Be careful about proposed technical change to the Web, says UNESCO’s La Rue

2017-04-03

Caution has been expressed by Frank La Rue, Assistant Director General for Communication-Information, in a letter sent to the W3C, a standards-setting body that is considering a change to internet browsing with potentially far-reaching consequences.

The technical change is known as “Encrypted Media Extensions” (EME), which would become part of the HTML 5 code for the World Wide Web, and therefore standardize how web browsers deal with encrypted video content.  

Encryption of video content is something that largely serve the interests of the copyright industry, but it also has significance for network security and content integrity.

If agreed, the new EME standard could mean that internet browsers might increasingly “act as a framed gateway rather than serving as intrinsically open portals”, said La Rue.

In a contribution to the debate on the proposed technical change, he evaluated the issue from the standpoint of UNESCO’s values of the free flow of information and the Organisation’s concept of Internet Universality.

The EME technical standard could adversely impact on human rights, openness and accessibility on the Internet, stated the Assistant Director General. 

According to his letter, “to date, most filtering and blocking of content has been done at the level of the network, whereas the risk now is that this capacity could also become technically effective at the level of the browser. 

“With standardized EME incorporated in the browser, a level of control would cascade to the user interface level.”

La Rue expressed concerns about the possible implications this could have for access to information, privacy, openness and choice about whether to opt-in or not, as well as for the uncovering of security vulnerabilities in copyrighted content.

He explained that accessibility could be reduced if standardised EME helped make it possible for copyright owners to stop users exercising their legal right of fair use of video, including the adaptation of content for disabled persons.

The UNESCO Assistant Director General requested that any decision-making on whether to adopt EME or not should take account of the necessity and proportionality of the proposed standard, and asked whether there were compromise solutions which could reduce potential risks.