How can we win the fight for the Web?

This paper launched the Decentralized Web Summit. It's signed by its author, Brewster Kahle, Tim Berners-Lee, and Vint Cerf.

On the 29th birthday of the World Wide Web, its father, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, posted a warning about its future.

Berners-Lee leads off with some exciting news: “This year marks a milestone in the web’s history: for the first time, we will cross the tipping point when more than half of the world’s population will be online.” Then poses two questions we need answers for:

  1. How do we get the other half of the world connected?
  2. Are we sure the rest of the world wants to connect to the web we have today?

He pledges the Web Foundation to fight to get everyone online, and “make sure the web works for people.”

The post (which also appears in The Guardian and Axios.com, and possibly elsewhere) is correct, as far as it goes, but a strategy to win the goals he’s looking for is lacking.

In this post, I want to focus on the latter goal. Of course, we want to get everyone on the planet online, but it will require a social movement to preserve the Web as something that works for people. Social movements aren’t easy to build.

Sir Tim explains the problem

There’s some really good stuff here (emphasis added):

The web that many connected to years ago is not what new users will find today. What was once a rich selection of blogs and websites has been compressed under the powerful weight of a few dominant platforms. This concentration of power creates a new set of gatekeepers, allowing a handful of platforms to control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.

These dominant platforms are able to lock in their position by creating barriers for competitors. They acquire startup challengers, buy up new innovations and hire the industry’s top talent. Add to this the competitive advantage that their user data gives them and we can expect the next 20 years to be far less innovative than the last.

What’s more, the fact that power is concentrated among so few companies has made it possible to weaponise the web at scale. In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data.

His solution is a bit hazier. “Let’s assemble the brightest minds from business, technology, government, civil society, the arts and academia to tackle the threats to the web’s future.”

Bright Minds Not Enough

Smart people will be needed to save the web, but a successful movement will need all kinds of people. Case in point: The 2016 Decentralized Web Summit. A bunch of brilliant people gathered at the Internet Archive for two days. Founders of the internet (including Berners-Lee) met with younger developers of the incipient decentralized web.

The first day had the founders of the internet offer a set of keynote addresses pointing the way forward, and describing what had gone wrong with their brainchildren in the last 25 years.

The second day focused on workshops where developers of different decentralized projects got to meet with each other and get a sense of what was coming. Some reporters attended to document the event, and some other people (including me) got very excited about the possibilities. You can read more about it here.

Two years later, and progress has been limited, though anger at the state of the internet rises. The danger of its domination by what Farhad Manjoo calls “the Frightful Five”: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google and Microsoft (occasionally joined by Twitter) is just one component of what’s been called the “techlash.”

Why has progress been so limited? I will argue that the value and benefits of the decentralized web have not been communicated to enough people. Many people have an uneasiness about a corporate-dominated online future but feel powerless to stop it. A vision of a solution and a plan to achieve the vision can relieve that feeling of powerlessness. That’s when we can change the internet for the better.

So how do we get there? Let’s start with some basic principles.

Principles for a pro-Web movement

pexels-photo-270404.jpegAs I write this, tens of thousands of young people in the United States walked out of some 3000 schools this morning at 10 AM to mark the one-month anniversary of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They presented concrete demands for changes in the law to prevent any more school shootings. They believe that when people act, politicians will move.

They have lessons to teach us, even for people who want to change something as ubiquitous — and obscure — as the internet. Some brief thoughts on what to do.

Focus

While there are plenty of organizations out there that seek to broadly change the world, sometimes you need a smaller, tighter group concentrated on one issue. The fight for the open, democratic, decentralized web should have such an organization or coalition of organizations.

Global Scope

earth-blue-planet-globe-planet-87651.jpegThe internet is a global network of networks, and the fight to preserve and extend it should be a World Wide Web. And not necessarily led by the usual suspects from the industrialized global North.

Action-Oriented

Opponents of the student walkout tried to pose an alternative, suggesting that instead of “walking out” of school as citizens in a democracy, people should “walk up” to a stranger;  try making more friends with unpopular kids who might grow up to be a shooter someday.  The two ideas aren’t exactly counterposed — citizens can still make more friends. The kids understood that politicians still play a role.

