Tim Berners-Lee: Let’s Merge eBook, Web Trade Groups to Make Spying on Readers Easier

Sir_Tim_Berners-LeeThere’s a story going around for the past couple weeks about the IDPF and the W3C, and a proposed merger between the two groups. One manages web standards, and the other is responsible for screwing up ebook standards like Epub3. Since one is a closely related subset of the other, someone had the bright idea that the two groups should consider merging.

If you ask me, this will come off about as well as the PennCentral, but not everyone is as realistic.

Tim Berners-Lee was quoted in Book Business Magazine yesterday , and he discussed a few of the benefits he saw in the potential merger. I sincerely hope that his words are taken out of context or misquoted, because they are a mix of the ignorant and the abhorrent.

To start with, someone doesn’t understand that the real problem with ebooks is DRM (something the IDPF does not address), and not ebook standards.

Permanence. In a world of where ebook and web technology converge, ebooks will no longer disappear when new devices and formats emerge. They will live on because they are written in what Berners-Lee described as “the simplest coding language,” HTML 5. This is the foundation on which all web content is built, and Berners-Lee anticipates it will soon be the coding language on which all digital content is created.

DRM is why ebooks vanish, not minor technical issues like format compatibility. We know how to break open just about any ebook format and turn it into another; in most cases calibre can even do it for you.

But there’s a stumbling block which stops us from converting ebooks, and that is the DMCA. It is illegal to strip DRM, and that is the real problem – again, a problem which the IDPF can’t address.

And sadly, with the W3C willing to consider screwing up the web by making DRM a core element of web standards, I don’t think they’re either able to see or admit that DRM is the enemy, not formats.

Seamless. Because ebook content of the future will be created in HTML 5, it will seamlessly transition across different platforms as well as different content types. “Even though it creates some trouble [to make content interoperable], the trouble is worth it,” said Berners-Lee.

Again, the problem isn’t format; ebooks have been standardized on one form or another of HTML/XHTML/XML since the turn of the millennium.

Edit: And just so we’re on the same page, DRM is not a problem which the IDPF can address. It’s outside their control, so when Berners-Lee discusses how a merger can fix problems caused by DRM he demonstrates that he doesn’t know what he is talking about.

The one thing stopping us from seamlessly transitioning content across different platforms is DRM, not format.

But I have serious doubts that Berners-Lee grasps that problem, because the article implies that he is for more DRM, not less.

Only now they’re calling it tracking, rather than what it really is: spying.

Trackable. Along with interlinking, content should be trackable, said Berners-Lee. Publishers must have the ability to understand how books are being read and shared. “We should live in a world of linked data,” he said.

This is spying, yes, but the other problem is that any platform capable of this level of tracking is only half a step away from denying you access to the content when the tracking data isn’t being sent, or simply on a publisher’s whim.

Yes, I am going a step beyond what he said, but my extrapolation is an example of why we should fight that type of thinking. If publishers are allowed to go down that road, users will get screwed. We have already seen that situation crop up with video and apps, so it’s not like it’s a stretch of the imagination.

Folks, I think we should give Berners-Lee the benefit of the doubt and assume that his statements are somehow garbled or miscommunicated, because if this is really what he really thinks then we have someone who could actually screw things up worse than the IDPF.

I did not think that was possible.

image by Paul Clarke, via WikimediaCommons

Nate Hoffelder

View posts by Nate Hoffelder
Nate Hoffelder is the founder and editor of The Digital Reader. He has been blogging about indie authors since 2010 while learning new tech skills weekly. He fixes author sites, and shares what he learns on The Digital Reader's blog. In his spare time, he fosters dogs for A Forever Home, a local rescue group.


  1. Barry12 May, 2016

    While I certainly agree that DRM is a larger problem than formatting it isn’t the only problem. He seems to be focusing on the formatting issue and I have no issue with that.

    I’d love to see DRM go away but I think we both know that’s not going to happen right now and when it does happen I want it to happen because the publishers and sellers see that it does more harm than good. If removing DRM is forced on them they’ll simply make a lot of books unavailable digitally and our selection will be reduced.

    Since we can’t do anything about DRM at the moment, at least as a society, let’s go ahead and deal with other problems.

    I have no idea if what Berners-Lee proposes is a good idea or not. If you had focused your article on discussing that I might know more about it.

    And if we are going to solve the big problems first, let’s wait till we eliminate disease and hunger and war before we tackle DRM. 🙂


  2. Bill Rosenblatt12 May, 2016


    Um…. no. This has nothing whatsoever to do with DRM.

