As representatives of Comcast, Netflix and Microsoft meet to discuss the future of the web, an angry crowd is forming outside.
Protesters in front of the Microsoft building. Photo: Kori Feener
As a winter storm bears down on Cambridge, a hundred or so protesters have congregated outside MIT's Ray and Maria Stata Center with handlettered signs that read "Stop DRM" and "DRM is bad for education." But a disagreement has broken out: A splinter group, wearing Guy Fawkes masks, want to march upstairs to confront the members of the World Wide Web Consortium, the organization that recommends standards for the software that runs the internet.
Heated words are exchanged, but then someone appeals to a higher authority: Richard Stallman, the storied programmer, who's attending tonight's protest with an overstuffed laptop bag in hand.
"I think they know about us," Stallman says, in a rumbling voice. "I think they're all aware of the protest and they're all thinking about it. I think they'll see us if we're out there, through that window."
Tonight's demonstration—which ends up proceeding as planned, thanks to Stallman's input, past the Google and Microsoft buildings in Cambridge and on to the MIT Media Lab—is a noisy response to the possibility that the Consortium will soon make a controversial recommendation to let the HTML5 video specification play files that are protected by Digital Rights Management software, better known by the acronym DRM. DRM restricts access to content in various ways; on a streaming video service like Netflix, for example, it might block efforts to download a movie onto your computer.
DRM is anathema to the free software crowd, like Stallman, who feel that proprietary software that restricts users' rights has no place among the open, interoperable standards that make the web tick. More generally, perhaps, the protesters seem concerned that the democratizing potential of the web is under assault by sinister corporate forces.
The protest was organized by Zak Rogoff, a campaigns manager at the Free Software Foundation, an organization that Stallman founded in the mid-1980s. It's the biggest demonstration, he believes, that's ever assembled against the Consortium.
"We have to build a culture of resistance against DRM, and that means winning over these institutions," Rogoff said. "It affects everybody's freedom, in the long term, to have a free and open web."
Once the protest reached the Media Lab, Stallman sat on a panel with Media Lab director Joi Ito and Danny O'Brien, the international director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Rogoff said that he invited Consortium members who are in favor of the DRM support to join the panel, but that he was disappointed when none showed up.
"I'd be curious to know the actual cost of turning off DRM," Ito said during the panel. "As a standards body, there's so much commercial pressure to do the wrong thing."
A number of Consortium-affiliated individuals did attend the protest, though, in order to express their opposition to the proposed recommendation. One of them was O'Brien, whose employer, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is a Consortium member organization that helped block DRM support in HTML5 video the first time it was introduced, back in 2013.
"Richard Stallman just pointed out that Windows users probably won't understand that chant."
"I was just on the fourth floor of the building we were just in, where I was drinking nice glasses of red wine with the representatives of Comcast, MovieLabs, and Netflix," O'Brien said, speaking through a bullhorn. "And it was great to be able to stop the discussion we were having, and to say that I had to go talk to the dozens and dozens of people down there who disagree with everything they're saying."
As the protesters bear down on the Microsoft building, they launch into a chant that riffs on the UNIX command to delete a file: "RM DRM! RM DRM!"
Suddenly, Stallman strides to the front of the marching column to confer with Rogoff.
"Richard Stallman just pointed out that Windows users probably won't understand that chant," Rogoff says, his voice distorted by the the bullhorn.
In response, the crowd shifts to a new refrain: "The web, united, will never be defeated!"