is a great reminder of how challenging standards-making really is, even if your standards are the ones everyone is using.

Standards have a way of bleeding into parts of life that you might not give a second thought to, as a consumer.

Case in point: Watching a show on Netflix is a pretty satisfying ritual, isn’t it? Lots of people do it. Tens of millions in fact, many of them on their computers, in their web browsers.

But for years, it was a vaguely imperfect experience. Digital rights management, or DRM, is often a requirement for streaming video platforms, and Netflix was required to use a browser plug-in, Microsoft’s Silverlight, to facilitate the needs of movie studios and content owners. Silverlight did the job, but like Adobe’s Flash platform favored by its competitor Hulu, it was resource-intensive and made browsers more likely to crash.

It was only in 2013, as Microsoft announced its long-term plans to stop producing the plug-in, when Netflix finally was able to launch a version of its player that didn’t require a secondary tool, using the draft form of a technical standard that quickly showed up in Google Chrome.

But what’s good for Netflix is proving very controversial for the rest of the tech world.

Earlier this month, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—the group that standardizes web technologies under the HTML protocol—announced it had finalized the standardization of the technology that Netflix uses, something called Encrypted Media Extensions (EME). And the debate that this announcement created is very much worth discussing.

In a nutshell, here’s the problem: Considering what the web is, there’s an obvious tension created by digital rights management, which is by nature a closed technology, inside of an open standard. (DRM is a long-lingering sore that’s existed for some since the passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act nearly two decades ago.)

So while Netflix, Hulu, and major film and television studios benefit from this technology being offered, it creates an ethical quandary for the ultimate open-source project.

For example, the makers of the popular web browser Firefox avoided making the technology available on its browser for years because of these ethical issues, only switching course out of concerns that not doing so would hurt its market share.

W3C’s Philippe Le Hégaret characterized the problem somewhat similarly in an official statement earlier this month.

“Compared to previous methods of viewing encrypted video on the web, EME has the benefit that all interactions happen within the web browser and it moves the responsibility for interaction from plugins to the browser,” he explained. “As such, EME offers a better user experience, bringing greater interoperability, privacy, security and accessibility to viewing encrypted video on the web.”

Standardization, especially on hot-button issues like this one, is more likely to be done in the public eye these days, with dissent hashed out in public view.

The resulting decision, which came after four years of debate in the online community, was not warmly accepted by the technology’s critics, to say the least.

In particular, the Electronic Frontier Foundation stuck its neck out, saying that the negotiation process had been ignored. Cory Doctorow, the well-known Boing Boing blogger who serves as EFF’s member on the W3C Advisory Committee, wrote an article highlighting frustrations with the process, including the fact that concessions offered by digital rights advocates were ignored in the end.

“Even by the W3C’s own measures, EME represents no improvement upon a non-standards approach, and in some important ways, the W3C’s DRM is worse than an ad-hoc, industry approach,” Doctorow warned.

(Doctorow says he plans to file a formal appeal against the policy per W3C’s bylaws, which could force a vote on the standard among W3C’s membership.)

Can’t Please Everyone

W3C was likely stuck between a rock and a hard place with this decision. Had the organization stepped away from the bargaining table, it might have ceded a fundamental technology to the corporate world. Google and Microsoft might have just created their own standard, separate from W3C, to please Netflix and Hulu. That would have cost the organization all control over the situation.

So, with this approach, it’s allowed to shape the standard to some degree. But because it’s giving in to those companies as part of its standards process, the group is seen as throwing away something fundamental that goes against the spirit of what the organization built previously.

And Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the web, has found himself in an unenviable position: He’s become something of a “face” of the controversy. He has supported the technology publicly but has noted the nature of the tough situation the standards body is in.

“If W3C did not recommend EME, then the browser vendors would just make it outside W3C,” Berners-Lee argued in February. “If EME did not exist, vendors could just create new Javascript based versions. And without using the web at all, it is so easy to invite one’s viewers to switching to view the content on a proprietary app.”

To be honest, I’m not sure what the best solution is. Did W3C protect the short-term future of the web by going with this standard, only to threaten the long-term future of the open web? Is this a slippery slope? Or is the criticism overblown?

I do think that, whatever the case, this situation highlights two things: Digital rights management is still very much a controversial issue with the public, even as services like Netflix and Spotify have made it common; and standardization, especially on hot-button issues like this one, is more likely to be done in the public eye these days, with dissent hashed out in public view.

In the latter case, that’s a tough spot to be in, especially considering the issues that lead to new standards don’t necessarily translate to 140 characters. But your association needs to consider the possibility.

Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, has been caught up in debate about digital rights management in recent weeks. (Elon University/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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