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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Decentralized Web Pt 3: Join the IndieWeb

Back in May, when I relaunched Notes from the Metaverse, I told you that this blog would now focus on three important areas related to the Open Web:

  • Software tools that empower
  • Defending net neutrality and universal access to the Internet
  • For an open, decentralized web

I wanted to explain the concept of a decentralized web in a little more depth, and started out strong with a pair of posts. Between the normal summer activities, and a few other intervening projects, I’ve been slow in producing the remaining explainers. I’m fixing that now.


If you need a refresher, here are the first two posts:



The IndieWeb: Your Place for Your Content

indiewebcampIn recent months, I’ve been learning a lot about the “IndieWeb,” an idea spread by folks who understand that the Web offers a unique platform where ordinary people without the financial clout of the 20th century publishing industry could still potentially reach millions with their ideas.

Starting with early sites like GeoCities, Tripod and AngelFire, anyone could create a “home page” on the web, and pontificate on whatever came to mind. When these services went bust in the dot-bomb era at the turn of the century, “Web 2.0” fostered the creation of personal blogs and the systems (like WordPress) that managed them.

Today, far too many of us who want to use the internet to communicate with friends, family and total strangers do so in “walled gardens” like Facebook. Services that treat its users as products to sell to advertisers. As I’ve mentioned before, Farhad Manjoo of The New York Times calls them the Frightful Five: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft and Apple.

IndieWeb is all about you controlling your content, connecting with people you want to connect with, with nobody using your stuff to get others to sell you things you may not want.

Why You Should Be Part of the IndieWeb

I’ve been saying and writing this for years: You need to own your ideas, and how you express them. Especially true for writers, but really true for everyone who wants to communicate on the internet. This idea is at the core of IndieWeb organization.Protecting privacy and anonymity online

But to be honest, I’m not sure I can tell you why — and how — to join up any better than Chris Aldrich did in this piece originally on AltPlatform. So just go over there now.

What Does the IndieWeb Have to do with a Decentralized Web?

The IndieWeb is a bridge to the decentralized web we really need. Think of it as a way to get used to the idea that the Web should belong to you. Over time, perhaps you’ll break with being dependent on corporations to communicate. You’ll still be able to connect with all these other services and the people on them, but still have access to everything you contribute. Even if that service goes bust, or makes insufficient profits for its parent company, your stuff remains in your hands (or at least your hard drive).

The decentralized web needs different software, and different ways to connect up. It may take time, but the more people who stake out a homestead on the IndieWeb, the closer we’ll get to the real deal.

Coming soon: An Update on the Decentralized Web

A few weeks ago, the MIT Media Lab released a report on the state of the Decentralized Web, one year after the original Decentralized Web Summit. I’m reading this report now, and will comment on it in the next post.

Also coming soon, my redesigned, IndieWeb-ified website at MichaelMcCallister.com.

Are you on the IndieWeb yet? What problems do you anticipate if you decide to go indie? Is the IndieWeb (or the blogosphere) actually better than Facebook for virtual communities? Comments always appreciated.

 

Ten Years On: Mozilla, Firefox and the Developer Edition

English: This is a icon for Firefox Web Browser.
Firefox Web Browser. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A decade ago, the Mozilla project was in something of a crisis. The once-dominant browser (a direct descendant of Mosaic, the first graphical browser) had long ago been surpassed in usage by Microsoft Internet Explorer, in part the result of Microsoft’s leveraging its dominant operating system to recapture the Internet.

Mozilla was born when Netscape Communicator‘s code opened up to the global developer community, the first piece of “household name” software to go from proprietary to open source code. But the simple browser had become a full-blown suite of communication tools — Email, chat, even a web development environment. All of these tools loaded at once, clogging up computer memory (slowing down computers) and chewing up dial-up bandwidth (slowing down the web). Mozilla needed a strategy to keep the project from spiraling into oblivion.

Kudos to the person who had the idea to split up all the tools, and allow people to run just what they wanted. Thus, Firefox was born! This was the first of the lean browsers, lightning fast for its time, both for loading pages and simply displaying on the screen. Firefox also introduced the idea of modular extensions, allowing independent developers to add functionality to the basic browser engine provided by Mozilla.

Mozilla’s email client became Thunderbird, and won many fans. The web coding tool, Composer, spun off into a series of different applications, none of which ever became popular. Because the code was still open source, even the suite continued under the SeaMonkey banner. All this code runs on practically every operating system known to humans and bots, including the Firefox OS for mobile devices.

Firefox reignited the browser wars, and eventually eclipsed Internet Explorer by out-innovating Microsoft. As a result, Google got into the browser business with Chrome. These days, Chrome is at the top of the browser pile, with Firefox, Apple’s Safari and IE  trailing. As with many things Google, Chrome is a proprietary browser running atop open source code, called Chromium.

Today, the Firefox team released the Firefox Developer Edition, a special browser with built-in tools for both the mobile OS and ordinary web designers and developers. I’ve got this downloaded, and hope to learn more about it in the coming days (if you’ve read through all my NaBloPoMo posts this month, you’ll know that I’ve got a lot of learning ahead of me).

Meanwhile, I continue to use Firefox as my primary browser, in part because of its open character, in part out of habit. Happy Birthday Firefox!