DRM and HTML 5: The Web and Limiting Access(ibility)

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At WeCo, we provide a number of products and services to our clients to help them foster and improve web accessibility. While those services may range from “meet and greet” discussions and introductory seminars to detailed reports and hands-on development assistance, the message we wish to impart to our clients remains the same: make your information available to all of your users–regardless of how they access that information. Recent proposed changes to HTML 5, the standard that underlies much of the Word Wide Web, however, threaten this very idea.

As reported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group dedicated to defending the rights of users online,

[T]he W3C announced that its Director, Tim Berners-Lee, had determined that the “playback of protected content” was in scope for the W3C HTML Working Group’s new charter….This means the controversial Encrypted Media Extension (EME) proposal will continue to be part of that group’s work product, and may be included in the W3C’s HTML5.1 standard.[1]

Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) are a form of Digital Rights Management, or DRM. DRM is used to control how content is accessed and used by people on the the internet. It can, for example, prevent the unauthorized reproduction and viewing of copyrighted material such as movies, music and books. While the principle behind DRM is sound–WeCo believes that rights holders and content creators should be protected from theft–its implementation can be problematic. Currently, DRM on the web is most often achieved through proprietary software like Adobe’s Flash and Digital Editions and Microsoft’s Silverlight plugins as used by services such as Netflix and Amazon.[2] As long as DRM is confined to such software, its potentially limiting effects can be apparent and optional: you can avoid Adobe`s Digital Editions; you are not forced to stream movies from Netflix. However, if DRM becomes a part of the HTML 5 standard, it could become largely invisible and all but impossible to opt out of.

Currently, DRM is largely limited to media content; however, if adopted as a Word Wide Web standard, it could spread to other areas of the web. As the EFF notes in its formal objection to the proposal, such a move could wrest a large amount of control from the user by not only limiting what he or she can do on the Web, but how he or she can do it. The EFF warns that the official adoption of DRM into HTML 5 could lead to “a very different Web”:

A Web where you cannot cut and paste text; where your browser can’t “Save As…” an image; where the “allowed” uses of saved files are monitored beyond the browser; where JavaScript is sealed away in opaque tombs; and maybe even where we can no longer effectively “View Source” on some sites, is a very different Web from the one we have today. It’s a Web where user agents—browsers—must navigate a nest of enforced duties every time they visit a page.[1]

For many users this could be a great hinderance to how they use information on the Web; for disabled users, however, such a change could prevent them from accessing that information at all. The cornerstone of Web accessibility is the ability to present content in different ways–whether that is through alternative text, captions, transcripts, or text-to-speech, to name a few options. If DRM becomes a standard part of the Web, this kind of reproduction may become difficult–if not impossible–were it viewed to be outside the use “approved by the content provider.”[3]

As a company that employs people who live with disabilities, WeCo is keenly aware of how this may personally affect our testers. Maureen, a Certified Test Consultant who is blind, finds the idea of not being able to copy information from a website for her own needs “very scary.” She explains,

Since I need information in other formats such as Braille or rtf files this would affectively bring an end to the wonderful freedom blind people have experienced in being able to browse the web and use the information they find as they are browsing. I very frequently, almost daily, use information from websites in other formats….None of my copying is ever illegal. I believing in paying if paying is what is requested, but being totally blind I need material to be available in the medium which works best for me and that is Braille. And without changing formats of information it is impossible to read it.[4]

As noted above, we at WeCo understand the principle behind DRM–the desire to protect the rights holders of content found online–however, we fear that if DRM becomes part of HTML 5 standards, it will have unintended consequences for people with disabilities–consequences that could ultimately limit their access to information.

If you would like to learn more about how DRM can affect those with disabilities, see the following links:

Digital Rights Management: Pitfalls and Possibilities for People with Disabilities

Digital Rights Management and People with Sight Loss

The Soundproof Book