The Web sits atop a thick stack of technical standards that predate, support and supplement it. A system of networking protocols that make up the Internet had to reach a state of of stability, maturity and commonality so that the Web of Hypertext and linked documents could thrive upon it. A very basic, open yet powerful structure provided the lattice for the growing Web.
Nearly 100% of this underlying Internet infrastructure is open and standardized. It is this very openness that has allowed for an unprecedented level of innovation, knowledge generation and creative expression on the Web and off. Those who advocate keeping the Web open do so because they want to continue to see these advancements. Experience shows that standardizing the network backbone explodes innovation, leading to more progress and improvements we can’t anticipate in advance.
Nowadays, for most of the time we spend online, we don’t even think about the strings of code and standards that bolster our daily activities. But without solid and interoperable layers underneath, the Web as we know it would not exist.
Imagine, for a moment, if you had to ask permission every time you search for a restaurant in your city. What if all those pieces of information came with a set of locks, and you had to fumble for the keys or ring your neighbor to let you in every time you wanted to find the program of your local theater? What if you had to pay a licensing fee for checking the online bus schedule? Fortunately, most of these interactions don’t require such transaction costs. That is because the supporting technical stack, the Open Web stack, already cleared hurdles and standardized these data exchanges.
In this book, we’ll dive into the technical backbone that makes these Web-based activities possible and argue why they’re important to foster and protect. But why should we care about the Web in the first place? What has it enabled, and what could it achieve if it is more open?
The following section provides examples from key disciplines and projects. Moreover, it offers a glimpse into a bright future of innovation and collaboration—if we get the technical and normative practices right.
Wikipedia, the darling of massively collaborative projects, turned 10 years old in 2011. Hosting over 10,000,000 articles spanning 270 different language versions,1 Wikipedia is the canonical demonstration of openness. Its combined cognitive output, technically and normatively interoperable and infinitely modifiable, propelled it into one of the most well-known bodies of knowledge in human history. Much ink has been spilled about the merits of the project, its evolution, and critiques, but for the purposes of this book, we wanted to underscore the value of the Web in realizing the potential of Wikipedia and other online collaborative projects. Wikipedia, and many other knowledge-building portals, rely on the Web to keep people participating and accessing invaluable content.
If you see a pothole on your street, you can quickly report it to the city and queue it for repair. The project Fix My Street2 by UK charity MySociety produced a web interface to improve your neighborhood through simple actions, such as reporting potholes. The software is released under a license that allows others to modify it, so other cities can adapt the technology to their needs. These low-barrier tools help citizens take action, flexibly and free of charge.
A Korean citizen journalism platform, OhmyNews, was one of the first online reporting organizations in the world to harness the Web to foster political debate and influence national politics. With over 63,000 citizen reporters, 2 million unique users a day, and the highest rank of independent news sites in Korea,3 OhmyNews is an impressive example of how the Web can scale community-driven journalism and inform the polity. Interestingly, tip jars and micropayments fuel the system, bypassing the traditional ad-revenue for online content.
Community organizers, demonstrators, campaigners, and all stripes of civic lives can use the Web to further democracy and their causes. If the Web is open, more platforms like these will flourish. And ad-free content, especially in the civic sphere, will continue to be possible.
The battle for the Web is deeply about democracy, transparency, and voice. The Web provides a necessary channel for whistle blowers, citizen and professional journalists, dissidents or anyone really to report or criticize their government, employer, or other powers. If Little Brother is to keep an eye on Big Brother, we need secure and reliable technologies that protect the user and allow anonymity. The Web supports these tools, but there are dire challenges ahead.
The network Technology for Transparency documents case studies for tactics to promote transparency and accountability around the world.4 At the time of writing, 60 cases were available from Argentina to Zimbabwe, outlining the role of the Web and technologies building upon the Web, to monitor elections, educate citizens on consumer rights, monitor legislative processes, expose budget expenditures, and more. Many of these cases and innumerable others are made possible because of access to the Web and other key pieces of Free and Open technologies.