    EPUB is a format. There is no DRM in EPUB. If you are thinking of EPUB LCP, that’s not part of any IDPF standard. EPUB LCP was designed in such a way as to not include or impose DRM on EPUB. It is meant to integrate with the Readium body of open source e-reader code — which is capable of integrating with other DRMs through a plug-in architecture. EPUB LCP is not administered by IDPF; it’s not even administered by the Readium Foundation, which isn’t IDPF either. And there are of course other DRMs for EPUB (like Apple’s FairPlay for iBooks), which equally have nothing to do with the IDPF.

    If you insist on seeing DRM ghosts in the W3C, go look at HTML5 EME and CENC, which were ratified a couple of years ago; now *that’s* DRM.

    Oh, and spying on users is not about DRM either. It’s perfectly possible to spy on users without using anything like DRM; just ask Google.

    1. Nate Hoffelder13 May, 2016

      Except this is about DRM, Bill. The problems Berners-Lee mentions are caused by DRM, and not format compatibility or any other issue that the IDPF addresses.

      I know there’s no DRM in Epub spec, you know that, and so do most of the readers of this blog. But Berners-Lee’s statements demonstrate an ignorance of the topic, and that was worth a blog post.

      1. Bill Rosenblatt13 May, 2016

        Again, no.

        The problems that Tim Berners-Lee mentions are caused by many things, DRM being one of them, “format [in]compatibility” being another. See https://copyrightandtechnology.com/2009/11/12/good-old-fashioned-incompatibility/. There’s no particular reason for you to call out DRM. Finally, I would hesitate … for a very long time … before I would dare to call Sir Tim Berners-Lee “ignorant” of anything.

        By the way, I have some understanding of why IDPF is interested in becoming part of W3C. I can tell you that it has nothing whatsoever to do with DRM, but I’d rather leave it to Bill McCoy or Ivan Herman or some other person in an official capacity to discuss publicly; I’ll just offer that I think it’s a good move for IDPF and will help it achieve some of the goals that it wants to achieve.

        Finally, you shouldn’t assume that your readers, with all due respect to them, understand these things about EPUB LCP. Some of them don’t, as I know from reading their comments.

        1. bowerbird16 May, 2016

          my guess is that the big players
          in corporate publishing industry
          no longer care to pay to support
          the i.d.p.f., and are looking for
          someone else to cough up funds.

  3. Mike13 May, 2016

    I don’t agree – no that I am an advocate of DRM – but the problem is that by requiring special software/hardware e-readers, it is impossible to maintain a standard.
    Get documents out of e-readers into the browser.

    1. Bill Rosenblatt13 May, 2016

      Yeah. I suspect that this is what Sir Tim had in mind.

      1. Hayden13 May, 2016

        And with ‘spying’ it is already very easy to record all sorts of data happening when someone visits a webpage. Cookies are very easy to implement and can store a lot of information. With session variables and ajax just about anything can be recorded.Everything a user (subscriber) does can be recorded.

        I am sure that this website will have some sort of analytics package attached to it, giving Nate all sorts of valuable information.

        Amazon has a lot of this data on all of its customers on their websites but apparently, it does not share any of it to publishers. They would love to get their hands on this information

  4. Mike13 May, 2016

    And this is exactly what I have been working on.
    I have published several different types of prototypes using WordPress and now I am developing a WordPress plugin so anyone can do his.

  5. Bill Rosenblatt14 May, 2016

    FYI, Peter Brantley, at a stroke, explains both what Sir Tim had in mind and what IDPF hopes to accomplish as part of W3C: https://medium.com/@naypinya/books-in-a-browser-375df76207ce#.lqs59n1p1.

    1. bowerbird16 May, 2016

      biggest thing in 500 years!
      gutenberg gets pwned!

  6. bowerbird17 May, 2016

    dave cramer just called this article
    “trolling and fear-mongering”, and
    said it “doesn’t merit a response.”

    i liked his earlier funny work better.


    1. Nate Hoffelder17 May, 2016

      Well, I was going for bombastic over substantive, so …

      1. bowerbird17 May, 2016

        so are you saying you _are_ trolling?

        and fear-mongering?

        and that you are unconcerned with
        the issues of d.r.m. and tracking,
        and that they “merit no response”?

        1. Nate Hoffelder17 May, 2016

          No, I was effing pissed that his proposal for _more_ tracking got so little push back. So I highlighted the most inflammatory point.

          1. bowerbird18 May, 2016

            and yet dave maintained that
            this did not merit a response.

            then added some ad hominem.

            i don’t expect that from him…

            i guess he was having a bad day.
            happens to the best of us, right?


            p.s. anti-circumvention scares the
            living _crap_ out of me. seriously.

  7. […] there have been some objections from Nate Hoffelder who missed the topic DRM and sees the risk of spying on customers with web […]


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