Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fighting to Keep the Web Open

While frontiers represent freedom, they also represent opportunity and potential. The untamed spaces have no limits, rules, or organizing communities, so one can venture into the frontier do as one pleases. The success of the frontier in this traditional context is the establishment of rules, limitations, and organizing communities. To realize any value from the frontier, one needs to establish security, infrastructure, and clear boundaries. To establish these things, the frontier must be domesticated. As such, the opportunity represented by the frontier is its own destruction, or the destruction of those features characteristic of a frontier. 

Yesterday, the EFF released a formal objection to the inclusion of DRM in HTML5. While that sounds pretty technical, the base idea is straightforward. The short version is that there is a proposal to include usage control and digital rights management capabilities in the next version of the markup language used to create web pages and consequently deliver content via the Web. HTML5 is a big deal for many reasons, not the least of which is the maturation of the Web's ecosystem. The last HTML revision happened in 1997, just as the Web was settling into mainstream life. When HTML was first written, there were no Internet connections capable of delivering embedded video to the everyday folks who used the Web. As a matter of fact, there were no everyday folks who used the Web, or even the Web as we think of it today. HTML was a visionary, forward-looking project, imagined as the solution to a problem that was just about to emerge: making creating and sharing content over computer networks easy for people to do.

Since 1990 when HTML was created, our networks and our computers have come a long way. We now use the Web for tasks that personal computers were not able to perform 23 years ago. In that time, we have also witnessed what are clearly the growing pains associated with the introduction of a new significant technology. The intellectual property debates and privacy issues that have been the focus of my academic research are two relevant examples here. Sharing is an important part of both human communication and HTML. Through embedding content in pages and linking to web-hosted files, we have used the Web to share lots of things with one another. As a content-delivery system, the Web has incredible capabilities, and those capabilities have grown as the supporting technology has improved. Digital publishing and digital distribution make it easier to create and share media, but the media industry has a long-standing concern that ease of sharing will dominate over their established business models. These concerns have resulted in the Digital Rights Management Act, the introduction of digital-rights management technology, and legislative tools like SOPA and ACTA to strengthen enforcement and control how users interact with media and other digital content.

All of these efforts are essentially directed at domesticating the Web, putting up fences and channels where there was once open space. Free Culture advocates, including some of the founders of the Web, argue that the move to domesticate and control the Web is antithetical to the original vision of the Web as a forum for unbounded communication and expression. Supporting that view are organizations like EFF, Wikimedia, Creative Commons, and others who believe that open communication is important as a fundamental human right or as a way to bring together a fractured global community.

What is so interesting about these efforts is the view, seemingly correct, that the Web loses value as it becomes less open. Unlike a traditionally understood frontier, the openness of the Web is the very source of its value: the opportunity to create without diminishing the ability of others to do the same. Placing restrictions on Web content, including DRM and usage control, introduces features more characteristic of a traditional frontier. Once one person has done it, no one else can do something too much like it, share it with others, or use it to build something new.

Understanding the Web in this way, I hope you can see why some of the people most closely involved with the Web argue in favor of its openness. There is a tangible sense in which openness directly ties to the value of the Web. In some ways, openness is embedded in the technology that drives the Web such as HTML, the linguistic structure that defines its content. While getting to California is far easier on the I-80 than on the Oregon Trail, we will have much more trouble navigating the Web and realizing its potential value if we allow boundaries and restrictions to creep into its foundations.