Can we save the open web?

The web felt very different fifteen years ago, when I founded Drupal. Just 7 percent of the population had internet access, there were only around 20 million websites, and Google was a small, private company. Facebook, Twitter, and other household tech names were years away from being founded. In these early days, the web felt like a free space that belonged to everyone. No one company dominated as an access point or controlled what users saw. This is what I call the "open web".

But the internet has changed drastically over the last decade. It's become a more closed web. Rather than a decentralized and open landscape, many people today primarily interact with a handful of large platform companies online, such as Google or Facebook. To many users, Facebook and Google aren't part of the internet -- they are the internet.

I worry that some of these platforms will make us lose the original integrity and freedom of the open web. While the closed web has succeeded in ease-of-use and reach, it raises a lot of questions about how much control individuals have over their own experiences. And, as people generate data from more and more devices and interactions, this lack of control could get very personal, very quickly, without anyone's consent. So I've thought through a few potential ideas to bring back the good things about the open web. These ideas are by no means comprehensive; I believe we need to try a variety of approaches before we find one that really works.

Double-edged sword

It's undeniable that companies like Google and Facebook have made the web much easier to use and helped bring billions online. They've provided a forum for people to connect and share information, and they've had a huge impact on human rights and civil liberties. These are many things for which we should applaud them.

But their scale is also concerning. For example, Chinese messaging service Wechat (which is somewhat like Twitter) recently used its popularity to limit market choice. The company banned access to Uber to drive more business to their own ride-hailing service. Meanwhile, Facebook engineered limited web access in developing economies with its Free Basics service. Touted in India and other emerging markets as a solution to help underserved citizens come online, Free Basics allows viewers access to only a handful of pre-approved websites (including, of course, Facebook). India recently banned Free Basics and similar services, claiming that these restricted web offerings violated the essential rules of net neutrality.

Algorithmic oversight

Beyond market control, the algorithms powering these platforms can wade into murky waters. According to a recent study from the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology, information displayed in Google could shift voting preferences for undecided voters by 20 percent or more -- all without their knowledge. Considering how narrow the results of many elections can become, this margin is significant. In many ways, Google controls what information people see, and any bias, intentional or not, has a potential impact on society.

In the future, data and algorithms will power even more grave decisions. For example, code will decide whether a self-driving car stops for an oncoming bus or runs into pedestrians.

It's possible that we're reaching the point where we need oversight for consumer-facing algorithms. Perhaps it's time to consider creating an oversight committee. Similar to how the FDA monitors the quality and safety of food and drugs, this regulatory body could audit algorithms. Recently, I spoke at Harvard's Berkman Center for the Internet and Society, where attendees also suggested a global "Consumer Reports" style organization that would "review" the results of different company's algorithms, giving consumers more choice and transparency.

Gaining control of our personal data

But algorithmic oversight is not enough. In numbers by the billions, people are using free and convenient services, often without a clear understanding of how and where their data is being used. Many times, this data is shared and exchanged between services, to the point where people don't know what's safe anymore. It's an unfair trade-off.

I believe that consumers should have some level of control over how their data is shared with external sites and services; in fact, they should be able to opt into nearly everything they share if they want to. If a consumer wants to share her shoe size and color preferences with every shopping website, her experience with the web could become more personal, with her consent. Imagine a way to manage how our information is used across the entire web, not just within a single platform. That sort of power in the hands of the people could help the open web gain an edge on the hyper-personalized, easy-to-use "closed" web.

In order for a consumer-based, opt-in data sharing system described above to work, the entire web needs to unite around a series of common standards. This idea in and of itself is daunting, but some information-sharing standards like OAuth have shown us that it can be done. People want the web to be convenient and easy-to-use. Website creators want to be discovered. We need to find a way to match user preferences and desires with information throughout the open web. I believe that collaboration and open standards could be a great way to decentralize power and control on the web.

Why does this matter?

The web will only expand into more aspects of our lives. It will continue to change every industry, every company, and every life on the planet. The web we build today will be the foundation for generations to come. It's crucial we get this right. Do we want the experiences of the next billion web users to be defined by open values of transparency and choice, or the siloed and opaque convenience of the walled garden giants dominating today?

I believe we can achieve a balance between companies' ability to grow, profit and innovate, while still championing consumer privacy, freedom and choice. Thinking critically and acting now will ensure the web's open future for everyone.

(I originally wrote this blog post as a guest article for The Daily Dot. I also gave a talk yesterday at SXSW on a similar topic, and will share the slides along with a recording of my talk when it becomes available in a couple of weeks.)

Comments

Laura (not verified):

I remember pre-Google. The Internet began shrinking when business became involved. Personal and hobby sites, especially those on Blogger or GeoCities were sneered at. Web mail for email became a reason to block or ban people. Funny how that attitude never seemed to touch GMail.