No contemporary discussion of Web-driven transparency would be complete without mention of the polarizing initiative Wikileaks. While the majority of the organization’s practices are in fact closed, Wikileaks depends on the Web to distribute information and communicate with its collaborators and the public. The debates surrounding Wikileaks expose the deep challenges to closing the Web. Reactions to the release of sensitive documents, especially the far-reaching governmental intervention to pressure private companies to deny Wikileaks service, reveal numerous weaknesses to commercially hosted services and the centralization of key Web platforms. It also underscores the importance of law and political influence, coupled with technical capabilities, to access and control information.
A notable legislative development in Iceland, in the wake of the Wikileaks releases, hints at the a possible evolving role of states to protect, and not threaten, freedom of speech. In June 2010, the Icelandic Parliament unanimously approved a proposal for the government to introduce a framework to strengthen freedom of expression, in essence leading Iceland towards “an inverse of a tax haven; by offering journalists and publishers some of the most powerful protections for free speech and investigative journalism in the world.”5
The Web also fuels creativity. When the underlying technical infrastructure is interoperable and functioning, so much is possible on top of it. Pulling content from across sources, each layer compatible with open standards and open licenses, generates an opportunity like never before to remix and recontextualize art and other creative outputs.
The musicians Arcade Fire blasted the concept of online cinema with their release of The Wilderness Downtown,6 an interactive film using HTML5, a key language of the Open Web. Using live data streams and multiple browser frames, The Wilderness Downtown adds a dimension to the moving image impossible with broadcast-only technologies.
With interoperable layers of data, further experiments like popcorn.js are possible.7 A demo of semantic video, popcorn.js extracts feeds from a variety of sources, effectively allowing realtime video augmentation with data such as location, Wikipedia articles, social network updates, and subtitles. These technologies show the power of HTML5 and its potential. An Open Web would further these modes of expression and keep the future bright.
In academia,8 the Open Access (OA) publishing movement is the vanguard towards removing a major barrier to distributed collaboration in science. The high price of journal articles effectively limits access to researchers affiliated with wealthy institutions. Access to Knowledge (A2K) emphasizes the equality and social justice aspects of opening online access to the scientific literature.
The OA movement has met with substantial and increasing success recently. The Directory of Open Access Journals lists over 6000 journals at the time of writing.9 The Public Library of Science’s top journals are in the first tier of publications in their fields. Traditional publishers are investing in OA, such as Springer’s acquisition of large OA publisher BioMed Central, or Nature’s creation of Scientific Reports.
In the longer term, OA may lead to improved the methods of scientific collaboration, e.g. peer review, and allow new forms of meta-collaboration. An early example of the former is PLoS ONE, a rethinking of the journal as an electronic publication without a limitation on the number of articles published and with the addition of user rating and commenting.
An example of the latter would be machine analysis and indexing of journal articles, potentially allowing all scientific literature to be treated as a database, and therefore able to be queried, at least all OA literature. These more sophisticated applications of OA often require not just access, but permission to redistribute and manipulate, thus a rapid movement to publication under a Creative Commons license that permits any use with attribution—a practice followed by both PLoS and BioMed Central.
The Web has also become the ideal platform for the distribution of instructional, classroom and educational resources through various Open Educational Resource (OER) repositories and tools. In two different registers, projects like the Peer-to-Peer University (P2PU) and MIT OpenCourseWare and succeeded in providing access to university-level educational resources to everyone on the web.
Imagine having the ability to adapt educational materials, reference works, medical publications, and more into all the world’s languages. Imagine thousands of active communities ready to localize critical tools. Imagine accessing websites from every corner of the world—in your language. These goals, once a pipe dream, are possible with today’s technologies. The power of openness lies in its removal of technical and legal barriers to localizing information and tools.
From machine translation that draws upon free corpora like Wikipedia to the development of fonts that display characters in languages deemed “marginal” by major companies, the Open Web stack enables greater opportunities to read information in any language, supported by open standards.
Platforms like Universal Subtitles, as well as many others, are showing us the way to a multilingual web. By allowing users to modify content and localize tools, more people can participate, increasing the diversity and the richness of the conversation.
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