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<nettime> Cory Doctorw: Firefox's adoption of closed-source DRM breaks my heart

Firefox’s adoption of closed-source DRM breaks my heart

I understand the pressure to support commercial video – but the browser
makers can do more to defend free and open software

Cory Doctorow,, Wednesday 14 May 2014 18.00 BST   

Mozilla foundation Mozilla is a not-for-profit social enterprise with a
mission to free its users – so it’s not unreasonable to hold it to a
higher standard than commercial rivals.

Future versions of the open-source Firefox browser will include
closed-source digital rights management (DRM) from Adobe, the Mozilla
project’s chief technology officer, Andreas Gal, announced on Wednesday.

The purpose is to support commercial video streams. But this is a
radical, disheartening development in the history of the organisation,
long held out as a beacon for the open, free spirit of the web as a tool
for liberation.

As Gal’s blogpost makes clear, this move was done without much
enthusiasm, out of a fear that Firefox (Mozilla’s flagship product and
by far the most popular free/open browser in the world) was being
sidelined by Apple, Google and Microsoft’s inclusion of proprietary
technology to support Netflix and other DRM-encumbered videos in their

In my long-running discussions with Mozilla’s most senior management
over this issue, they’ve been clear in their belief that their userbase
– and relevance to the internet – will dwindle unless they add support
for viewing Hollywood movies in their browser. Not just Hollywood; the
BBC has been one of the major “rights holder” voices calling for the
addition of DRM to the web.

This shift is part of a change in the way that browsers work in general.
Since the early days of the Netscape browser, third-party plug-ins have
been a common way to extend browser functionality. Users who wanted to
watch DRM-restricted video could install proprietary plugins such as
Microsoft’s Silverlight or Adobe’s Flash.

The plug-in architecture is a security nightmare, and a source of
numerous breaches through which buggy or malicious code was able to
reach into users’ computers and compromise them. Now that browsers run
in computers that we carry around in our pockets, connected to
microphones and video cameras, and manage everything from our finance to
our thermostats, abolishing plug-ins was an inevitable and welcome step.

Plugged back in

However, in the absence of plug-ins, the proprietary browser companies
have privately negotiated with Netflix to add DRM. This shift to private
negotiations – instead of industry-wide standards – spooked the World
Wide Web Consortium (W3C) and its founder, web inventor Tim Berners-Lee,
into a controversial plan to add DRM to HTML5, the next-generation web

The W3C’s solution is baroque: it is specifying something called
“encrypted media extensions” through which the browser creates a
“sandbox” within which a “content decryption module” (CDM) operates,
receiving scrambled video, descrambling it and passing it out of the
sandbox for display.

At times, the W3C has insisted that this isn’t really DRM – it’s a thing
that can be used for DRM. The fact that it was conceived in order to
respond to demand for DRM from companies that insist on DRM for their
business-models, and that its deployment and use is entirely concerned
with DRM, makes this a pretty thin excuse.

The fear of irrelevance that drove Mozilla to add DRM is a microcosm of
the fear of irrelevance that drove the W3C to standardise DRM. By the
same token, Mozilla’s roundabout description of its DRM plan also echoes
some of the W3C’s not-really-DRM claims.

Mozilla says it isn’t providing DRM; it’s providing a fully open utility
that automatically fetches and installs DRM from Adobe’s servers. I am
unconvinced that there is a meaningful distinction between “installing
DRM” and “installing code that installs DRM”.

Still, Mozilla has taken some admirable pains to minimise the harms from
its DRM. The open sandbox in which Adobe’s software operates very
strictly limits the DRM’s access to the computer’s other processes and
systems. This is crucial, because the Adobe module is not only closed
source, it is also protected by controversial global laws that threaten
security researchers who publish information about its security flaws.

These laws – the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the European EUCD,
Canada’s C-11 and so on – prohibit revealing information that can be
used to weaken DRM, and previous security researchers who disclosed
information about vulnerabilities in DRM have been threatened and

This created a chilling effect on the publication of vulnerabilities in
DRM, even where these put users at risk from hackers. For example, when
word got out that Sony BMG had infected millions of computers with an
illegal rootkit to stop (legal) audio CD ripping, security researchers
stepped forward to disclose that they’d known about the rootkit but had
been afraid to say anything about it.

