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Heartbreak over Mozilla’s DRM Decision from a Dedicated Firefox User

I saw news last night that, as the headline suggests, broke my heart.

For months, I’ve been following the story that the Mozilla project was set to add closed source Digital Rights Management technology to its free/open browser Firefox, and today they’ve made the announcement, which I’ve covered in depth for The Guardian. Mozilla made the decision out of fear that the organization would haemorrhage users and become irrelevant if it couldn’t support Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Video, and other services that only work in browsers that treat their users as untrustable adversaries.

Like Cory, I have been following the push to install the Encrypted Media Extension as part of the standards that underpin the web. I had not realized Mozilla was seriously considering siding with the W3c. The W3c is the standards body that oversees the constellation of documents that describe the common intersection of what is possible with the web. Their push to adopt EME and, worse, resistance to any calls to reconsider are I think grave mistakes.

The news of Mozilla’s decision to add DRM to Firefox has rapidly spread online. I was a bit surprised at how quickly folks responded to my own expression of frustration on Twitter. Far and away one of the best pieces I’ve seen comes from British journalist, Glyn Moody. He, I think rightly, frames this as far more than a simple choice about technology. This is a question about the very fate of Mozilla begged by the dissonance between their role prior role as the strongest advocate for an open web and this latest development.

I won’t quote a snippet from Moody’s piece but rather encourage you to read the entire thing. It is a compelling and accessible explanation of the situation, why this decision matters, and how we may go forward from here. Ultimately he is optimistic, that the community of technology creators who believe that the freedom to understand, alter and share code and content is paramount will do as they always have done and route around this latest obstacle.

I am sure he is right. We saw it happen with OpenOffice and MySQL though admittedly under rather different circumstances.

I am still incredibly disappointed and upset. I have been a champion of Mozilla’s since before Firefox existed. I used Phoenix, Firebird and continue to use Firefox from the moment that name stuck until now. There exists no doubt in my mind that the shift from a Microsoft dominated Web to the current ecosystem is due entirely to Mozilla’s tireless commitment to open source and open standards. That ecosystem, due to those efforts, includes more openness than just that encapsulated in Firefox’s source code. More astonishing, I don’t think Mozilla ever need to be popular, dominant or relevant to a mainstream audience to be an effective change agent.

I never once considered abandoning my support as I have seen others do. New gimmicks or even claims to best Firefox in terms of speed, size or true functionality have never outweighed for me Mozilla’s dedication to principle. In recent years especially, none of those choices would have come about but for Mozilla. None of them included the same deep commitment to principles I cherish.

Until now.

The decision of Mozilla to include digital rights management, regardless of the technical details, feels like a betrayal of those principles. Worse, it poisons the space for the same reasons Mozilla’s dedication to openness made it an effective change agent. Firefox is an existence proof. Others may not weave openness as deeply into their efforts but they see it is valuable and worth addressing to significant degree.

And now it will go for this counter example. If the staunchest defender of the open web concedes to the pressures to hobble the web with DRM, then why shouldn’t every other last creator of web technologies? Had Mozilla chosen differently, it may not have stopped EME and the inclusion of DRM in other web browsers, but it would have undoubtedly created more space for openness, well beyond its own direct efforts.

Now the question we need to ask, to paraphrase Glyn Moody, is whither the open web?


 

If  you want to know what you can do, read the Free Software Foundation’s criticism of the decision which includes several good calls to action at the end.

Posted in Policy, Technology.


3 Responses

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  1. Sarah Elkins says

    I was sad when I saw about this. Thanks for the details and further reading.

  2. Chris Miller says

    Thomas, is anyone forking the codebase to remove this DRM functionality? Are new projects being spawned?

    • Thomas Gideon says

      Not that I am aware of. Worse, I just read a very disappointing thread on a Debian mailing list about the question of DRM support in Ice Weasel that suggests the consensus among maintainers is that the key question around freedom is up to users, not package maintainers, or by implication software developers. Many seem to think this is consistent with the support for Flash that Ice Weasel includes–users can install the additional plugin or not, Debian’s role is not to inhibit user choice.

      I don’t disagree but I think this admits a whole world of potential problems that the other thought expressed on the thread won’t stop. The advice from more than one was, don’t like DRM, then stop paying for it. This naively overlooks that DRM and the laws that protect it aren’t about choice, or competition, or even copyright. They are about control of markets. Comparing them to newspaper web sites and paywalls is flawed, at best, since news is much more fungible than video.



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The Command Line by Thomas Gideon
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