Earlier this week, Dria wrote about some ideas for articulating the Open Web. It’s important because
- it’s important, and
- we (meaning the Mozilla project) need to articulate what sets us apart from other browser producers.
Let’s first assume one hurdle: the difference between the Internet and the Web. I wonder how many people outside the industry understand that? (I even wonder how many people in the tech sector do not.) But let’s put that problem aside, and assume for a moment that net neutrality is a given, and not in grave danger.
We want rather to be able to articulate the importance of technology choices such as a preference for webm and Ogg Theora over the H.264 codec. Mozilla (and, let’s remember, others) make these choices for a very clear set of reasons. At least, they are clear to us.
While I like the commentator Tiago Sá’s comment about Firefox being fundamentally participatory, and that a small number of users who have internalised the proposition of the open web is preferable to a large number of users who haven’t, for me, whether or not an individual Firefox user cares is moot. I think part of Firefox’s success and impact in the market was that you didn’t have to care about what it stood for to love it. But of course, the more people who do understand, the better.
But what concerns me more is that within the industry, in my perception, the level of understanding of Mozilla could be better. We need to be loud and unambiguous about why an Open Web matters. We have to articulate why the ability for anyone to pick up a set of tools and go and build on the web without being beholden to anybody else is important, what that means for both the capabilities of the tools the have, but even more importantly, the terms (yes, the licensing) by which they can do that. And then, we need to articulate what the societal impact is – and there are in fact several: economic, social, cultural and so forth. And that, in the parlance of our times, is a non-trivial task.
It’s already genuinely difficult to remember life before the Web. I say Web, and not Internet, because Web is how almost all of us first experienced the incredible power of the Internet to connect people and ideas in ways we had not envisaged before. Sure, I used email first, and yes, it was amazing, but it did not open up the world, it merely made it more efficient.
The Web’s virtue isn’t contingent upon the specific technologies that make it, another set of technologies with the same properties and freedoms would do the job, but if we didn’t have the Web, we’d have to invent it.
Dria sets out of set of possible and useful analogies for explaining the web as a public resource. Some of them are very good, some might suffer slightly from some culture-specificity (e.g. volunteering in a public library), and she starts to address the point of the web as a public good. One analogy I especially like is considering the public road network. The road network is something that is almost entirely subject to public provision and regulation (let’s not shy away from it), and the cars that drive on it – although subject to stringent regulation – are privately provided and serve primarily private objectives. Now, imagine for a moment a road network which was run on a commercial basis, where the main interests represented were the car manufacturers. Unless you’re an Ayn Rand acolyte (and maybe even then) it’s a much bleaker picture.
But let’s also try another tack – I am not in all cases a fan of argument by analogy (to refute argument by analogy with an analogy, one often ends up comparing apples and pairs), so I first want to think a little harder about what’s important – what this public good is, how it manifests itself, and how it exists at all.
Software is both machine and information. It’s a tool composed of intricately expressed ideas. In this way it is quite similar to mathematics, language or a theoretical science. Private ownership, or perhaps better expressed, any form of public exclusion, is clearly negative outcome for the world, to say absurd in many cases (although the distinction between applied science and invention is a blurry one).
So, as I say, I’m still thinking, and maybe you are too. But my definition of the Open Web would comprise two parts:
- what is important about the web: not the intrinsic qualities of the technology, but the incidental ones, i.e. the behaviour it facilitates
- what are the specific qualities of the technology that engender this (both capabilities and licensing, in combination with the previously-assumed net neutrality)
With these, I think our analogies will butter a few more parsnips.