BBC Attacks the Open Web, GNU/Linux in Danger

The Web is one of the most dramatic demonstrations of the power of openness, alongside free software, which not coincidentally runs most of it and the rest of the Internet. At the heart of that openness lies HTML, a completely open way of sharing information. So what would be a really stupid thing you could do to try to throttle that openness and innovation? Why, yes: adding DRM to HTML so that you can lock down Web page elements:

This proposal extends HTMLMediaElement providing APIs to control playback of protected content.

The API supports use cases ranging from simple clear key decryption to high value video (given an appropriate user agent implementation). License/key exchange is controlled by the application, facilitating the development of robust playback applications supporting a range of content decryption and protection technologies.

This exposes once more the fundamental tension between the free and open Internet and copyright; as I've said many times in my talks on this theme, you only get to choose one.

That the companies behind this extraordinary idea of adding DRM to HTML – Google, Microsoft and Netflix – are more interested in their control than your freedom will come as no surprise; after all, they are profit-based concerns, and money talks. But the last organisation I would have expected – or, perhaps, hoped – to see adding its support to this fundamental perversion of the open Web would be dear old Auntie – the BBC. And yet here is a submission from last week where it does precisely that:

The BBC supports the publication of the first draft of the Encrypted Media Extensions Proposal.

Amusingly, early on in its submission, it effectively eviscerates the logic of applying DRM to its own streams:

Television is, for the majority of viewing, a transitory medium. Whereas people listen to music tracks again and again, most television programmes are only viewed once by their audience. Because of this, the majority of television distribution historically has been via transitory means such as broadcasting linear channels via radio broadcast, rather than selling a physical medium containing the programme to consumers. Of course, some viewers do want to view a programme more than once, which is why a market of physical media sales (and now digital permanent copies) has also developed, however, this is very rarely the primary method of consumption for audio-visual programming.

"Most television programmes are only viewed once by their audience": that being the case there is simply no need to apply DRM. If the material were without it, most people would still only watch it once; if they passed it to their friends, they, too, would probably only watch it once – just as they would if they saw it on the BBC's site. And even assuming that such sharing would lead to lost sales – and remember, most evidence we have is that sharing actually boosts sales – the BBC in its submission has admitted that "this is very rarely the primary method of consumption for audio-visual programming", so the financial impact would be minimal.

The BBC also raises the following issue:

Another reason why television broadcasters wish to take care over the distribution of their content is because television programmes are often compounds of many other different types of work, either original commissions or existing works. For example, many television programmes themselves contain music tracks which must be licensed from other rights holders. Many are based on existing books, or contain stills or other pieces of existing footage. Because of this, the producer of an audio-visual work is very rarely in sole control of for how long and where they can distribute it, but will need to abide by limited licences in order to obtain value for money.

This point has come up before, in the context of HD broadcasts. Back in 2010, the BBC was arguing that it "had" to impose DRM there because of the demands of other licence-holders, and their implied threat not to allow the BBC to use their material. But as Cory Doctorow rightly pointed out at the time:

But how credulous do you have to be to take a threat like this seriously? Let's look at the record on threats to boycott non-DRM broadcasting from these companies. In 2003, the US Broadcast Protection Discussion Group (a committee in the Hollywood-based Copy Protection Technical Working Group) went to work on a plan for adding DRM called the Broadcast Flag to America's high-def broadcasts. I attended every one of these meetings, working on behalf of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the free/open TV projects it represented, including MythTV (an open video-recorder) and GNU Radio (an open radio/TV receiver).

Over and over again, the rightsholders in the room during the Broadcast Flag negotiations attempted to create a sense of urgency by threatening to boycott American high-def telly if they didn't get DRM. They repeated these threats in their submissions to the Federal Communications Commission (Ofcom's US counterpart) and in their meetings with American lawmakers.

And here's how it turned out:

So what happened? Did they make good on their threats? Did they go to their shareholders and explain that the reason they weren't broadcasting anything this year is because the government wouldn't let them control TVs?

No. They broadcast. They continue to broadcast today, with no DRM.

They were full of it. They did not make good on their threats. They didn't boycott.

They caved.

But in the UK, it was the BBC that caved on DRM for HD, instead of standing up for public broadcasting in this country. And now it is doing it again, claiming that it has no power to demand DRM-free broadcasts. That's nonsense: the BBC is one of the most powerful broadcasters in the world, and it should be laying down its own conditions for people to have the privilege of being broadcast, not meekly accepting the bluffs of others. For the once proud and glorious BBC to become so pusillanimous is a sad reflection of how it no longer believes in itself these days.

