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The Closing Web

Some thoughts on EME in Firefox and the FCC’s now-proposed rules for regulating ISPs.

Taking a break from discussing the FDA’s proposed deeming regulations to talk about the now-released FCC proposal for regulating ISPs and the announcement by Mozilla that they will ship EME (Encrypted Media Extensions).

EMEs in Fx

First, what will Firefox include? They will include the W3C’s EME standard for HTML5 video. This standard effectively says that an implementing browser includes a plug or a mount for DRM. The browser doesn’t have to include DRM directly (though it appears a browser vendor could ship it directly).

Think of it like a car, and because of car theft, a trade group passes a rule requiring members to include remote-controlled self-destruct mechanisms in their cars. Except they didn’t require the car makers to build-in the actual explosives. They just have to provide a place to put the explosives and the remote-detonation functionality to blow the car up if someone installs the explosives.

And then let’s say that all the fast food drive-thrus said you can’t buy our food unless you have the self-destruct system enabled. That’s you going to ACME Entertainment and streaming the movie, getting the popup that says, “please install this EME plugin.”

We’ve seen this before, with codecs. Mozilla resisted including H.264 because it’s a proprietary codec that isn’t available for all systems. But other major vendors paid for it and shipped it without blinking, and sites put videos out in H.264. Mozilla did what they felt they could, but eventually began relying on operating system support for H.264.

Mozilla is a large organization, risk averse. They do not want to see other browsers force them into a less influential position, potentially causing even more harm to the web. So they run the numbers, hold their nose, and compromise if they think it’s a bad path that may let them get to a better place to fight tomorrow. In other words, they see the risk of DRM entrenchment as less likely or less harmful than Firefox being left behind by users who increasingly watch video in a browser.

DRM serves no real purpose, and at-best represents a gris-gris for parts of the entertainment industry that do not innovate adequately. Valve Software and some other video game creators, are just starting to recognize the economic benefits of openness and artistic community. These are promising signs. As the lines blur of the lines between video games and film/television, it is expected that other industries will follow and that DRM will become rarer and rarer.

FCC’s NPRM: “Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet”

The actual proposal (FCC: PDF: 15 May 2014: Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet) only contains a few rules:

  • Transparency
  • No Blocking
  • No Commercially Unreasonable Practices

The rules that aren’t yet proposed have raised the public’s ire. The proposal requests comments on a variety of issues, taking a “we’ll make the rules later” approach. Early on in the proposal (p. 3) the FCC acknowledges two paths seem viable (sec. 706 and Title II) and they want comments on the best way forward.

Currently the FCC classifies ISPs as information services, and the court that struck down the previous rules said, obiter dictum, that they did not believe section 706 would allow for certain regulations unless the FCC reclassified ISPs. This is not a binding ruling, but should be taken as weight against merely trying to shoehorn non-common-carriers into regulations under section 706.

If you read the definitions of both “information services” and “telecommunications services” I think it’s clear which ISPs should be classified as. Despite the claim of ISPs that they will refrain from innovation if classified as common carriers, they should still be so classified.

If we need “fast lanes” they can be done through some alternate arrangement that is voluntary by the information service, rather than mandated by an ISP (similar to how you can have expedited shipping by a common carrier). Or the ISPs can negotiate for a new classification by statute that will include, e.g., mandatory progress and innovation, restrictions on operating as an ISP and line owner and media company simultaneously, etc.

Currently, the only meaningful way forward seems to be for the FCC to classify ISPs as telecommunication services subject to common carrier rules.

Apple hates gnu/linux

New version of iTunes with DRM-free, but still no gnu/linux client.

It’s been over four years since the iTunes Music Store launched. They’ve racked up over two billion purchases as of January of this year. And they still haven’t released an iTunes client for gnu/linux. They’ve routinely blocked attempts for people that use free operating systems from accessing music they rightfully purchased using their iTunes client on a supported platform.

On the whole they’ve been spoiled jerks about the whole thing. And now they’ve bent to consumer pressure against their Digital Rights Management and are adding the option of a higher-priced DRM-free track selection. They’ve just released a new version of the iTunes client to support the change.

And yet they won’t give linux users access to their market. They are effectively blocking those users from participating in the online purchase of media. I understand it’s not a huge market, but it’s roughly an extra 5-10 million songs a year in all probability. There’s a lot of linux users and they would reasonably buy 5-10 tracks each. And it’s a growth market.

Dell has recently announced and followed through with offering new computers pre-installed with Ubuntu. Numerous other firms including graphics vendors feel the linux market is worth their time to provide support. Even Microsoft feels linux is important enough to spew idle, vitriolic threats about their patent holdings and strong arm their own “open” document standards in lieu of the standards.

But Apple continues to completely ignore linux. They are making a sucker’s bet and missing out on that revenue. They’ll probably cave in another year or two, or else they will risk that sector of the market finding an alternative. The inherent risk there is that the alternative would become adopted by existing iTMS users costing Apple billions of dollars in future revenues.

If I were the CEO of a company faced with the choice between ignoring a viable market sector or spending relatively little developer effort to support them and keep a secure hold on the market as a whole there is no reasonable choice but the latter. It is a disservice to their stockholders and to the music industry that they so readily deny access to people who would love to use their service.

Update: Slashdot is running a story about the new DRM-free offering from Apple. Apparently each DRM-free track gets tagged with the account’s registered full name and e-mail address.

This might be okay if it was publicly disclosed, but it wasn’t. The exact purpose behind the move isn’t clear. Speculation focuses on the possibility that this would be used to track the tracks within iTunes or otherwise.

Of course, anyone with minor technical savvy could easily modify the tags (possibly to reflect the fact they were purchased by Steve Jobs). Moreover tracks not originating from iTunes could easily be tagged.

So why tag them at all? It seems like a very weak attempt at tracking and an underhanded one at that. Most of all it’s just a dumb idea.

Big Number, Big Deal.

HDDVD Key fiasco… it’s a number and yet it’s so much more.

Lots of multiple posts and tons of cease and desist letters surrounding a simple 128 bit number: 13256278887989457651018865901401704640.

Because it’s the critical number in breaking DRM of HD-DVD.

But it’s also a number. There are an infinite number of numbers just like it, but it is unique and yet it is the same.

It’s a positive integer. Good times. I won’t post the hexadecimal equivalent out of fear of being told to take it down. Anyone with the decimal value can compute the hexadecimal (although with more work than it would if it were binary).