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Mozilla had no choice but to add DRM to Firefox

May 16, 2014

Mozilla has been in the news quite a lot over the last few months. This time the organization is being hammered by open source advocates for adding Adobe DRM to Firefox. One such article recently appeared on ITWire where the author of the article accused the Mozilla Foundation of base hypocrisy by deciding to add DRM to Firefox while projecting an air of noble dedication on other issues related to its values.

The Mozilla Foundation appears to be capable of blowing hot and cold when it suits them. On Wednesday, it announced that it would be including digital restrictions (or rights, if you prefer) management in Firefox via code from Adobe.

The DRM is meant to support the playing of video streams from places like Netflix; Mozilla’s argument is that other browsers like Internet Explorer, Safari and Chrome support it already and that it does not want its users to be forced to use another browser if they want to watch such streams.

So one can kick out a co-founder of Mozilla, the person who invented JavaScript, a technical genius, in order to adhere to these so-called values. At the same time, one will incorporate DRM, even if it is in not in keeping with those same “values”.

More at ITWire

If you haven’t seen it already, you should take a peek at Mozilla’s blog entry about DRM to get their side of the issue. It lays out pretty clearly what the reasoning was behind this decision, and it also laments having to do it in the first place.

The industry is on the cusp of a new mechanism for deploying DRM. (Until now, browsers have enabled DRM indirectly via Adobe’s Flash and Microsoft’s Silverlight products.) The new version of DRM uses the acronyms “EME” and “CDM.” At Mozilla we think this new implementation contains the same deep flaws as the old system. It doesn’t strike the correct balance between protecting individual people and protecting digital content. The content providers require that a key part of the system be closed source, something that goes against Mozilla’s fundamental approach.

We very much want to see a different system. Unfortunately, Mozilla alone cannot change the industry on DRM at this point. In the past Firefox has changed the industry, and we intend to do so again. Today, however, we cannot cause the change we want regarding DRM. The other major browser vendors — Google, Microsoft and Apple — have already implemented the new system. In addition, the old system will be retired shortly. As a result, the new implementation of DRM will soon become the only way browsers can provide access to DRM-controlled content.

More at Mozilla Blog

Firefox: A browser in decline?
But did the folks at Mozilla really have a choice when it comes adding DRM? An open source project like Mozilla is not immune to market pressures. And with so many competing browsers such as Chrome adding DRM for Netflix, etc. how could Firefox avoid adding it? Is it realistic to think that Firefox can simply ignore such things? I don’t think so and the reason why is in Firefox’s usage numbers over the last few years.

Is Firefox a browser in decline?

Firefox seems to have been in a slow decline in terms of browser usage.

Image credit: W3Counter

I did a bit of searching for browser usage numbers, and it seems like Firefox use has been slipping while Chrome use has gone up significantly. You can take a peek for yourself by checking out the Wikipedia article on browser usage numbers, which has a number of different sources over time. And you can also check out the W3Counter site for additional information.

The trend seems pretty clear though, Firefox seems to be a browser in a slow and rather tortured decline in terms of users. There’s no doubt the folks at Mozilla are keenly aware of this, and are watching Chrome’s rise in popularity very closely indeed. It must gall them to see Google’s upstart browser stealing away some of Firefox’s users.

DRM was Mozilla’s only real choice…for now
So what choice did Mozilla really have except to follow in the footsteps of Chrome? I’d argue that it really didn’t have any choice. Yes, it would have been better if Firefox could have remained aloof from the entire DRM thing. But Firefox does not exist in a vacuum, it has a lot of other browsers it competes with for users. So it has to be on par with other browsers if it is going to survive over time, and that means sometimes having to go against the open source philosophy of its roots.

This does not, however, mean that Firefox has to include it forever. Much depends on the industry itself. If enough people can force a change that is included in competing browsers then I think Mozilla will be one of the first to dump DRM as soon as they can. It’s obvious from the Mozilla blog entry that the organization is doing this very reluctantly because there seems to be no alternative if Firefox is going to retain its appeal among millions of users.

