outube Ditches Flash, and it Hardly Matters: Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss
Last week, Google announced that its Youtube service would default to using HTML5 video instead of Flash. Once upon a time, this would have been cause for celebration: after all, Flash is a proprietary technology owned by one company, a frequent source of critical vulnerabilities that expose hundreds of millions of Internet users to attacks on their computers and all that they protect, and Flash objects can only be reliably accessed via closed software, and not from free/open code that anyone can inspect.
A year ago, the largest video site on the net ditching Flash would have been a blow for Internet freedom. Today, it’s a bitter reminder of how the three big commercial browser vendors—Apple, Microsoft and Google—Netflix, the BBC, and the World Wide Web Consortium sold the whole Internet out.
In spring 2013, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) abandoned its long-term role as the guardian of the open Web, and threw its support at the highest level behind EME, an attempt to standardize Flash-style locks on browsers. They did this after the big three commercial browser companies revealed that they had engaged in closed-door meetings with Netflix to create back-doors in their browsers to lock users out of their own computers while streaming video. The W3C agreed to work to standardize browsers that treat their owners as untrusted adversaries and take steps to countermand user-actions (like saving videos).
By mid-May, the Mozilla Foundation announced that it, too, would support the project of designing browsers that don’t trust their users, stating that it feared that it would be shut out of Netflix videos if it didn’t play along, and that it believed that without Netflix, it would lose users to the commercial browser world.
Both the W3C and Mozilla made similar “pragmatic” arguments for taking this controversial and divisive step—one that disappointed their own staffers as much as their supporters. Fundamentally, their argument went: “We are the good guys, and we will become irrelevant if we don’t do this terrible thing, which will happen whether or not we play along. The Internet is a better place with us fighting for its users, even if we’re selling them out here.” In other words: “We have to destroy the village to save it.”
Which brings us back to Youtube. Now, you can access all of Youtube videos without having to use Adobe’s proprietary software, so long as your browser supports the W3C’s version of Adobe’s proprietary software. If you’re using Firefox, you can access all of Youtube’s videos without Flash, except that in some cases, you’ll need their version of the W3C-standardized “Encrypted Media Extension”—which requires that you use proprietary software. From Adobe.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.