This gap between discovery and disclosure allowed the Sony rootkit to
become a global pandemic that infected hundreds of thousands of US
military and government networks. Virus writers used the Sony rootkit to
cloak their own software and attack vulnerable systems.

The inclusion of Adobe’s DRM in Firefox means that Mozilla will be
putting millions of its users in a position where they are running code
whose bugs are illegal to report. So it’s very important that this code
be as isolated as possible.

By open-sourcing the sandbox that limits the Adobe software’s access to
the system, Mozilla is making it auditable and verifiable. This is a
much better deal than users will get out of any of the rival browsers,
like Safari, Chrome and Internet Explorer, and it is a meaningful and
substantial difference.

Unhappy turn

It’s clear that Mozilla isn’t happy about this turn of events, and in
our conversations, people there characterised it as something they’d
been driven to by the entertainment companies and the complicity of the
commercial browser vendors, who have enthusiastically sold out their
users’ integrity and security.

Mitchell Baker, the executive chairwoman of the Mozilla Foundation and
Mozilla Corporation, told me that “this is not a happy day for the web”
and “it’s not in line with the values that we’re trying to build. This
does not match our value set.”

But both she and Gal were adamant that they felt that they had no choice
but to add DRM if they were going to continue Mozilla’s overall mission
of keeping the web free and open.

I am sceptical about this claim. I don't doubt that it’s sincerely made,
but I found the case for it weak. When I pressed Gal for evidence that
without Netflix Firefox users would switch away, he cited the huge
volume of internet traffic generated by Netflix streams.

There's no question that Netflix video and other video streams account
for an appreciable slice of the internet’s overall traffic. But video
streams are also the bulkiest files to transfer. That video streams use
a lot of bytes isn't a surprise.

When a charitable nonprofit like Mozilla makes a shift as substantial as
this one – installing closed-source software designed to treat computer
users as untrusted adversaries – you’d expect there to be a data-driven
research story behind it, meticulously documenting the proposition that
without DRM irrelevance is inevitable. The large number of bytes being
shifted by Netflix is a poor proxy for that detailed picture.

There are other ways in which Mozilla’s DRM is better for user freedom
than its commercial competitors’. While the commercial browsers’ DRM
assigns unique identifiers to users that can be used to spy on viewing
habits across multiple video providers and sessions, the Mozilla DRM
uses different identifiers for different services.

And unlike the commercial browsers’ DRM, the Mozilla implementation does
not intentionally leak any information about the user’s system or its
configuration to video services.

The Mozilla DRM is a very neat illustration of the difference between
“free” and “open”, a distinction that often seems abstract to the point
of meaninglessness for most people.

Mozilla’s open-source sandbox can be examined and compiled by users who
have access to its source code. It is fully transparent and “open” to them.

But if users modify the sandbox in any way – if they add new features or
improvements to it – the Adobe plug-in can detect the alteration and it
will refuse to pass any more decoded video. The Mozilla sandbox comes
with total openness, but without any of the freedoms that the free
software movement cherishes.

How the Adobe module validates the sandbox is a mystery – a proprietary
technique whose workings are illegal to report, thanks to the same laws
that ban reporting vulnerabilities in DRM.

I was surprised to learn that there was a GNU/Linux version of Adobe’s
module that will work with Firefox on systems running Ubuntu, Red Hat
and related operating systems.

This seems unlikely to work very well: whatever techniques the module is
using to assure itself that the sandbox is behaving as expected
ultimately depend on it asking the operating system questions about the
sandbox (“is the sandbox running as a process that can’t access the hard

A user who can modify her operating system can easily get it to lie to
the Adobe software – we do this all the time, such as when a cheap
digital recorder pretends to be a mass storage device to your computer
so that it can access its stored recordings.

The Mozilla Project has been one of the internet’s most hopeful success
stories, and the people who do Mozilla’s good works have been personal
heroes of mine for more than a decade.

The decision to produce systems that treat internet users as untrusted
adversaries to be controlled by their computers was clearly taken out of
a sense of desperation and inevitability.