The fight to preserve net neutrality in the US (which, incidentally, involved a lot of young people) aimed to bring ordinary folk together. Anyone trying to preserve and extend the internet should also aim to involve and activate as many people as possible.

Bottom-Up Democracy

Involving people in a fight they don’t have a stake in is a recipe for failure. Sure, get those smart people into a room to discuss what may need to be done, but the folks who will take that campaign forward need to understand and buy into it. That isn’t a technological solution, it’s a participative activity.

Let’s move forward.

What do you think? How could you see getting involved in the fight for a better web? Is a meeting of “the best and the brightest” all we can do to preserve, democratize and extend the internet?  Are there other principles we need to win? Say your peace below.

 

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Mitchell Baker: Technology is Not Enough!

The panel discussion among Internet pioneers started innocently enough, with Vint Cerf and David Farber reminiscing about the early days of the Internet and the other titans of personal computing. Engrossing stuff, even if I knew most of it before.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the Internet Society hosted a panel last week called “The Internet Age: Founders to Future” last week. The panel featured Cerf, Farber, Mitchell Baker of Mozilla, and Sebastian Thrum of Udacity.

Resolving the Digital Divide

When the discussion turned to the future, though, things got a little testy. Farber and Cerf were talking about how about the global digital divide is being bridged by the increasing use of mobile phones in the underdeveloped world. This is a common meme among Internet optimists.

Česky: Mitchell Baker na OSCON 2005. Deutsch: ...
Mitchell Baker at OSCON 2005, with the same kind of look she had at the Smithsonian last week. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

If you watch the recording (below, at about 57 minutes), you’ll notice Baker start to fidget in her chair when this came up. If this were a grade school classroom, she’d probably start raising her hand in the air for recognition. Something is missing in this narrative.

http://livestream.com/accounts/686369/events/4119762/player?width=560&height=315&autoPlay=true&mute=false

“I don’t think technology’s enough,” Mitchell said. “It’s so comfortable to say ‘We have mobile phones, so the digital divide is just going away on its own. The bottom of the pyramid, the two billion people who are starving  will magically be able to get phones and access and a data plan – everything is going to open up.’”

Mitchell argued that progress in technology has a “positive direction,” but tech alone will not resolve every human problem. “It will continue to be an act of will of nation-states and individuals to assist in (fixing) not just the digital divide but the starvation divide. Just having a cheap phone is not going to fix that!”

Cerf said that Mitchell had a legitimate point, but noted that poor people have used smartphones as a way of transferring value. Making electronic payments through phones allow people to avoid some of the corruption involved with cash payments. “Don’t blame starvation on the Internet.”

Vint Cerf, North American computer scientist w...
Vint Cerf, North American computer scientist who is commonly referred to as one of the “founding fathers of the Internet” for his key technical and managerial role, together with Bob Kahn, in the creation of the Internet and the TCP/IP protocols which it uses. Taken at a conference in Bangalore. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Mitchell said that “Human beings still have to care and make some effort with our policies and our wealth distribution and social stigmas in order to address the divides.“ A rising tide may lift all boats, but you may still have “haves and have-nots.”

Tech as tool for democracy

Farber said the Internet can function as an important tool for making change. “Without technology, the little people are separated. … We provide the vehicle for people to get together.” Thrum had raised a similar point earlier, citing the 2011 Egyptian uprising and the Arab Spring as the prime example of the Net as a democratic tool.

Let me interject here: Egypt represents another common analogy when talking about the connection between the Internet and activism, but fails to note a key fact. While Hosni Mubarak is not president of Egypt anymore, the military was really the power in Egypt at the beginning of the decade, and has returned to power now. Far too many of the youthful revolutionaries of Tahrir Square are either quiet, in jail, or in exile.

Women on Tech Panels For the Win?

Now I don’t want to suggest that Cerf (who helped create TCP/IP), Farber (an originator of academic use of the Net) or Thrum are the bad guys here, but this discussion doesn’t happen without Mitchell Baker. She may not have the “founder of the Internet” credentials of the others, but she may have a better sense of the real social value of the Internet and associated technologies.