AOL began the filtered Internet. If AOL was your ISP you didn't get on the Internet and see everything as everyone else did. AOL blocked and filtered the user experience to suit themselves. Now AOL is seldom heard of. I assume they were swallowed up by some other company.

I miss the Internet before social media. Though I do like Twitter, most of the rest are clutter, popularity contests and marketing extravaganzas where no one is really listening any more. Fifteen years ago we had blocks for pop up ads and frames. Now pop ups are back and almost no one gets into a ranting fit about them. Ironically, I wasn't bothered much by them the first time around. But they really do bug me now. Especially those which descend as soon as you move your mouse to your browser bar.

There are far less personal or hobby sites now. People want to use information to make a buck. That's not terrible but it does make everything less trustworthy. I review sites with dmoz, still. I see a lot of garbage. The interesting thing is noting how the garbage has changed over the years. There are always new schemes cropping up. Some good sites get drowned out just because they are personal sites, don't look sleek and professional.

Marketing, content selling and so on isn't a bad thing, so much. I think it's more an issue of intentions. Too many sites are focused on SEO, keywords, marketing and they have forgotten people. Not so different with business, retail, commercial offline. Customer service is something they promote but don't really care about. (I worked as a department store cashier, I heard all the pep talks in between being told how to sell/ market and smile). Meanwhile customer service people are paid minimum wage, like a lot of sales people. The Internet could hardly avoid this same phoniness.

I hope they can find a balance, but I don't think we will ever get there. Twenty years ago people came online for different reasons. It really was social then. The Internet was about communication with IRC, BBS, etc. How many of those are still active - spam doesn't count as activity. Now we have social media but it is flooded with marketing. Facebook is full of meaningless games built to scam people in small cash amounts over time, addicting, like gambling but legal.

I don't think we can get back what the Internet was, it doesn't even have the atmosphere of being friendly any more. It's a business, impersonal but with a smile.

March 17, 2016
Braeden Orchard (not verified):

Interesting post. I agree with the idea of having some sort of committee to oversee and approve algorithms. But, I think that the biggest issue there is that the web (of course) spans every country, every set of rules and laws so it would be difficult to regulate in a way that everyone would agree with. Maybe we need to follow the open source model where the algorithms are freely available for anyone to view or edit?

March 18, 2016
Cuneyt Devecigil (not verified):

Waiting for slides that you shared with as at SxSW. Thanks for the great talk with us at SxSW.

March 18, 2016
Indrani (not verified):

Market and market economy is driven by the force of user-ease and the power of money. The myriads of php scripts of the "lost" open web, including Drupal and Wordpress, made managing content easy BUT
- they did not establish user-to-user connection like Friends and Likes.
- super easy UI to upload and share media [the early web had much lesser media of course].
- shareable user credentials and user recommendations, for example you cannot login to a Drupal site with Wordpress credential and vice versa or for that matter within several Drupal sites or Wordpress sites [unless of course you tied yourself to Drupal.org or Wordpress.com]. Same about recommendation or like or favorite.
For example, in the much neglected social layer of WP, BuddyPress, no proper Like exists.
- uninhibited emergence of Apps - what Apps can do browsers can do too. But while there was SOPA and other movements there has been no concerted mass movement against this closed, company-ruled game of Apps.

In the initial phase of internet, dev work was not so much money oriented. Eventually people needed money for survival - hence companies like Acquia and Automattic. Good but the passion is lost - thus no more scripts like Drupal or Wordpress will ever emerge again. Thus open web is really lost.

March 18, 2016
Joris Snoek (not verified):

My guess is the Blockchain will save the open web:

- Autonomous
- 'Shared single source of truth'
- Transparant
- Distributed / Decentralized
- Unbreakable
- Automated conflict resolution

It can be used as an alternative for banking, as Bitcoins (built on blockchain) already does.
But also as an open, transparent alternative for Twitter, Facebook, Airbnb, Uber, etc.

There are already some Blockchain alternatives on the rise:

- Twister as an alternative for Twitter: http://twister.net.co/
- Bitmessage as an alternative for Whatsapp: https://bitmessage.org/wiki/Main_Page

Of course there is a long way to go and lots of challenges,
but I think wíll be the way to go.

I wrote a blog about it (Dutch): http://blog.openlucius.com/nl/blog/bitcoins-fundament-blockchain-vervang...
(will translate it next week)

Also check https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Block_chain_(database)

-- Cheers, Joris

March 19, 2016
Steffen (not verified):

Some part of the solution to all the centralisation may lie in wider use of blockchain technology which is the technology behind cryptocurrencies. It is technology which allow for decentralisation as well as pseudonyms instead of real names. I haven't got specific ideas but just think there must be some opportunities for creative people.

