Blog Post

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

Netflix (s NFLX) 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 (S GOOG) 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 (s MSFT) and Google (s GOOG) 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.

26 Responses to “Netflix presses ahead with HTML5, as free software activists call for boycott”

  1. John Kiser

    DRM Becoming possible in HTML 5 is a necessity for any streaming service that doesn’t want users to out and out be able to download the content. THere is no reason they cannot define two types of coding for video handling and put DRM in one and no drm in the other. To those comparing this to DRM for music on say iTUNES this is nothing alike. This is video streaming of movies that might cost 10 dollars or more per video that could easily be downloaded by users if not having a capable coding standard inside HTML 5. Making it a standard gives the content creators options for using DRM or not. Saying they will flood everything with DRM is asinine and completely ass backwards..

    I’m a HUGE proponent for open source software, but I do butt heads with some FSF views on a lot of issues. They take asinine approaches instead of helping people actually flesh things out and take all or nothing approaches that do not work out well.

  2. B. Zobisch

    Apple has already shown with iTunes music downloads that you don’t TRULY need DRM. People that want to steal digital content will ALWAYS find a way to do it. So Spotify and others find an effective business model and now why would most employed adults bother hacking music?

    Netflix isn’t pushing DRM for their sake, I suspect they are being pressured to have it in place to maintain their licensing agreements but with each movie or series they independently produce that does well (House of Cards!) and with every percentage point of market share they gain, they add power to push back against MPAA much the same way Apple did against the music industry.

    HTML5 being open is crucial to the future of the web to a much larger extent than 98% of America realizes and because of this and because of the convenience of Netflix, you won’t see any significant boycotts, even from people like me who recognize the problem.

  3. leodavinci1

    The problem is many people operate under the notion that DRM is necessary.

    It is not. Pretty much the reasons in support of DRM are based on assumptions driven by fear and speculation, and not by facts. What facts do exist indicate, if anything, that DRM is unnecessary.

    Online music is pretty much DRM-less now, despite the decade-long hue and cry of the music labels that lack of DRM would kill the music industry. (The same music industry that allowed Amazon to sell DRM-less music to counter Apple’s dominance in online music sales. Go figure.)

    Now, ebooks are on their way to becoming DRM-less with more and more publishers going that route.

    DRM is not necessary. It is just that simple.

    • matthewfabb

      There’s a difference between DRM on files that you download and streaming content. iTunes gives you MP3’s free of DRM, but still uses Quicktime for MP3 previews to try to protect the content so that people don’t download it and avoid buying it. There’s still ways people work around it, running a recording software while it previews, but it does provide a few more obstacles.

      A number of browsers give you a “Save video as” option for HTML5 video. Content owners aren’t going to allow a company like Netflix access to their content without more protection than that. Even if the DRM proves to be faulty and other people who are more technical savy can still record the video, it at least puts a few barriers so that not everyone can easily download the video

      Personally, I don’t care about DRM protecting streaming content, either audio or video. As that’s just trying to stop people from stealing the content that is not theirs. I do care about DRM in content I buy and download, as that generally restricts me from using the files the way I would like to, often giving me problems to view the content.

  4. Tom Teak

    This argument is perpetuated by people who do not value content creators. The simple fact of the matter is that it is not cool to expect everything for free. It costs money to create content and the only way to distribute it securely is to use DRM, why the fuss? some pieces of content will have DRM, some won’t, it is the choice of the distributor not the consumer.

  5. Jack Klaus

    Looking forward to Netflix and other video services on Linux but this is complicated. Keep DRM as an OS agnostic plugin and not part of HTNL5.

  6. I think it might be a good idea for the FSF to get involved with setting the standard. Ensure there are two HTML5 streaming options, one with and one without DRM.

    Then we might even get some DRM standards, where DRM is not a propriety as it is now, and might even start implementing some physical aspects to digital content, per example, second hand sales of goods.