It’s easy to view the mass adoption of the Internet and the changes that personal computing have made with a sense of triumphalism. It’s truly been amazing! Just the same, Mitchell had it right — technology by itself just doesn’t cut it. People have to be empowered for the world to change. As I’ve said before, Democracy is not a spectator sport.

Bringing a different set of (non-engineering) life experiences, and being involved in one of the bigger open source projects, Baker forced the founders to think about the role of human beings in building democracy. Putting the whole Internet (not just the sites Mark Zuckerberg approves of) on cheap cell phones is important, but the Internet is just a tool for people to expand and exercise their power.

Happy Net Neutrality Day!

People of the Internet, Rejoice!

People of the Internet, Rejoice!

It’s an important day in the history of the Internet. Despite enormous pressure from the Big Media corporations, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) bowed to the democratic pressure of millions of Internet users. These users demanded strong protections against “slow lanes” for their network connections, and to preserve equal protection for all content traveling across the public Internet.

I’ve written about this before, most recently just after President Barack Obama came out for “the strongest possible protection for net neutrality.” If you’re confused by this whole thing, I hope that piece will help clarify things for you.

Net Neutrality: 3 corporations vs every other personSpeaking of confusing, some of the arguments made today against the plan were … interesting. For months, Republican legislators have been denouncing a plan to change the way Internet domain names are allocated around the world as “Obama’s plan to give away the Internet.” Did you notice how today, some opponents of strong net neutrality rules called this “Obama’s secret plan to control the Internet.”

A Couple of Thoughts on the Meeting

It’s worth spending some time watching the FCC meeting video. The FCC’s two opponents of strong net neutrality spent much of their debate time defending assorted companies that would be hurt by these rules. They also suggested that the public had not been heard on the matter. It was almost a breathtaking attempt to pretend that the 4 million responses to the original (far less neutral) rule presented last May didn’t exist.

That said, I agree with two things Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly said. There should have been more public hearings where ordinary people could speak to the commissioners directly. Like other advocates for net neutrality, I’m pretty confident we would have won that battle too.

I also don’t exactly see why Commission chair Tom Wheeler couldn’t have released the new proposal a few days ago. It’s a new era; people expect transparency. And there’s no doubt few minds would have changed in the process.

Time to Celebrate

I loved this tweet from Anil Dash:

One year ago, every person I know who understands the FCC or internet policy considered net neutrality dead. But the people were heard.

https://twitter.com/anildash/status/571007947498774528

It’s the truth. A salute to the organizations that even opponents conceded had led the fight:

Folks I’m probably forgetting too.

Ain’t Over Yet, Though

Corporations just don’t lie down when they’ve been defeated. We still have the best Congress money can buy. Courts too. As the founders used to say, “The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.” So connect with the groups above, and we’ll win more victories!

Digital Democracy is Not a Spectator Sport

Been reading a lot lately on one of my favorite topics: How to realize the democratic promise of the Internet.

You have to do more than vote periodically to call yourself a citizen. Especially true when it comes to the Internet, where no one really votes to decide on the critical issues.

That’s why the impending US Federal Communications Commission vote on net neutrality is so important — because we all had a role in moving the bureaucrats toward the right answer.

That’s not what I’m on about today, though. There’s a convergence of coincidences to tell you about.

Consent of the Networked

Sunday, I finished Consent of the Networked, Rebecca MacKinnon’s book from 2012 (and an update for the 2013 paperback edition) about the “worldwide struggle for Internet freedom.” MacKinnon is a former CNN correspondent in China that now manages Global Voices Online. This is a good, if occasionally dated, outline of the various battlegrounds facing human right activists when taking their struggles online.

centre
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As is typical of these types of books, it closes out with a manifesto intended to describe the perfect online world. These are usually quite inspiring, but lacking in ways of getting from here to there. While I don’t agree with everything MacKinnon wrote in these pages, she does indeed realize that without a social movement, we won’t ever get her manifesto realized, or anyone else’s vision. Democracy isn’t a spectator sport.

(Something else I’m not on about today, but might be some other time: In a perfect world, the global Internet might be rightfully managed by a global organization that might have a name like the International Telecommunications Union. MacKinnon persuades me that in this world, that’s a really bad idea.)

