Finding a DRM-free replacement for Firefox

Off the Beat: Bruce Byfield's Blog

May 30, 2014 GMT
Bruce Byfield

By now, you may have read Mozilla's reluctant decision to ship with the ability to support Encrypted Media Extensions (EME) in Firefox. You may have read, too, the Free Software Foundation's condemnation of Mozilla's decision. Consequently, you may be starting to look for a DRM-free replacement for Firefox.

Mozilla's announcement seems to have caught many projects off-guard. However, here are five leading alternatives:

Seamonkey bundles a web browser, mail reader, HTML editor and chat application all into one. The project has close ties to Mozilla, and its browser is based upon a relatively recent version of Firefox.

Seamonkey did not reply to my request for comment, but its connections to Mozilla make it seem likely that the project will follow Firefox's lead. However, I could be wrong, so wait and see.

The Debian version of Firefox, Iceweasel is identical to Firefox, except that all Mozilla branding has been removed. As often happens in Debian, stable versions usually a release or two behind

Debian has not released a policy statement, but what to do with Iceweasel has been discussed on the project's mailing lists. Opinions vary between outlawing DRM and leaving the choice up to users.

If Debian's take on a non-proprietary kernel is any guide -- and it may not be -- then Iceweasel is likely to be shipped without DRM installed, but with the possibility available for those who want it.

Keep an eye on what Debian is doing, then decide if you want to try the package or source code on other Debian-based distributions, or using alien to convert the package to other formats.

Pale Moon
Pale Moon is a small project that releases an optimized version of Firefox. Its home page claims increased stability and smaller memory requirements. In addition, it has more customization and configuration options than Firefox. The layout is different from Firefox, but not so much that most users should have trouble adjusting.

Moonchild, the lead developer, describes DRM as "punishing the people who play by the book." He goes on to say, "Ive decided not to implement DRM in Pale Moon, EME or Adobe black box or otherwise, since it requires the inclusion of closed-source components that you're not even allowed to *look* at. All in all,it goes straight against the premise of FOSS."

The major limitation is a non-standard license ( that requires permission for distribution and places limitations on how the code can be redistributed. None of these limitations are onerous from a user's perspective, but whether the Free Software Foundation or Open Source Initiative would accept the license as free seems doubtful.

Once called Epiphany, Web is the default GNOME browser. It was originally based on Firefox, but now the resemblance between the two is slight. In particular, like many GNOME applications, Web has a much simpler menu selection, although core functionality is about the same.

While Web's development team has said nothing about its plans, the fact it is part of GNOME means that the browser is unlikely to ship DRM. Similarly, although Web requires GNOME, you may already have GNOME installed or be able to install it using packages.

To my subjective eye, Web looks faster and more streamlined than Firefox, but it has diverged enough from Firefox that it may not be an ideal replacement for many users.

GNU IceCat
GNU IceCat is the Free Software Foundation's version of Firefox. It removes all proprietary elements from the software, as well as maintaining its own list of free-licensed plugins and language packs.

Asked about IceCat and DRM, John Sullivan, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, replied, "GNU IceCat has a long-standing policy of never encouraging users to install nonfree software. It respects their desire to use only free software, without constant nagging to install proprietary plugins. It did not direct users to install the fading Adobe Flash, and it will not direct users to install Adobe's latest attempt at repackaging old wine in new bottles."

Some users may hesitate because IceCat requires them to compile and install for themselves, or because IceCat is several versions behind Firefox (no doubt because removing proprietary elements takes time). Otherwise, though, this is an obvious choice for those who feel strongly about the issue.

The GNU Project also develops GNUzilla, a suite based on Seamonkey

Making a choice
As I write, none of these choices are ideal. The position of some are questionable or unannounced, although they may become possible replacements before Firefox implements DRM support. Still, short of a campaign to persuade Mozilla to change its mind, these are the leading candidates for those who do not want to use Firefox, but still want a Firefox-like experience.

Right now, the least disruptive choice is IceCat -- and possibly Pale Moon, depending on what you think about its license. Both not only have a DRM-free policy, but both also allow you to continue using the Firefox interface. But if you're feeling more adventuresome,  this might be the time to give Web a try, especially if you already have GNOME installed.

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