Netflix presses ahead with HTML5, as free software activists call for boycott

html5

Netflix is pushing ahead with efforts to get rid of Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin and play video straight in the browser instead. The company first introduced HTML5-based video streaming on Google’s Chromebooks, and last month started to stream movies and TV show episodes via HTML5 straight to Microsoft’s IE11 on Windows 8.1 preview. And just this week, Netflix open sourced code that the company uses to facilitate security for  HTML5-based streaming on Linux machines.

Much of these efforts depend on the company’s efforts to bring content protection to HTML5, allowing Netflix to stream its entire catalog without upsetting rights holders that are afraid their content could get ripped from the service.

Netflix is also cooperating with companies like Microsoft and Google to turn these content-protection technologies into standards through a proposal made to the World Wide Web Consortium — and that’s where things get complicated. That’s because free software advocates don’t like the idea of content protection and digital rights management becoming part of the next set of web standards to be implemented by browser makers across the board, including Mozilla’s Firefox.

The Free Software Foundation wrote a few days ago on its blog:

“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.”

That’s why the foundation is now calling for a boycott of Netflix:

“Netflix’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.”

Netflix, on the other hand, is emphasizing that it consciously went down the standards route, in part to hear from critics. A spokesperson emailed me the following statement:

“We presented the 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 proposal must meet the same criteria as any other to move forward. … The W3C provides an opportunity to obtain and address broad feedback across web constituencies. We welcome input from these and other stakeholders.”

In the end, it’s doubtful that the Free Software Foundation’s boycott call will have any notable effect on Netflix. But the whole episode once again shows that the future of video on the web is complicated: Everyone agrees that web standards are the right way to go, but finding solutions that please everyone has proven to be challenging.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Albert Skibinski.

This post was updated at 11:50am with details on the code that Netflix open sourced this week.

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