    John mentioned that Netflix still want propriety DRM, if that is the case I agree with their stance, but if we can get an open standards on DRM I think it might be a good thing for the end consumer.

  7. This ‘boycott’ is doomed to failure. The vast, vast majority of Netflix users won’t care about this issue; they’ll just keep paying their $8 per month and streaming video.

    I doubt even 1% of subscribers will bother to be involved.

  8. I’ve always seen the World Wide Web as this wide open range full of freedom where people can kick up their heels and do as they please as long as they don’t hurt each other. Incorporating DRM into the next version of the Web’s native tongue will only hasten the destruction of that lovely dream of mellow anarchy.

    I don’t want to see the Web become another corporate and government controlled medium like TV, radio and newspapers. Let’s keep the dream alive by keeping the Web wide, open and free.

  9. Journalists should be more accurate when reporting this, and not buy into Netflix’s self description of this approach as “HTML5”. It is not that. You cannot watch Netflix with only HTML5 — you also need to install DRM, which is proprietary and non-standard. You need a browser with proprietary code baked in, or you need a separate plugin. The headline “Netflix pushes ahead with HTML5” is no more accurate than “Netflix pushes ahead with proprietary DRM”. The best option would be both: “Netflix pushes ahead with HTML5 + proprietary DRM combination.” Leaving out the proprietary part is repeating Netflix’s marketing spin.

    I oppose DRM and work for the FSF, but I think the above point is actually an important one for objectivity regardless of your position on this.

  10. Jon Henshaw

    A standards based approach to controlling how intellectual property is distributed is absolutely reasonable for the content creators and owners who paid to create it in the first place. It’s the distributors choice whether or not they want to charge or give away content for free, and having less add-ons/plugins/extensions on my browser is very desirable.

    I don’t think the all or nothing stance by the FSF (as I currently understand it) is reasonable. That’s like suggesting we shouldn’t have the ability to mask passwords or have online account security standards, because those will be used to access sites that require a subscription to access their content or services. The idea that anything that’s digitally available is fair game is absurd and hurts the economic foundation that actually enables one to consume such content.

  11. While I agree with the concept that DRM and therefore possibly proprietary interfaces should be kept out of any standards for free and open tech like HTML5. However, I believe (since reading about their open sourced plugin to run netflix on Chrom(ium) on linux; which I’ll be playing with this weekend!), that Netflix is trying to affect at least SOME standard to how DRM may interact with open standards. I’d hope it’s more of a “plugin” or addition to standards rather than forcing all HTML5 Video to have hooks for DRM (I can dream!).

    I believe their devs honestly want to alleviate the mishmosh of DRM tech that has plague flash video in this go around.

    So, it’s debatable, but the commenter Mike is right. Television (maybe we just call them video shows now?) is going away and streaming video is the present/future; it should be standardized from the get-go.

    • vexorian

      Just because streaming is supposedly the future, it doesn’t mean that DRM should be put in a web standard.

      You can keep your streaming, but It would completely screw up free competition in the web if DRM was part of what users expect from a standard compliant browser. For starters, it would be impossible for a free software browser to compete. I value my free web a lot more than I care for your ability to watch movies.

  12. It’s going to be kind of difficult pleasing the “free movies all the time everywhere for everybody” crowd. I can see why Netflix isn’t bothering with it. I wonder when the free-lunchers will realize that without secure intellectual property rights to digital products there won’t be many streaming videos that anybody will want to see.

    • vexorian

      Hi, feel free to charge for your movies. Use DRM even.

      But please don’t lobby W3C to make DRM part of the standard. It would completely destroy competitivity in software. No surprise Google and Microsoft love the idea.

    • Ed Vim

      >> “free movies all the time everywhere for everybody” crowd

      That’s something of a simplistic interpretation of the situation. DRM and Open Source licensing have conflicting aspects that are much more complicated than just labeling some as ‘…free movie…’ stereotypes. And actually, Netflix IS ‘bothering’ with it, there are legal issues that even big corporations have to observe. The uninformed always assume the ‘free’ when referring to Open Source can only mean, “no cost” but in reality it’s more relative to freedom, in terms of non-proprietary development and open standards.

