Concerns raised for assistive technology development as W3C debates encrypted media extensions

The W3C Media Extensions Working Group are currently developing an Encrypted Media Extension which has raised concerns for disability groups due to its potential restrictions on access to online media content for people with disabilities.

EME, a part of HTML5, is designed to provide a replacement of sorts to the Digital Rights Management (DRM) capabilities of third-party plug-ins that used to be required for online video. With the use of plug-ins such as Adobe Flash being replaced by native HTML5 support, there’s now a perceived need for companies that distribute video online to ensure that the copyright of their content is protected.

The focus of EME is to put DRM back into browsers in the HTML5. However, development of this through W3C processes has received criticism in part due to the open nature of web standards, and in part due to the potential implications for people with disabilities. The argument for EME development focuses on the view that that video DRM is inevitable and companies have a right to content protection.

However, while EME has some accessibility considerations, there is concern that any sort of locked-down mechanism to support DRM will affect the way in which assistive technologies are able to engage and extract information for software such as screen readers and screen magnifiers, both of which struggled to work effectively under plug-in technologies such as Flash.

There is also real concern that future innovation in the development of assistive technology products and their interaction with web browsers may be hampered should EME result in restrictions on the availability of information to people with disabilities.

Historically, DRM has been a hotly debated topic in the online development area for some time. For example, Apple famously introduced DRM for its initial iTunes music offerings, but then removed it and now provides guidance on how to ensure your music collection is DRM-free. From an accessibility perspective the removal of DRM made it much easier for people with disabilities to play content on their preferred device especially audio books.

There are similar arguments being made in the EME debate, contending that if DRM wasn’t vital to the music industry, locking down video content is a backwards step that has the potential to cause similar issues for people with disabilities.

Last year the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a global civil liberties organisation based in San Francisco, proposed that future W3C development of EME be contingent on W3C members making a legally-binding promise not to invoke anti-circumvention law against parties who bypass it to make otherwise legal changes to browsers, or against security researchers who come forward with reports of defects in EME implementations.

From a disability perspective, the request would allow for assistive technologies and researchers to bypass the EME without penalties. While this has not been approved to date, it is supported by organisations such as the Royal National Institute for Blind People, Benetech, and leading research universities such as Oxford University and King's College London.

As a W3C member organisation, Media Access Australia is also concerned about the potential issues that EME may cause for people with disabilities in their use of online content, and supports processes and organisations that ensure current and future implementations of DRM do not restrict the web for people with disabilities.

Additional information regarding the W3C processes around EME can be found in the current W3C EME Candidate Recommendation. Information regarding the position of the EFF can be found on the EFF EME Frequently Asked Questions page.