MacKinnon proves her commitment to this principle (of action) by maintaining the book’s website consentofthenetworked.com, years after its publication. She blogs actively there, but more importantly she maintains a directory of digital democracy activist organizations on the Get Involved! tab of the site. I know it’s real and current because some of the listed organizations weren’t born yet when the paperback came out.

Building a Bottom-Up Internet Movement

Monday, I was going to begin working my way through the list to find places for information and the best places to channel my own energies, but then this piece on Medium showed up in my news feed. It’s called “Building an Internet Movement from the Bottom Up” by Tim Karr, one of the leaders of Free Press. Fabulous essay, with a couple of very important reminders:

It’s a fight not playing out between smartphone packing protesters and security forces, but among the Internet governance community — a globe-trotting tribe of non-governmental organizations (NGOs), international agencies, world leaders and corporate CEOs.

For as long as the World Wide Web has existed these groups have debated its control and administration. What rules should govern a network that transcends national boundaries to connect people everywhere?

It’s a discussion — replete with international agency acronyms and jargon (“multistakeholderism” anyone?) — that leaves the rest of us scratching our heads.

and there’s a new coalition of civil society organizations:

The coalition is organized on the belief that the Internet must evolve in the public interest with the full participation of the billions of Internet users who aren’t in the mix at Davos.

It plans to build a global network of grassroots groups that can better organize and amplify the concerns of those people often on the wrong side of the digital divide. The group plans also to convene the first Internet Social Forum later this year.

And hey, there’s going to be another manifesto developed! But not just out of a single mind, this will be (theoretically) the result of a crowdsourced process over the coming months. With a global coalition of organizations that (theoretically) will commit to realizing it.

I hope there’s some way for folks like me to get involved in this process, though. Seems focused (for now) on organizations.

Will follow this process closely. Let’s make it work!

Telecom companies step up pressure on FCC members

The president has declared himself for the “strongest possible form” of net neutrality rules, drawing rule making authority on Title II of the Communications Act. In response, the telecom companies have stepped up the pressure to keep their ability to create “fast lanes” for well-heeled content providers.

net neutrality world logo
net neutrality world logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Federal Communications Commission is a bipartisan affair. Two Republicans, two Democrats, and the chair who usually represents the president’s party (but for the last several years has also represented the communications industry in one fashion or another). In today’s Washington, you’ll not be surprised to learn that the current Republican members think Chairman Tom Wheeler’s first fast-lane proposal didn’t go far enough in removing restrictions on whatever the telecom companies want to do.

Until very recently, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has been the most forthright about defending the strongest possible form of net neutrality. Very recently, however, she offered a less explicit defense of net neutrality during a Reddit Ask Me Anything session:

I support a free and open Internet because I want to preserve the openness and innovation that has occurred. I am focused on the consumer and the consumer experience. I want to know what attributes are necessary to keep the Internet free and open. I want to know whether the rules the FCC adopted in 2010, which banned blocking and unreasonable discrimination were the right approach.

Interestingly enough, the Washington Post reported on November 18 that Rev. Jesse Jackson and other traditional civil rights leaders visited the FCC to lobby against Title II regulation. The Post story cites a statement from the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council that buys into the telecom company arguments that “Section 706 regulation would achieve all of the goals of Title II reclassification, but would do so in a way that avoids the uncertainty of forbearance proceedings and without creating disincentives to infrastructure investment. Less investment would translate into less deployment, fewer jobs for our communities, and fewer service options to boost broadband adoption and close the digital divide.”

What the MMTC statement and Clyburn’s AMA comments don’t discuss is that Verizon won its lawsuit against the FCC’s 2010 rules precisely because they relied on Section 706 of the Communications Act, and not Title II. They suggest that telecom companies will stop investing in infrastructure if net neutrality is enforced, yet these companies haven’t exactly been bowling the country over with investment in low-cost, high-speed access.

It’s a shame that advocates for the poor are apparently bowing to the deep pockets that write off contributions to nonprofit organizations, but are not interested in investing in the infrastructure that meet people’s needs. Commissioner Clyburn should get back on the road to real net neutrality.

As always, I apologize for the wonkiness of my net neutrality posts. Check out Why Net Neutrality Matters to Writers for a broader description of these issues.