March 20, 2016
Rinehart (not verified):

Thank you for a good article. I've attended your session in SXSW2016. As you wrote and told, please share the slides. Thank you in advance.

March 21, 2016
Dries:

I will share the slides along with a recording of my talk as soon as the video recording becomes available. Stay tuned!

March 21, 2016
Steve Purkiss (not verified):

Interesting discussion based on the way the web currently is, however there are projects out there which could radically change this current 'open' web you talk of.

Take IEML for example - Information Economy Meta Language. Summarising IEML creator Pierre Lévy, we are currently limited to logical and statistical data - that alone causes some of the issues we experience as often the data can be taken out of context. Semantic coding using IEML could allow large-scale computing on the meaning of data. "Big data" algorithms are currently monopolized by big companies and big governemnts. But according to the perspective adopted here, the algorithmic tools of the future will put data-anaytics, machine learning and reflexive collective intelligence in the hands of the majority of Internet users.

IEML is a huge brain-exploding concept, it took me a while to get my head around it (see https://pierrelevyblog.com/tag/ieml/) and it took me even longer to figure out how it might be implemented. I believe it will be implemented in parts, for example encoding "I am able to develop views plugins" or "I would like to be able to develop a views plugin" onto a system shared by others in a similar field could be used to store bookmarks, links to case studies, etc. and be useful to both parties - those who want to show they have knowledge of X and those who want to learn X. Another IEML data entry point could be a weather station - anywhere where's a defined dictionary of terms.

Further benefit of the above example is that IEML codes in language neutral, so now knowledge transfer starts to get much easier across different languages. I posted up a project idea about four years ago (https://groups.drupal.org/node/230273) as I believe Drupal is perfect for IEML, I spoke briefly to Gabor at the last Drupalaton about if it could work in the language system & there were some possible ways it could work.

I guess I'm saying I'd rather spend time, energy and brainwaves on developing and growing this wonderful Free web we have, not just accept the inferior freedom-restricting technologies we currently have and legitimise them by enacting laws around their activities which could potentially affect new systems being developed because they work in a completely different way.

Thanks for getting the discussion going, I believe we don't yet fully appreciate just how important issues like this are!

Steve

March 21, 2016
Pierre Lévy (not verified):

Hi Steve,

You are one of the few who have understood IEML before any implementation. I agree with the main points of Dries Buytaert' post and of course with your remarks.

There are many things at stake here:

  • Science (mathematical modelling of linguistic semantics)
  • Technology (new algorithms)
  • Cognition (systematic knowledge augmentation through interaction with data)
  • Social (universal distribution of powerful cognitive tools, reciprocal transparency)

All the problems will not be solved (they never are), but we will be able to cope with them at a higher level of collective intelligence ...

I believe that only a real application will proof my (and your) claim about a future era of free and open social computing fostering reflexive collective intelligence.

This is why, after years of theoretical research, I am now involved in the development of the first IEML application, with a small team of engineers at the university of Ottawa. The first app will be in the field of (semantic) collaborative data curation and will demonstrate some functions that only IEML can support.

Best,

Pierre L.

March 22, 2016
Walter Bril (not verified):

Great article and to the point. As some have already mentioned the Blockchain I just want to add to this. I also believe that the public blockchain is able to make a positive difference here. However, and that's something to monitor I suppose, private blockchains are already on the rise for all the same (commercial) reasons as mentioned in the article. That's basically good news. Good because blockchain is seen as a serious threat. On the other hand I'm a bit skeptical, as the common man have no idea about the differences and probably will step into this area blind. Same sort of process when the Internet was "centralized" by the known giants.

March 24, 2016
Tomasino (not verified):

Yes, ease of use is the key. I was using Drupal heavily for awhile to build sites, then switched to WordPress because my clients/content managers needed better ease-of-use. Neither are as easy as FB or other social. My test is "Can your grandma use it?" "Does she enjoy it?"

Also, aesthetics. People like giant buttons and simple, simple UIs. Facebook has mastered this. WordPress has addressed this fairly well, but not like FB. Drupal and WordPress need to make the onramp much simpler and more FUN to combat the ease of use and ubiquitousness of FB and Twitter and Pinterest. Also, the insiders at Drupal can be very unfriendly to newcomers and new ideas, that doesn't help your growth.

From my point of view (a Drupal and WordPress developer) here's an interesting idea: create a super easy SSO front end portal that can feed into Drupal or Facebook or any other CMS. That could become something pretty popular and create more of an open web. I like the values of Drupal and WordPress founders and would to see those platforms have more influence on the web and internet. @tomnora

March 25, 2016

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