Not only does its own logic imply that DRM is not necessary for this "transitory medium", the BBC also frankly admits people will be able to bypass it:

The proposed Encrypted Media Proposal looks to be a useful starting point. However, the BBC is unlikely to be able to use any such mechanism unless we feel that it is sufficiently secure that there would be the possibility of legal action in the event of bypassing it.


We also recognise that any mechanism is likely to be bypassed at some point, so we will require the Content Decryption Module to be able to securely identify itself and the version in use, so older versions that may have been compromised can be refused.

Got that? A big concern of the BBC is not about the fact that DRM means locking down parts of the Web and helping to destroy the openness that lies at its heart, but whether it can sue people when – not if – they circumvent the DRM'd HTML.

Then there's this:

Within the UK the BBC website does not carry advertising, as programming is paid for by the licence fee. In the past we have encountered attempts to embed BBC streams within third party websites against our terms and conditions. These sites then attempt to sell advertising against the programming, or present other unacceptable contexts (such as presenting adult material next to children's programming). We feel that it would be helpful if the Media Source Extensions proposals had at least some level of protection against such uses and would like to work with the W3C on further refinement of the current proposals on this.

Yes, you read that correctly: the BBC wants control over what else is on the Web page where its DRM'd content is displayed, and to forbid stuff it doesn't like. Of course, to justify this blatant censorship it invokes that politician's favourite standby: it's to protect the children, you see, so that makes it OK.

Finally, we have this:

the BBC notes that increasingly OS level features enable the passing of online video streaming over a network to third-party devices, in many cases with no encryption or device authentication. This would completely defeat the point of any content protection, and therefore a Content Decryption Module should be able to identify if the operating system supports such features and either flag to the operating system that it should seek a flag and enable/disable the feature as appropriate, or refuse to play the video.

This is about instructing an operating system not to pass on streams from DRM'd videos. In other words, the BBC here wants the power to order your computer to ignore your commands. That's possible on closed-source operating systems that have this feature of disobedience baked in. But for those that are predicated on freedom – GNU/Linux, for example – this simply won't be an option. Given the BBC's concern about things that "would completely defeat the point of any content protection", the fear has to be that it would therefore refuse to support systems running free software, even though their UK users pay TV licence fees like everyone else.

And that is really the key issue here. As its submission to the W3C mailing list puts it:

the BBC is a public service broadcaster primarily funded by the licence fee paid by UK households.

Its Royal Charter [.pdf] is even more emphatic about its public role and public purposes:

The BBC's public nature and its objects

(1) The BBC exists to serve the public interest.

(2) The BBC's main object is the promotion of its Public Purposes.

and spells out:

The Public Purposes of the BBC are as follows—

(a) sustaining citizenship and civil society;
(b) promoting education and learning;
(c) stimulating creativity and cultural excellence;
(d) representing the UK, its nations, regions and communities;
(e) bringing the UK to the world and the world to the UK;
(f) in promoting its other purposes, helping to deliver to the public the benefit of emerging communications technologies and services and, in addition, taking a leading role in the switchover to digital television.

How then does locking down content online with DRM, possibly not viewable at all on some systems that use free software, serve the public interest? How does it promote education and learning, or stimulate creativity and cultural excellence? How does it bring the UK to the world and the world to the UK? And how, in particular, does it deliver the "benefit of emerging communications technologies" when it actually shuts people out of accessing content and the open Web?

Finally, how does the BBC justify using the money paid as a non-optional tax by me and my fellow licence-payers to lock us out from content that we have paid for?

The BBC cannot have it both ways. If it is a public service broadcaster, then its primary duty is to make its content as widely available, and as widely usable, as possible – no DRM, no charge. Dedicating itself to sharing knowledge and creativity – not just in the UK, but everywhere in the world – is an important and worthy cause, and I will happily pay my (compulsory) £145.50 each year to support the BBC in this.

If, however, the BBC is now so obsessed with stopping people sharing its content that it is keen to add DRM to HTML, as its current submission to the W3C suggests, and is more interested in making money from licensing it than in staying true to its Charter and original vision, then forget it. If that is the route the BBC wishes to take, then with deep regret I will be forced to join the ranks of those calling for the abolition of the compulsory TV licence, since I have no desire to pay for the privilege of helping to destroy the open Web, and possibly harming open source along the way.

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