      • Thanks for the details but you didn’t quite get to why the free-lunchers don’t like the way Netflix is “bothering” with it. Of course, Netflix is creating their solution and in that sense they are “bothering” with it. But, they aren’t too bothered by the free-lunchers’ appeals. What do the free-lunchers want that requires Netflix to use non-proprietary software?

        • as a linux user with PowerPC and ARM computers, and an interest in eventually obtaining one of those higher-end MIPS based computers from china, what I want is netflix to work (at least in SD playback) on my computers, and I can assure you that PowerPC and MIPS at least won’t be getting any proprietary code from whomever governs the DRM, or microsoft, or netflix, or whoever. Those are platforms that only see Free and OpenSource software supporting these days, and ARM is still a bit iffy or completely lacking for having any proprietary support outside of android, and maybe windows 8 RT.

    • seanlynch

      By “free-lunchers” who are you referring to? It surely isn’t people who subscribe to Netflix, but choose to use open source software on their computers.

      That is who is asking for this and that is why Netflix is working on this. They are paying customers who prefer to use a different operating system. If I buy a bottle of coca-cola, it doesn’t matter what brand of glass I use to drink it out of. If I buy Michelin tires, it shouldn’t matter what brand of car I put them on.

      Who, in their right mind, would design an Internet delivered product that cares about what OS you use to browse the Internet? Well, Netflix did and they used Microsoft Silverlight, which Microsoft has since abandoned. Tying the future of your company to someone else’s proprietary platform is a major business planning fail. This HTML 5 solution is not just for Linux users, it is also for Windows users. Netflix has to redeploy it’s software before MS ends support for Silverlight. Uncoupling Netflix’s dependence on another companies’ proprietary solution will result in more independence and flexibility for Netflix in the future.

      I don’t care about DRM. I pay for Netflix and I’m glad that they are developing a solution that will let me use what I pay for without resorting to virtual machines or wine based solutions.

      • So what exactly was Netflix supposed to use?

        Flash? That’s also a proprietary piece of software that doesn’t work on all platforms either, and it’s also going away.

        Write their own browser plugin? If every content service did this, chaos would ensue.

        An open video streaming system with no DRM? No point in it, because none of their content providers would agree to let Netflix send their content this way.

        Silverlight had some strong points over Flash to it at the time they selected it, and no other system besides Flash or Silverlight was ever realistically an option.

    • focher

      When I see someone refer to open source advocates as “free lunchers” I have to wonder exactly what software they used to type the phrase. There’s absolutely no doubt that the web browser you use, the network stack that transported the data, and the web server hosting the content all contain a very large amount of software that was developed by these “free lunchers”. It’s not all that difficult to understand why they don’t appreciate when their work is turned into a mechanism to restrict access to content.

      • Name calling is always easier than reasoning. As for software, I use a lot of open source software. I like open source software. I’m not referring to open source software per se. I was referring to the “Free Software Foundation” who seem to be interested more in “Free” than “open”.

        • I think you missed the focus of the FSF–they mean free as in freedom (to control the software you are running), not free as in “didn’t cost me a penny”. The software freedom they advocate means access to the code. Software based DRM is only effective if when it is proprietary. As for all the “free lunchers” I don’t think they will be going hungry, cause even in the perfect hardware based DRM world — someone can still point their HD video camera at a HD screen with their 7.1 surround sound system and re-digitize it. And a good enough version will be floating out there for all to gorge upon.

          we are doomed to repeat history –> see DRM and music

        • lolhipster

          The FSF actually advocates charging for software and services: as much as you can, actually (

          My problem is that DRM is antithetical to the vision of the “open” web, and the W3C pushing along with it. I pay for Netflix. I’m not opposed to using proprietary software for certain jobs. However, this is not something I’m comfortable with.