An Open Web

The Web is Closed

“As much as we love the open Web, we’re abandoning it.”

-Chris Anderson, WIRED Magazine

The Web was meant to be Everything. As the Internet as a whole assumes an increasingly commanding role as the technology of global commerce and communication, the World Wide Web from its very inception was designed to be a free and open medium through which human knowledge is created, accessed and exchanged.1 But, that Web is in danger of coming to a close.

The Web was meant to be Free. It laid out a language of HyperText, which anyone could use to author electronic documents and connect them together with links. The documents in totum were meant to form a global web of information with no center and no single point of control.2 The first Web browser was also a Web editor, and this principle that any node in the network can both consume and create content has more or less been defended to this day.

The Web was meant to be Open. It detailed a common interface that could be implemented on any computer. This innovation overcame the obstacles of incompatible platforms and tools for the sharing of knowledge on the Net,3 by defining a Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP) and other standards for the discovery and communication of online data. The technical specification of the World Wide Web was offered for free as a non-proprietary, open standard that could be used by anyone for commerce and culture and everything in between.

Within a decade of its birth the World Wide Web had blossomed, and by a simple measure of bandwidth usage it had become a dominant protocol for data exchange on the Internet. It was the openness of the Web that allowed for this revolution, and in the years to come countless new technologies and innovations would be built on top of the open Web.

By the turn of the millennium, however, the share of Web usage as a percentage of total Internet traffic had begun to decline, displaced by more bandwidth-intensive activities like video streaming, peer-to-peer file sharing, voice-over-IP and online gaming.

In point of fact, World Wide Web traffic has continued to grow as more and more users come online. Yet more insidious changes have come about. The ever-shrinking proportion of the Web’s share of total Internet traffic has been eaten away from within by new data transactions that flow over HTTP but hardly involve a Web browser or Hypertext, or even a human being.4 More and more of these transactions, rather than relying on free and open standards, involve commercial applications connecting to proprietary online services using custom machine-to-machine protocols or application programming interfaces (APIs). They transpire between network services inter-communicating without human intervention, while others take place on mobile devices running apps tailor-made to limited hardware specifications and screen-size, rather than a general-purpose web browser.

This seemingly undeniable reversal of fortune for the free and open web led WIRED Magazine to proclaim with a straight face in 2010: The Web is Dead.5

In truth the Web is thriving. But as a distinct species of human knowledge, technology and innovation, it cannot escape the threat of insidious mutation or outright extinction. The prospects of the World Wide Web as a free and open platform are hardly guaranteed. The only way to ensure its survival is to engage directly with the tools and techniques of the Open Web. If you use the Web at all, you cannot leave this fight unscathed. What threatens the Web’s freedom, likewise impinges on your own.

This book will take the view that the Open Web is an essential technology and cultural practice for the future of the Internet and human society. The Web as we know it has had a positive and even revolutionary impact on key areas of science, technology, politics and culture. It has opened up new fields of individual rights and responsibilities, in terms of legal structures, community standards, privacy and the control of data. The rapid pace of technological change is bringing ever more powerful threats (and opportunities) to the Open Web.

The fight for the Open Web is taking place at a global level of interconnected technologies, communities and networks. The fight for the Open Web is your own.

  1. The World Wide Web was invented in 1990 by English engineer and computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, when he worked at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland. For his achievement he was named by Time Magazine as among the most important people of the 20th century: “The World Wide Web is Berners-Lee’s alone. He designed it. He loosed it on the world. And he more than anyone else has fought to keep it open, nonproprietary and free.” Tim Berners Lee-Time 100 People of the Century. Time Magazine.^
  2. “HyperText is a way to link and access information of various kinds as a web of nodes in which the user can browse at will…. This forming of a web of information nodes rather than a hierarchical tree or an ordered list is the basic concept behind HyperText.” Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau. WorldWideWeb: Proposal for a hypertexts Project. (1990)^
  3. “The current incompatibilities of the platforms and tools make it impossible to access existing information through a common interface, leading to waste of time, frustration and obsolete answers to simple data lookup. There is a potential large benefit from the integration of a variety of systems in a way which allows a user to follow links pointing from one piece of information to another one.” Ibid.^
  4. “One of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display.” Chris Anderson and Michael Wolff. The Web Is Dead. Long Live the Internet. (2010)^
  5. Ibid.^