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HTML standardization group calls on W3C to protect security researchers from DRM

Thursday, September 22, 2016 15:17
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(Before It's News)

The World Wide Web Consortium has embarked upon an ill-advised project to standardize Digital Rights Management (DRM) for video at the behest of companies like Netflix; in so doing, they are, for the first time, making a standard whose implementations will be covered under anti-circumvention laws like Section 1201 of the DMCA, which makes it a potential felony to reveal defects in products without the manufacturer's permission.

This is especially worrisome because the W3C's aspiration for the new version of HTML is that it will replace apps as the user-interface for the Internet of Things, making all sorts of potentially compromising (and even lethal) bugs difficult to report without serious legal liability.

The EFF has proposed that W3C members should be required to promise not to use the DMCA and laws like it this way; this has had support from other multistakeholder groups, like the Open Source Initiative, which has said that the W3C work will not qualify as an “open standard” if it doesn't do something to prevent DMCA abuse.

Now, another important body, WHATWG, has joined the chorus calling on the W3C to prevent their technical work from become a legal weapon. WHATWG is a breakaway web standards body, backed by all the major browser vendors, and much of the W3C's standardization process consists of snapshotting WHATWG's documents and putting W3C's stamp of approval on them.

In an op-ed on the WHATWG blog, Ian “Hixie” Hickson (who formerly oversaw HTML5 for the W3C, and now edits the HTML spec for WHATWG, while working for Google) calls on the W3C to adopt the rules protecting security research, saying “We can ill afford a chilling effect on Web browser security research. Browsers are continually attacked. Everyone who uses the Web uses a browser, and everyone would therefore be vulnerable if security research on browsers were to stop.”

Hixie's letter is co-signed by fellow WHATWGers Simon Pieters from Opera, and Anne van Kesteren from Mozilla.

The charter for the W3C's DRM working group runs out in eight days and will have to be renewed. Some 20 W3C members have pledged to block any further renewal unless the W3C executive requires the group to solve this problem before finishing its work. The last time this happened, the executive dismissed these objections, but the numbers have swelled and now include prominent disabled rights groups like the UK Royal National Institute for Blind People and Media Access Australia, as well as a browser vendor, Brave.

A who's who of security researchers, including the W3C's own invited experts, have signed an open letter asking the W3C to ensure that control over disclosure of vulnerabilities in web browsers isn't given to the companies whom these disclosures might potentially embarrass.

From Hixie's post:

Much has been written on how DRM is bad for users because it prevents fair use, on how it is technically impossible to ever actually implement, on how it's actually a tool for controlling distributors, a purpose for which it is working well (as opposed to being to prevent copyright violations, a purpose for which it isn't working at all), and on how it is literally an anti-accessibility technology (it is designed to make content less accessible, to prevent users from using the content as they see fit, even preventing them from using the content in ways that are otherwise legally permissible, e.g. in the US, for parody or criticism). Much has also been written about the W3C's hypocrisy in supporting DRM, and on how it is a betrayal to all Web users. It is clear that the W3C allowing DRM technologies to be developed at the W3C is just a naked ploy for the W3C to get more (paying) member companies to join. These issues all remain. Let's ignore them for the rest of post, though.

One of the other problems with DRM is that, since it can't work technically, DRM supporters have managed to get the laws in many jurisdictions changed to make it illegal to even attempt to break DRM. For example, in the US, there's the DMCA clauses 17 U.S.C. § 1201 and 1203: “No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title”, and “Any person injured by a violation of section 1201 or 1202 may bring a civil action in an appropriate United States district court for such violation”.

This has led to a chilling effect in the security research community, with scientists avoiding studying anything that might relate to a DRM scheme, lest they be sued. The more technology embeds DRM, therefore, the less secure our technology stack will be, with each DRM-impacted layer getting fewer and fewer eyeballs looking for problems.

We can ill afford a chilling effect on Web browser security research. Browsers are continually attacked. Everyone who uses the Web uses a browser, and everyone would therefore be vulnerable if security research on browsers were to stop.

Since EME introduces DRM to browsers, it introduces this risk.

A proposal was made to avoid this problem. It would simply require each company working on the EME specification to sign an agreement that they would not sue security researchers studying EME. The W3C already requires that members sign a similar agreement relating to patents, so this is a simple extension. Such an agreement wouldn't prevent members from suing for copyright infringement, it wouldn't reduce the influence of content producers over content distributors; all it does is attempt to address this even more critical issue that would lead to a reduction in security research on browsers.

The W3C is refusing to require this. We call on the W3C to change their mind on this. The security of the Web technology stack is critical to the health of the Web as a whole.

- Ian Hickson, Simon Pieters, Anne van Kesteren

Excerpt copyright (c) 2016 The WHATWG Contributors. Reproduced under the MIT License.

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