Now I know that some will say that Firefox will actually lose more users than it will gain or keep by adding DRM. I tend to doubt that though because not everybody who uses Firefox is an open source advocate. My guess is that most Firefox users will remain oblivious to the open source issues surrounding DRM in their browser. They may never even realize that it’s there as they use Firefox on their computers.

And I have not seen anything to indicate that Chrome and the other browsers that have added DRM have lost any users. Chrome’s market share still seems to be growing. So why would the average user abandon Firefox just because of DRM? And if they did which browser would they move to? Certainly not Chrome or the other major browsers that have added DRM too. DRM is going to be pretty much everywhere they look unless they opt for an off-the-beaten-path browser.

Mozilla’s recent PR problems
This isn’t the first time Mozilla has been vilified in the media recently. The Brendan Eich controversy gave the organization a huge black eye among many developers and users. People were shocked that Eich has been put in charge of Mozilla and many vowed to stop using Firefox until he was removed.

After Mozilla weathered that storm, along came Firefox 29 and the drama floodgates were opened all over again as many Firefox users quickly came to loathe the interface changes in Firefox 29. I did a column about it and it got more than 100 comments from irate Firefox users.

And now, of course, we have Adobe’s DRM being added to Firefox. Talk about adding fuel to the fire! It makes me wonder if the folks at Mozilla are just gluttons for punishment. Maybe they need to hire some kind of PR firm to help them carefully navigate these nasty situations? Whoever they hire couldn’t possibly do any worse than what’s already happened to Mozilla over the last year or so.

What’s your take on DRM in Firefox? Will you stick with Firefox or dump it? Tell me in the comments below.


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23 Responses to Mozilla had no choice but to add DRM to Firefox

  1. TJ Geezer on July 11, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    I go back and forth between Firefox and Chrome, mostly depending on which extension I need to use. For plain browsing, I prefer Firefox generally, if only bcause it handles bookmarks better imo. I’ll probably try Pale Moon browser now for DRM-free browsing just to see if lacking Adobe to direct my allowable traffic lanes really impacts me much, but I do understand the real-world pressures Mozilla is facing. I wish the DRM goons would fade as fast.
    Thanks incidentally for your piece on Wallch (in ITWorld). None of the changers I tried in Mint 17 would work, including the main repository Wallch, but the PPA addition you recommended solved the problem and took a Mint 17 burr out from under my saddle. I’d comment at ITWorld but it wouldn’t let me even though I was logged in with facebook, go figure.

  2. TonyVanDam on June 4, 2014 at 1:34 am

    Mozilla always had and still do have a choice:

    They are either for privacy & security or against privacy & security, plain and simply. And by accepting DRM, Mozilla choose to be against it to better compete against the other mainstream web browsers. As a long time Firefox user, I now have to decide to live with Mozilla’s controversial decision or not.

    If I reject Firefox, what other choices do I have (not counting Jondofox/Jondobrowser or Tor)? Iceweasel from Debian Sid can barely keep up with Firefox without the occasional problems with bugs. And meanwhile, GNU Icecat is not available in Debian at all.

    Since an open-source Chromium is reading from the same Google scripts as the closed-source Chrome, you have no privacy with either of those browsers anyway. Just ask anyone from PRISM break if you don’t believe it! And we all know Opera is closed-source, made from WebKit like Chrome/Chromium, and prone to same problems of no privacy and security whatsoever.

    No matter my final decision, it’s a lose-lose situation all the way around. :(

  3. Ms G on June 2, 2014 at 8:45 am

    Mozilla had a choice. Sometimes the path of least resistance is to convince yourself that there aren’t any choices, but there are always choices, and in this instance Mozilla chose to sell out and bow to behind-the-scenes political pressure.

    Next they’ll be telling Google refugees that they “had no choice but to begin collecting isp’s and data”.

    And so the world of ex-Mozilla loyalists waits while an honest FF replacement steps up to the plate.

