Last Updated: February 25, 2016
· andyrothtech

The W3C Encrypted Media Extensions

The World Wide Web, created by Tim Berners-Lee in 1989 while at CERN, is now the center of how we communicate with each other, share ideas, and enjoy content. According to Dot.con, Berners-Lee created the Web because he “was impressed by the decentralized nature of the American network, and the fact that it could be accessed by various operating systems.” The system he created reflects these values. The Web is a place where anybody can post anything they want regardless of what any single entity believes. It is a system that allows everyone to access the same information regardless of the device or software they chose to use. It is based on open standards that can be read and understood by anybody.

Recently, however, the Web has been facing a problem that could crush everything the Web stands for. Starting in 2012, Netflix, Microsoft, and Google collaborated to propose a standard now called the Encrypted Media Extensions. Essentially, this standard is a way of bringing Digital Rights Management, or DRM, to the Web. Digital Rights Management is a technique used by companies who sell content to ensure that the content they have sold will not be pirated and shared between users without the company’s consent. While this all sounds good, DRM has caused countless problems for consumers. Consumers who have rightly paid for their content are restricted to viewing it on a certain amount of devices that are specifically approved to view the content. Despite the intention of DRM, it has been noted multiple times that DRM does not show any signs of stopping piracy, and in fact, sometimes shows signs of increasing piracy. Currently, a few of the major web browsers have already implemented support for the Encrypted Media Extensions. If adoption of the EME continues, or if websites start using it, there would be unfortunate consequences to values of the World Wide Web.

One of the easiest issues to bring up about DRM is that users simply don’t like it. DRM creates barriers between users and the content they’ve paid for. Users are restricted to viewing their content on only a few of the devices they own, and only on certain approved devices. Users should be able to view the content they have paid for on every device they own regardless of if it has been approved or not. Imagine having to put a book that you’ve bought on one specific bookshelf in your house because the company you bought it from forces you to. This would be outrageous and our reaction to DRM should be no different. Recently a petition on Change.org demanding that Electronic Arts remove “Always Online” DRM from their SimCity game got over 79,000 supporters. The author of this petition, Ryan Lashley, wrote, “When I, And millions of other people buy a game that has a single-player experience. We expect it to work regardless of our connectivity to the internet... EA has made this impossible. [sic]” If the Encrypted Media Extensions were to be implemented, similar dissatisfaction would occur. It has also been demonstrated that DRM does not help in fighting against piracy. In the case of the Spore videogame, the use of DRM caused public outcry and heavily contributed to the fact that Spore was the top pirated game in 2008 according to TorrentFreak.

It is often thought that DRM is mandatory for large content companies to sell their content on the Web. This is simply not true. When Apple pressured the music labels with music on iTunes to provide DRM-free music by standing up against DRM in 2009, the labels complied. According to AppleInsider, iTunes made up 75% of all digital music sales in 2012. Content companies will continue to sell content on the web regardless of whether or not it contains DRM.

Another problem with DRM is that it restricts our freedom. The EME specifically mentions the option for content to be decrypted in hardware, which would restrict Web content to certain devices and would not allow users to view the same content on any device they choose. DRM and the EME also affect our freedom to understand how our computers work. The EME allows websites to use closed-source components to decrypt content. The use of closed-source software restricts users from understanding what the software is doing on their own computers. There has previously been an instance involving Sony where closed-source DRM software was being used to allow the installation of malware on the user’s computer and to secretly inform the company of the person’s private computer usage. Richard Stallman, an activist for open source software, founder of the Free Software Foundation, and creator of the GNU project, said while giving a speech at a conference, “DRM should be illegal.”

We must stand up for our digital rights. We deserve to own the content that we pay for and to have the ability to view it on any and every device we own. DRM has countless times annoyed, spied on, and restricted users while offering no protection against piracy. The Encrypted Media Extensions create the possibility for companies to restrict users from finding out what is running on their own computer. If the Encrypted Media Extensions are allowed, where will this restriction of freedom stop? A future where website owners can disable the user’s ability to see what code will be run when a site is visited now seems possible. Luckily, one of the great things about the web is that no single entity controls it. Even if the Encrypted Media Extensions standard were to be finalized, the open web could live on. At that point, the decision comes down to the browser developers and the website owners. As users of the World Wide Web, we should not use browsers or websites that implement the Encrypted Media Extensions. At the very least we should use any means necessary to disable or avoid the use of the EME on our computers. We need to make sure browser developers and website owners understand that we demand the Web continue to be an open platform.


Cassidy, John. Dot.con. Harper Perennial, 2003. Print.

“Encrypted Media Extensions.” World Wide Web Consortium. W3C, 31 October 2013. Web. 31 October 2013. https://dvcs.w3.org/hg/html-media/raw-file/tip/encrypted-media/encrypted-media.html.

Lashley, Ryan. "Electronic Arts Inc.: Remove "Always Online" DRM from SimCity and future games.." Change.org. N.p., n.d. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. https://www.change.org/petitions/electronic-arts-inc-remove-always-online-drm-from-simcity-and-future-games.

"Richard Stallman: DRM should be illegal." YouTube. YouTube, 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n0faj1EI2nE.

"Top 10 Most Pirated Games of 2008." TorrentFreak. TorrentFreak, 4 Dec. 2008. Web. 13 Nov. 2013. http://torrentfreak.com/top-10-most-pirated-games-of-2008-081204/.

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