Advocates call for a Netflix boycott amidst controversy about HTML5 video standards

The vast majority of Netflix users probably have had no idea that the streaming platform has been doing some major under-the-hood noodling over the past few months. In particular, the company has initiated a push to migrate its video streaming technology from Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin to HTML5 video standards.

This push includes a lobbying effort at the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)—in conjunction with Google and Microsoft—to push for Digital Rights Management (DRM) technology to be included in new HTML5 video standards.

The inclusion of DRM in HTML5 standards would give platforms (and copyright holders) more control over how content is streamed and shared. But it might also mean that—according to some advocates—the mechanics of the Web would be somewhat less transparent.

This sort of techno-talk might not mean much to most people, but the move has caused some advocates to call for a boycott of Netflix as the implementation of any DRM in the HTML standard is a big fat red line for many in the open-source community.

Evolving into HTML5

This past March, Netflix finally made its library of videos available on Chromebooks by introducing HTML5 streaming for the latest Samsung Chromebook models. This is the first time that Netflix had been available on these types of laptops.

The move was followed in June by the introduction of HTML5 video on Internet Explorer 11 running on Windows 8.1.

A blog post from Netflix says the company is experimenting with HTML5 video standards as Microsoft has announced the end of Silverlight 5 by 2021 and that “these extensions are the future of premium video on the Web, since they allow playback of premium video directly in the browser without the need to install plugins.”

Stop DRM
Copyright holders are behind
the DRM push in HTML5.

Netflix migration into plugin-less video is hardly the first for a major platform look in this direction as YouTube has been beta testing HTML5 for more than a year. (That platform has largely been constructed on top of Flash video software).

However, Netflix—with YouTube’s parent company Google and Microsoft—has sought to influence the W3C to implement Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) or so-called “Web Cryptography” that would give the platforms further control over copyrighted content streaming through the Internet.

In response to the lobbying effort from the web giants, the Free Software Foundation has pushed for a Netflix boycott. In a recent post, the organization stated:

"DRM and free software don’t mix. All DRM software relies on keeping secrets, like decryption algorithms, from the user, so that users cannot design their own method to modify it. … This means that each time a part of the Web starts requiring DRM software to decrypt it, it becomes inaccessible to free software. And if influential companies like Netflix, Google, and Microsoft succeed at jamming DRM into the HTML standard, there will be even more pressure than there already is for people distributing media to encumber it with DRM. We’ll see an explosion of DRM on the Web—a growing dark zone inaccessible to free software users."

Cancel Netflix
Will this have legs?

The post goes on to call for a boycott of Netflix as the company’s “lobbying in the W3C is paid for by subscription fees, so we’re asking you to help pull that money out from under them by boycotting their services.”

The company also calls for users to spread the word with the hashtag #CancelNetflix.

Netflix responds

A Netflix spokesperson responded in email with the folllowing comment:

"To provide a better member experience and facilitate the next generation of Internet-delivered video, Netflix has been working with other industry leaders to solve the problem of playing premium video content directly in the browser without the need for browser plugins.

"As part of this initiative, we have proposed the ‘HTML5 Premium Video Extensions, including the ‘Encrypted Media Extensions’ (EME), which would permit premium video services like Netflix to play protected video content in the browser by providing a standardized way for DRM systems to be used with the media element."

The email continued:

"We presented the EME proposal to the primary W3C group working on HTML where it is receiving review by a wide span of stakeholders, including privacy and accessibility experts. The process is consensus-based, and our EME proposal must meet the same criteria as any other to move forward.

"While not required to do so, we chose to present the proposal to the W3C because the W3C offers an open forum for participants to review proposals, offer feedback and air concerns. The W3C provides an opportunity to obtain and address broad feedback across web constituencies. We welcome input from these and other stakeholders."

It will be interesting to see if this boycott grabs any legs as the detao;s are probably far beyond the average consumer, who is just interested in having easy access to the latest Arrested Development episodes. However, high technological bars tend not to be anathema to virtual social movements. As we’ve seen in the past, social media-fueled pushes for nuanced issues such as net neutrality or the moribund SOPA act have managed to cause real-world change.

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