Future versions of Firefox will include closed-source DRM technology

15 May 2014

Under pressure from Hollywood and the growing popularity of subscription streaming services, Mozilla has revealed it plans to deploy Adobe digital rights management (DRM) technology in future versions of its popular Firefox browser.

The move has been met with dismay from digital rights bodies, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which described the move as witnessing the fall of the last bastion of the open web.

The move is an attempt by Mozilla to preserve the popularity of the Firefox browser, especially since Apple (Safari), Google (Chrome) and Microsoft (Internet Explorer) have included DRM technology at the behest of popular online services, such as Netflix.

Yesterday, Sandvine, the broadband networking company that provides reports on web usage, revealed that Netflix is the second largest driver of web traffic in the UK and Ireland, and within the year will be the primary driver of traffic on the islands.

In effect, Mozilla had to make the decision in order to stay relevant, as chief technology officer Andreas Gal admitted.

A question of access

“Mozilla believes in an open web that centres around the user and puts them in control of their online experience,” Gal said.

“Many traditional DRM schemes are challenging because they go against this principle and remove control from the user and yield it to the content industry.

“Instead of DRM schemes that limit how users can access content they purchased across devices, we have long advocated for more modern approaches to managing content distribution, such as watermarking. Watermarking works by tagging the media stream with the user’s identity. This discourages copyright infringement without interfering with lawful sharing of content, for example, between different devices of the same user.

“Mozilla would have preferred to see the content industry move away from locking content to a specific device (so called node-locking), and worked to provide alternatives.

“Instead, this approach has now been enshrined in the W3C EME specification. With Google and Microsoft shipping W3C EME and content providers moving over their content from plugins to W3C EME, Firefox users are at risk of not being able to access DRM-restricted content (eg, Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu), which can make up more than 30pc of the downstream traffic in North America,” Gal said.

Keeping the fight alive

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) expressed its frustration at the decision and disappointment that Mozilla didn’t hold out. In effect, the EFF believes Mozilla still had a fighting chance to save the open web.

“It’s official: the last holdout for the open web has fallen,” said EFF free speech activist Danny O’Brien.

“Flanked on all sides by Google, Microsoft, Opera, and (it appears) Safari’s support and promotion of the EME DRM-in-HTML standard, Mozilla is giving in to pressure from Hollywood, Netflix, et al, and will be implementing its own third-party version of DRM. It will be rolled out in Desktop Firefox later this year. Mozilla’s CTO, Andreas Gal, says that Mozilla ‘has little choice.’ Mozilla’s chair, Mitchell Baker adds, ‘Mozilla cannot change the industry on DRM at this point.’

“At EFF, we disagree. We’ve had over a decade of watching this ratchet at work, and we know where it can lead. Technologists implement DRM with great reticence, because they can see it’s not a meaningful solution to anything but rather a font of endless problems. It doesn’t prevent infringement, which continues regardless. Instead, it reduces the security of our devices, reduces user trust, makes finding and reporting of bugs legally risky, eliminates fair use rights, undermines competition, promotes secrecy, and circumvents open standards.

“It’s clear from the tone of Gal and Baker’s comments, and our own discussions with Mozilla, that you’ll find no technologist there who is happy with this step. The fact that Mozilla, in opposition to its mission, had to prepare and design this feature in secret without being able to consult the developers and users who make up its community, is an indication of how much of a contradiction DRM is in a pro-user open-source browser.

“Unchecked, that contradiction is only going to grow. Mozilla’s DRM code, imported from Adobe as a closed-source binary, will sit in a cordoned sandbox, simultaneously Mozilla’s responsibility but beyond its control. Mozilla will be responsible for updates to the DRM blackbox, which means users will have to navigate browser updates that will either fix security bugs or strip features from their video watching,” O’Brien said.

Sleeping Firefox image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years