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What have they done to HTML?

11 July 2017

HTML was the very standard which kick-started the world-wide web as we know it.

It is the lexicon and syntax by which we can craft beautiful bits of eye-candy and structure mountains of information into something that is both pleasing to view and practical to use.

The fact that it's a standard means that every man and his dog is able to create their own browser for interpreting HTML and rendering it into a human-readable page, using whatever languages or programming strategies they prefer.

HTML, despite its rigid definitions... is freedom.

Let's face it, the Net has always been about freedom. Freedom from the tyranny of distance, freedom from censorship, freedom to express oneself in a way that instantly becomes available to virtually every other Net user on the planet.

And now they've gone and introduced an element that is the very antithesis of what HTML has stood for all this time.

I'm talking about Digital Rights Management.

The W3C (the body which controls the HTML standard) has announced that DRM has been approved as an element of HTML5.

What are they smoking?

Okay, I guess it had to happen, given the increasingly commercial nature of the Web and the fact that the wild-west days of unbridled freedoms are already pretty much just a distant memory -- but it's still a monumental step.

The change approved by the W3C doesn't actually define the DRM itself but it does create a specification for Javascript modules to interact with proprietary DRM modules from vendors that wish to protect their content. This is called EME -- the Encrypted Media Extensions)

Whilst there are a few purists (including the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF)) who see this as an outrageous move, I guess most pragmatic Web users (including Tim Berners-Lee himself) have given their support for EME as a necessary evil. Of course that doesn't mean we have to be happy about it.

It has been argued that unless EME was introduced, the pressure to protect content could result in a dilution of HTML as a standard (or even the continuance of Flash as a blight on the web), as increasing numbers of vendors opted to go proprietary with their own applications with inbuilt DRM. I guess EME is a case of "if you can't beat them, join them".

Personally, I'll be watching this aspect of the Net's ongoing evolution with great interest.

DRM has been a bust almost everywhere else it has been used. The music industry's attempts to retrofit DRM onto CDs (remember them?) was an abject failure, as were the the DVD and BluRay encryption standards. Although I'm not a gamer, I gather that most of the major computer game titles have also had their DRM busted (eventually) so perhaps the HTML extensions should have been called "whackamole" in honour of the battle between those who make the DRM and those who break it.

DRM itself doesn't really do much to protect intellectual property rights -- one only has to look at the examples I've cited above to realise this. What does protect those rights is an effective, efficient affordable sales channel that allows people to use that property for a reasonable fee.

Just look at how Spotify has grown and prospered using these principles.

So will I have a little wake to mourn the passing of another Net freedom?

Of course I will... but that's only because I'm always looking for any excuse to open a bottle of wine :-)

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