The Web Is Changing

I spent 2 years of my life running a small media rights advocacy organization, the Open Video Alliance. We started in 2009, only a few years after YouTube came online, when people talked in glowing terms about how web video would benefit democracy. More diverse perspectives, less media consolidation, more participatory culture. All of that came true. Talk of citizen journalists and camera phones is old news.

But I am also from the free software world, so I think in long terms, absolutes, architecture. Part of our full-spectrum advocacy plan for “open video” was technical:

1. Open standards for video — no essential video technology should be controlled by a single party. Therefore: HTML5 instead of Flash.

2. Royalty-free technologies for video — no essential video technology should cost money. We don’t put a tax on text, why should we put a tax on video? Therefore: WebM instead of H264.

3. No use restrictions — people should be able to watch what they want, and no computer system should censor, restrict, or limit the making, sharing, or publishing of video content. Therefore: no ContentID-style filtering, no DRM in the browser.

I joined Mozilla because it was the only technology company to be seriously pushing this agenda in the marketplace. The long history of Firefox is “techno-social change through succeeding in the marketplace.”

Here is the theory: if a significant enough proportion of web users are on Firefox (Gecko, really), the makers of Firefox have some leverage in the technical development of the overall web. Put another way: “the role of Firefox is to keep the other guys honest.”

When I joined Mozilla, I thought Firefox was in a unique position to make (patriarchal?) technology decisions on behalf of users, that would make the technical architecture supporting video “more open.”

I am starting to doubt whether that’s the right way to position Firefox. Evidence shows that Firefox doesn’t have that kind of technical leverage. In an earlier time, we had immense leverage as “the alternative to Internet Explorer.” In the modern era we have tried—and failed—every time we’ve tried to pull those levers on our own.

We were the only hold outs on H.264, and we had to give in. Despite heroic efforts, our moves on Do Not Track and third-party cookies are turning out to be more thought leadership than real leverage. And today, we are reluctantly giving in on DRM in HTML5.

The price of success—introducing competition into the browser space—is that you don’t have leverage when you’re the only holdout against a industry-wide move in a different direction. Mozilla has gravity, but far less than combined weight of the mobile and content industries.

When your continued relevance depends on people liking and using your product, you can’t afford to be “the browser that can’t.”

With no H.264, Firefox was seen as “the browser that can’t play video.” An inaccurate but not unfair conclusion from a great many millions of browser users. And for several years. With no DRM, Firefox would have been seen as “the only browser that can’t play Netflix.”

The arguments against DRM are exceptionally well-articulated by Cory Doctorow and others. But the fact is, you definitely can’t afford to be the only hold-out on a feature that enables users to do more. In this case, for better or worse—”watch Netflix.” Yeah, that thing that accounts for 40% of all U.S. internet traffic.

This is confusing for free software people, because DRM clearly limits users. Yet Firefox is not the world. If Firefox doesn’t do DRM, Firefox limits its users in what they can do. It denies them functionality they can get by using other products. That’s a paradox which can’t be resolved by “taking a hard stance against DRM.” So if you’re mad today at Mozilla, read this a few times. You must understand the evidence supporting the logic for Mozilla’s decision to not die on this particular hill.

I believe there are hard lessons here for Mozilla, which is uniquely 1) a user-facing public benefit organization; and 2) a public benefit provider of products for users.

Chiefly: Freedom is not a technical feature. It’s a state of consciousness.

This sort of proclamation is personally tough, because it’s a concession that my two years pushing for royalty-free codecs as a defining political issue were—possibly misspent? It’s tough because it puts the proclaimer into unnecessary confrontation with allies like the EFF, the Software Freedom Law Center, and the Free Culture movement (where I come from), who imagine products like Tor and Freedom Boxes and other things taking over the marketplace, because they will enable users to do more. But often, they enable users to do less. The availability of such technologies is important weaponry in the battle for technical freedom. But they’re often not enough when you’re in a long-term war for the user.

Freedom is not a technical feature. At least, not for the mass market. It is truly heartbreaking to say, because I know people who have given literally everything for this idea.

But here is the good news: enabling users to do more is a feature.

There are legal fights, regulatory fights, political fights against DRM, which are appropriate and needed upstream. That’s why Mozilla is being very clear today that this is a painful decision.

But opposing DRM is not a good use of Mozilla’s resources. We’ve stood on principle before, with H.264, and it hurt us, and our ability to have impact elsewhere. A bit like cutting off the nose to spite the face.

A better role for Mozilla, and organizations like it—who have install bases, mindshare, some money, and a daily relationship with users—is to be affirmative. Proactive. Partners with its users for a better world. Not to be oppositional, but to actively innovate on the user’s behalf.

Mozilla’s at its strongest when its building new opportunities into the web platform. Teaching kids to code. Shining a light on who is watching. Empowering users, developers, and everyone in between. We have to help our users know more, do more, do better. Mozilla is about to undergo a renaissance, and I think you’ll see this reflected more and more with how we communicate with our users. Ultimately, any user-facing organization will have the greatest impact by proactively working on behalf of its users.

A coda: a case could be made that EME will make it easier for content distributors to experiment with—and perhaps eventually switch to—DRM-free distribution.

In 2007, Steve Jobs wrote an “open letter” on iTunes DRM. Today, most iTunes music is not DRM’d—it is watermarked. In that letter, Jobs laid out an argument against DRM, and a prediction that the short-term implementation of DRM would ultimately render DRM itself irrelevant. The argument was essentially this:

“We dislike DRM. But it’s a rational choice at this time to implement it. Because if we implement it, our users get access to content they otherwise wouldn’t. And the content owners can overcome their fears, come to our platform, experiment with less restrictive business models, and ultimately give up on DRM.”

Mozilla is essentially saying the same as Jobs in 2007. And I think this will also come true on the web. Perhaps there’s a sliver of truth in the idea, suggested even by Tim Berners-Lee (the father of the web!), that DRM in HTML5 is a victory, rather than a defeat.

That’s a rather shocking idea to some—including me. But one thing is for sure: the web, more than ever, is the platform through which we all access, publish, and share everything. It’s the web that’s changing, not Mozilla.

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