W3C Announces Publication of EME as a "Recommendation or Web Standard;" EFF Leaves

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On Monday, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced that they had published the Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) as "a W3C Recommendation or Web standard." What's notable about this release is that it's not particularly notable, at least commercially, as the market adapted DASH en masse over the last two to three years, and coronating DASH as a standard will change little. It does happily bring to a close what Jeff Jaffe, W3C CEO, called "one of the most divisive debates in the history of the W3C community."

By way of background, EME is a specification that enables browsers to talk to digital rights management (DRM) systems, replacing plugins like Silverlight or Flash, or applications like Widevine Classic. It's been widely adapted by browser vendors, DRM suppliers, off-the-shelf player vendors, and content publishers and is a critical enabler for premium content publishers. Key editors of the spec work or worked for Google, Microsoft, and Netflix.

The W3C began work on EME back in 2013 but got bogged down in internal debates, initially about whether they should endorse any DRM, and later concerning details of the specification, pushing back any decisive recommendations. In sharp contrast, the W3C published the Media Source Extensions in July 2014, in time to shape many of the actual implementations.

Meanwhile, despite the WC3's indecision, industry support for EME swelled to near ubiquity, and it became the clear de facto standard for HTML5-based DRM. Wikipedia reports that by 2016 EME had been implemented in Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, and Edge browsers, all without any fiat from the W3C.

In blog entitled on EME in HTML5 published in February 2017, Tim Berners-Lee, director of the W3C, expressed his frustration with the process and debate, stating, "If W3C did not recommend EME then the browser vendors would just make it outside W3C. If EME did not exist, vendors could just create new Javascript based versions."

Finally, on July 6, 2017, the W3C announced its intent to publish EME as a specification, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) appealed with four key objections, though they ultimately abandoned three of them.

The final objection relates to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which imposes stiff penalties on those attempting to circumvent electronic and digital copyright protection systems. The EFF asserts that this prevents competitors from entering the player market because they can be sued if they attempt to reverse engineer a copy protection scheme, whether for competition or compatibility. To counteract this, the EFF wanted the W3C to require vendors to agree not to sue these security and interoperability researchers, which the W3C declined to do. Immediately after the W3C decision to publish EME, the EFF resigned from the W3C.

Standards bodies do the most good when they lead from the front, rather than attempting to do so from the rear. The best thing you can say about this particular standards debate is that it's over.

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