  4. dragonmouth on May 24, 2014 at 6:55 pm

    “Mozilla had no choice but to add DRM to Firefox”
    There ALWAYS is a choice. Sometimes it’s harder, sometimes it’s easier. Mozilla made the easy choice; followed the path of least resistance.

  5. David Collier-Brown on May 19, 2014 at 2:16 pm

    If they actually want to know if they’re forced, they need to run a A/B test. When someone downloads a new browser and chooses the default model, have them get either a DRM or npn-DRM one. Look to see how many people go back to the site and re-download one from the list, choosing the opposite version.

    Done carefully, no-one will even notice.

    By the way, I’ll suggest the null hypothesis in this experiment be “no-one notices” (;-))

  6. Nicky Z on May 19, 2014 at 10:19 am

    I’m unaffected as I don’t use Firefox, and if I did it would be IceWeasel under Debian, which I seriously doubt would ever include the DRM unless they could isolate it in non-free, making it opt-in. There’s also Gnu IceCat, into which the FSF would allow DRM on the day hell freezes over. Chromium is yet another option, which I also doubt will include the DRM. While Chromium and IceCat are available for Mac and Chromium for Windows, if you’re a user of these system who is complaining about DRM, you’re a hypocrite (to put it mildly).

  7. W. Anderson on May 18, 2014 at 11:02 pm

    While I disagree with Mozilla following the crowd with adding DRM to their Firefox browser, particularly Adobe’s (sic), a company that has membership in the Linux Foundation, but worked tirelessly in partnership with all the other draconian, greedy and oppressive proprietary organizations to kill the GPL AND Linux at the behest of Microsoft before Redmond offered Silverlight.

    What is even more sad is that most computer and mobile device users are totally ignorant and simple-minded as to the quite negative affects of DRM on computer use Freedom, including a substantive proportion of all those claiming to be Free/Open source Software (FOSS) die-hards who have no real commitment or loyalty to the ideal they publicly profess to revere and would quickly abandon Mozilla in a heart beat just to watch Netflix movies on DRM, no matter how regressive such step is.

    Therefore Mozilla’s actions are inevitable.

  8. ThreatDown on May 18, 2014 at 9:49 pm

    This was really the only card mozilla had to play on this issue, the other major browsers had already gone forward with it, and if mozilla didn’t follow they risk becoming irrelevant (and if they lose a significant amount of their user base, they would have less and less influence over this type of thing in the future).

    They did make it clear from the beginning that they were against this, and once everyone else went forward with it anyway and their hand was forced, they made the best compromise they could by not including any closed drm code inside firefox, and instead allowing the user to download a sandboxed plugin (which really isn’t much different from the current plugin situation. Firefox supports flash via npapi, does that mean ‘zomg firefox includes drm!1′…no, it doesn’t. This is blown pretty far out of proportion).

  9. Andy on May 18, 2014 at 8:58 am

    “People were shocked that Eich has been put in charge of Mozilla and many vowed to stop using Firefox until he was removed.” Others were shocked that a talented developer (Javascript) like Eich was drummed out of Mozilla for political reasons by the loud complaints of the politically correct crowd. Did Apple employees similarly punish Steve Jobs for his left-leaning $$$ contributions? Of course not.

    Agree with your other points. The vast, vast majority of Firefox users (99%?) just want Netflix to work on their browser. If Mozilla decided not implement the new DRM, their share of the market would plummet down to a few hackers and principled OSS advocates that are bored in the evenings with nothing to watch. DRM is fundamentally incompatible with the open source movement, but still content providers (actors, directors, writers, musicians, etc.) have the right to protect their work.

  10. Mathias on May 17, 2014 at 2:23 pm

    Personally i have nothing against new FF 29 interface: it’s much better with much more space now when rather unnecessary top menu bar has been eliminated. It took less than one day to get used to that new interface. I don’t miss at all that former interface. Actually i’m not the only one who have almost totally abandoned Chromium because i’m so tired about Google asking this and that all the time. As a Linux user i still prefer FF: especially with some multimedia sites working poor with Chrome/Chromium. For instance i can’t watch MOV-files on Dropbox with Chromium but well with FF – without any “restricted-extras” etc….

