Still thinking about the Open Web

Earlier this week, Dria wrote about some ideas for articulating the Open Web.  It’s important because

  1. it’s important, and
  2. 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:

  1. what is important about the web: not the intrinsic qualities of the technology, but the incidental ones, i.e. the behaviour it facilitates
  2. 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.

2 thoughts on “Still thinking about the Open Web

  1. A few weeks ago, I have written an article about the meaning of an open Web. which I summarize with

    The open web will continue to exist as long as people can create their own Web site. This implies a lot of things.

    * Open technologies (free to use and implement)

    * Hosting areas where you can decide to put your server

    * The right to get a domain name (very important, because this is the right to create URIs (aka words) in a Web context)

    And maybe the most difficult of it which led in part to creation of walled gardens : the safe space. How many of you are still managing their own mail server and web server (I do). These days spammers create around 25 Mo of logs by day (talking about 25 Mo of relay denied instructions) on my server. SpamAssassin catches a part of it but not everything. Many people decide to switch to a security “walled garden” such as gmail, yahoo mail or hotmail for avoiding the hassle of managing the server, even geeks. And this is an issue.

    If your servers become vulnerable in a way that your only solution is to be inside a walled garden for your apps, your mails, your expressions, then we lost. Distributed security systems are very hard. More and more we are forced to create strategies of whitelist only systems. Tough for being open.

    Basically, the danger of the death of the open Web is in the burden of managing your independance.

  2. As far as an analogy goes, I think that the most apt and safest (regarding the danger of analogies you mentioned) is that of the off-line world itself. I say this for the following reasons:

    View source:
    In the real world, you can always take things apart and play with them to figure out how they work, copy, improve, or, perhaps most importantly, fix them. You don’t need anyone’s permission to do that off-line and you shouldn’t on-line either.

    In the real world, you don’t need anything other than to walk into city hall to engage in all sorts of civic activities. (As an illustration of this, look around next time you have to go to city hall or the DMV and notice the wide cross-section of the population you see there.) With more and more government activities now available on-line, use of open standards is more important than ever. No one should be excluded from civic interactions due to a lack of a particular plug-in or the like.

    Social Networking:
    In the real world, you can have friends regardless of whether or not you patronize a particular company or organization. If you do choose to (for example, join a club), that doesn’t exclude you from having friends from other groups (or from no group at all) or from those disparate groups of friends from interacting with each other. Also important, you can choose exactly how much personal information to share with every single individual with infinitely fine-grained control.

    As you may have noticed from my illustrations, the way I see it, we don’t need to find a good analogy for the web at all. The web IS the analogy. The web is a perfect analogy for our lives in nearly every sense and all of the principles that guide freedom and inclusiveness and participation off-line, should be included in the very core of the web, resulting in the open web. Case in point, there is only one item in Dria’s list of public resources that does not have some presence on the web today. Of course, the exception is roads, which are irrelevant on the web.

    A key difference, perhaps, is that the open web has such a low barrier to entry that it has even more potential than the real world to allow equalization between the voice, power, freedom of the haves and the have-nots that Dria mentioned. This is why I so strongly support and advocate Mozilla and its mission: as a non-profit, it is in a unique position to advocate for and contribute to the open web in an unbiased manner and without any possibility of ulterior motives.

    So, to me, the message is this: The web is yours, it is your life, it is you. It’s too important to let a handful of companies take control of it from you. Preserve your freedom!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s