Reconciling Mozilla’s Mission and W3C EME

With most competing browsers and the content industry embracing the W3C EME specification, Mozilla has little choice but to implement EME as well so our users can continue to access all content they want to enjoy. Read on for some background on how we got here, and details of our implementation.

Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a tricky issue. On the one hand content owners argue that they should have the technical ability to control how users share content in order to enforce copyright restrictions. On the other hand, the current generation of DRM is often overly burdensome for users and restricts users from lawful and reasonable use cases such as buying content on one device and trying to consume it on another.

DRM and the Web are no strangers. Most desktop users have plugins such as Adobe Flash and Microsoft Silverlight installed. Both have contained DRM for many years, and websites traditionally use plugins to play restricted content.

In 2013 Google and Microsoft partnered with a number of content providers including Netflix to propose a “built-in” DRM extension for the Web: the W3C Encrypted Media Extensions (EME).

The W3C EME specification defines how to play back such content using the HTML5 video element, utilizing a Content Decryption Module (CDM) that implements DRM functionality directly in the Web stack. The W3C EME specification only describes the JavaScript APIs to access the CDM. The CDM itself is proprietary and is not specified in detail in the EME specification, which has been widely criticized by many, including Mozilla.

Mozilla believes in an open Web that centers around the user and puts them in control of their online experience. 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 (e.g. Netflix, Amazon Video, Hulu), which can make up more than 30% of the downstream traffic in North America.

We have come to the point where Mozilla not implementing the W3C EME specification means that Firefox users have to switch to other browsers to watch content restricted by DRM.

This makes it difficult for Mozilla to ignore the ongoing changes in the DRM landscape. Firefox should help users get access to the content they want to enjoy, even if Mozilla philosophically opposes the restrictions certain content owners attach to their content.

As a result we have decided to implement the W3C EME specification in our products, starting with Firefox for Desktop. This is a difficult and uncomfortable step for us given our vision of a completely open Web, but it also gives us the opportunity to actually shape the DRM space and be an advocate for our users and their rights in this debate. The existing W3C EME systems Google and Microsoft are shipping are not open source and lack transparency for the user, two traits which we believe are essential to creating a trustworthy Web.

The W3C EME specification uses a Content Decryption Module (CDM) to facilitate the playback of restricted content. Since the purpose of the CDM is to defy scrutiny and modification by the user, the CDM cannot be open source by design in the EME architecture. For security, privacy and transparency reasons this is deeply concerning.

From the security perspective, for Mozilla it is essential that all code in the browser is open so that users and security researchers can see and audit the code. DRM systems explicitly rely on the source code not being available. In addition, DRM systems also often have unfavorable privacy properties. To lock content to the device DRM systems commonly use “fingerprinting” (collecting identifiable information about the user’s device) and with the poor transparency of proprietary native code it’s often hard to tell how much of this fingerprinting information is leaked to the server.

We have designed an implementation of the W3C EME specification that satisfies the requirements of the content industry while attempting to give users as much control and transparency as possible. Due to the architecture of the W3C EME specification we are forced to utilize a proprietary closed-source CDM as well. Mozilla selected Adobe to supply this CDM for Firefox because Adobe has contracts with major content providers that will allow Firefox to play restricted content via the Adobe CDM.

Firefox does not load this module directly. Instead, we wrap it into an open-source sandbox. In our implementation, the CDM will have no access to the user’s hard drive or the network. Instead, the sandbox will provide the CDM only with communication mechanism with Firefox for receiving encrypted data and for displaying the results.

Traditionally, to implement node-locking DRM systems collect identifiable information about the user’s device and will refuse to play back the content if the content or the CDM are moved to a different device.

By contrast, in Firefox the sandbox prohibits the CDM from fingerprinting the user’s device. Instead, the CDM asks the sandbox to supply a per-device unique identifier. This sandbox-generated unique identifier allows the CDM to bind content to a single device as the content industry insists on, but it does so without revealing additional information about the user or the user’s device. In addition, we vary this unique identifier per site (each site is presented a different device identifier) to make it more difficult to track users across sites with this identifier.

Adobe and the content industry can audit our sandbox (as it is open source) to assure themselves that we respect the restrictions they are imposing on us and users, which includes the handling of unique identifiers, limiting the output to streaming and preventing users from saving the content. Mozilla will distribute the sandbox alongside Firefox, and we are working on deterministic builds that will allow developers to use a sandbox compiled on their own machine with the CDM as an alternative. As plugins today, the CDM itself will be distributed by Adobe and will not be included in Firefox. The browser will download the CDM from Adobe and activate it based on user consent.

While we would much prefer a world and a Web without DRM, our users need it to access the content they want. Our integration with the Adobe CDM will let Firefox users access this content while trying to maximize transparency and user control within the limits of the restrictions imposed by the content industry.

There is also a silver lining to the W3C EME specification becoming ubiquitous. With direct support for DRM we are eliminating a major use case of plugins on the Web, and in the near future this should allow us to retire plugins altogether. The Web has evolved to a comprehensive and performant technology platform and no longer depends on native code extensions through plugins.

While the W3C EME-based DRM world is likely to stay with us for a while, we believe that eventually better systems such as watermarking will prevail, because they offer more convenience for the user, which is good for the user, but in the end also good for business. Mozilla will continue to advance technology and standards to help bring about this change.

By Andreas Gal, Mozilla