  11. Brendan Perrine on May 17, 2014 at 1:28 pm

    I think there could be if you don’t want DRM or other that use your computer couldn’t you make a DRM block addon? If you think DRM is evil and don’t want your children viewing it then that is your choice.

  12. John B on May 17, 2014 at 1:12 pm

    When Mozilla caved in to the pressure from the intolerant homosexual lobby, I dumped Firefox, Seamonkey and Thunderbird from my computer. I also blacklisted the Mozilla products in my package manager so that they won’t be installed again.

    It’s one thing to disagree with people, but it is an entirely different matter to be intolerant toawrd dissent. That practice smacks of the old Soviet Union and East Germany circa 1957. Or is the culture in the United States heading that way too? But I digress…

    • Howard on May 17, 2014 at 1:56 pm

      I have been a devoted supporter of Firefox since Firefox’s beginning; but because of how Brendan Eich was treated, I have also switched to Chrome and am encouraging everyone I know to do the same.

    • Bob on May 18, 2014 at 9:44 pm

      The Eich ‘controversy’ was about as manufactured by the media as it gets, and people on both sides of the gay marriage debate threw mozilla under the bus as fuel for their political arguments, and the media just sat back and reveled in all the page views their creation was giving them.

      It wasn’t just the ‘intolerant homosexual lobby’ either, this was people on both sides.

      First the tech media [completely inaccurately] made assumptions that board members resigned over eich’s donation, which wasn’t true. This springboarded the whole controversy. Once it began to spiral out of control, Eich resigned because it was severely effecting his ability to effectively lead mozilla, and at this point the other side jumped in and started vilifying mozilla for ‘firing’ Eich [which also wasn't true].

      The whole controversy was a manufactured farce on every side, and is the dumbest possible reason I can think of for switching browsers :p

  13. albinard on May 17, 2014 at 12:57 pm

    I think the number of open sourece True Believers is too small to make a huge difference in the DRM matter. Chrome (Google) is so much more aggressive in tracking behavior that I have no intention of jumping into the privacy fire to escape the DRM frying pan.

  14. Ronnie on May 17, 2014 at 12:56 pm

    Running to chrome is like a bad case of stockholm syndrome.

  15. dragonmouth on May 16, 2014 at 6:23 pm

    And incorporating DRM is supposed to stem the loss of users??? IMO. it will accelerate it.

    • Jim Lynch on May 16, 2014 at 6:44 pm

      Perhaps it will among the more aware open source advocates, but not among average users. How many of them will even be aware that it’s there? Not many I’d bet.

      • dragonmouth on May 18, 2014 at 9:07 am

        Unfortunately, you’re right. Not many users are as well informed as the readers of this blog. The attitude of most FF users is “Just gimme the damn Netfix!”

        • TonyVanDam on June 4, 2014 at 1:45 am

          Those same FF users also want to be able to watch those damn videos on YouTube. :lol: Although HTML5 has gotten better, there are still videos that cannot be seen without Adobe’s Flashplayer and those casual FF users will still sellout their right to privacy to watch those videos.

    • Andrés González Cantú on May 18, 2014 at 5:09 pm

      I agree with you. I have just uninstalled Firefox and Thunderbird from my system. I’m now testing Epiphany and Midori as web browsers (Midori seems good), and Evolution and Sylpheed to manage my email accounts. Four of my friends are going the same.

      • hugo on May 18, 2014 at 5:24 pm

        With Epiphany or Midori, you won’t get DRM, but webservers (and analytics software) will think that you are running Safari. So indirectly you’ll be supporting Apple, who are a huge proponent of DRM.

        • Andrés González Cantú on May 18, 2014 at 6:38 pm

          Dear hugo,

          I don’t care what web servers “think”, I care what I do.


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