It’s clear that Mozilla plans to do everything it can to mitigate the
harms from its DRM strategy and to attempt to reverse the trend that
brought it to this pass.

Like many of Mozilla’s longtime supporters, I hold it to a high
standard. It is not a for-profit. It’s a social enterprise with a
mission to empower and free its users.

I understand that Apple, Microsoft and Google are for-profit entities
that have demonstrated repeatedly that their profitability trumps their
customers’ rights, and I fault them for this. But it’s not unreasonable
to hold mission-driven nonprofits to a higher standard than their
commercial counterparts.

Mozilla says it’s doing everything it can to reduce the harm from what
it sees as an inevitable decision. As a Mozilla supporter, contributor
and user, I want it to do more. Here are some practical things that
Mozilla can do to help:

1 Protect security researchers

Mozilla has demonstrated that it has some negotiating leverage with
Adobe – after all, it was able to fend off the demand for details of
users’ systems to be leaked to video companies.

It should demand that Adobe give it a covenant not to sue or threaten
developers who report vulnerabilities in the Adobe decoder. Adobe does
not need to give up the right to sue people who release cracks for their
DRM or competing products in order to do this.

In an era in which vulnerabilities are leveraged to expose users to
identity theft, sexual exploitation and government surveillance, no one
should fear legal reprisal for warning people about flaws in the
software they use.

Mozilla’s competitors don't do offer this protection to developers. They
should. Mozilla can shame them for not doing so, and be the leader we
want it to be.

2 Educate users

Mozilla has a brilliant, far-reaching technology literacy programme that
teaches users how to be makers and programmers and how to be safe and
private on the Web.

Mozilla should develop a curriculum about the way that DRM undermines
security by making vulnerability reporting illegal and treating users as
hostile adversaries.

And it should teach would-be makers that DRM only allows you to be a
passive viewer and not a tinkerer, because if you change the “open”
decoder, it stops working.

3 Research and publish the case for DRM

With both the W3C and Mozilla ready to add DRM in order to preserve
their relevance in the face of Netflix, Hulu, BBC iPlayer and Amazon
Video, we need some actual data on how users view these service and to
what precise extent the lack of in-built DRM support is enough to drive
away users.

If Mozilla wants its supporters to accept that irrelevance was the
inevitable alternative to DRM, it should have the data to back that up.
We can use that data to inform anti-DRM strategies.

4 Formulate and articulate a DRM policy

There are lots of industries that want the W3C to standardise DRM for
them, too.

The ebook people have asked for a W3C standard to lock up formatted text
– basically, webpages – and I wouldn't be surprised to see paywall sites
and others converging on this.

Gal told me he didn’t think that users would accept DRM for text in the
same way that they’ve accepted DRM for video, pointing out that most
text is not DRMed.

However, nearly all the video on the web today is DRM-free – YouTube
users alone post 96 hours’ worth of DRM-free video every minute.

It’s only a small slice of “premium” video that is locked up with DRM,
in the same way that only a small slice of text – commercial books,
paywalled newspapers – would likely be DRMed if the ebook people get
their W3C DRM.

The promulgation of DRM video on the web is the beginning, not the end.
If Mozilla wants long-term support from its stakeholders, it can’t make
decisions about future DRM fights on an ad hoc basis.

We need a statement of principles that explains when DRM is the right
answer – it’s certainly a debate I’d relish participating in.

Mozilla won’t comment on whether its forthcoming Firefox OS for mobile
devices will be born with DRM, and that's an ominous sign for those of
us who were hoping for a free/open alternative to the existing mobile
infrastructure, which is basically a global surveillance system that
allows us to make the occasional phone call.

Like many of Mozilla’s supporters – and like many of the Mozillans I
know and respect – I am devastated by this turn of events. The free and
open web needs an entity like Mozilla to stand on principle, especially
when the commercial internet world so manifestly stands on nothing but

I fully accept that Baker and Gal have taken this decision reluctantly
and unhappily. I disagree with their rationale, but I understand it. And
I accept that they have gone to enormous lengths to devise a DRM with as
few harms as possible.

But there is more that Mozilla can do, and should do, even if they’re
wrong that DRM is the only way – and especially if they’re right.

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