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Today, I am going to take on my biggest opponent yet. Bigger than bloggers, bigger than web marketers, even bigger than Google. I’m taking on one of the founders of the internet himself, Mr. Tim Berners-Lee. As the inventor of the World Wide Web, Berners-Lee is arguably the biggest reason for the internet existing in its current user-friendly format (with apologies to Al Gore). Specifically, I would like to analyze – and disagree in large part – with an article that TimBL (because Berners-Lee is too long a name to reference for an entire blog post) wrote for Scientific American. In between raising some good points, TBL succumbs to hyperbole and paranoia too frequently in this article and paints with a brush that is much too broad.
The article is titled “Long Live the Web: A Call for Continued Open Standards and Neutrality.” Net neutrality has become a popular talking point in our industry over recent months. With web-based companies/providers continually signing exclusive contracts and trying to beat the competition by sabotaging their opportunities to compete, the concept of net neutrality (along with ethics and anti-trust law) has been evoked frequently. TimBL designed the web to be open and free, at least in terms of barriers to entry. He holds very strong beliefs on maintaining that transparency and non-partisanship as much as possible. And I agree with him. Where I disagree is in the direction of trends and whether or not any of these issues are really a legitimate threat to the user…or just the monster that he created.
TimBL’s first 2 points are on the importance of universality and open standards. I agree with him on both of these items. They are essential to the fabric of the web as we know it. As such, I don’t see a significant threat to either. Any system that limits that access limits its own access to newcomers – in a growth based industry, this is a huge deterrent. The only real current threat is to mobile web. The question here lies in whether or not the mobile web should be considered part of the WWW or is its own entity. TimBL himself is quick to draw lines between WWW and the internet as a whole. I don’t know why you couldn’t draw some distinction between mobile or applications and the web itself. Let me preface this by saying that I completely endorse net neutrality with all forms of connectivity. That said, are these really the threats that he builds them up to be? For instance, one popular application goes strictly closed source, this opens up many advantages to their competitors. All companies will have to try to balance the advantages of keeping items in house versus appealing to the largest demographics.
I’m not necessarily a big believer in the idea that allowing the free market to operate will result in the greatest ethical result. But I do firmly believe that most companies operate in their own best interest. From what I can gather, it’s not in anyone’s best long term interest to shut out neutrality altogether. Sure, they’ll toe the line with some new products and connecting technologies, but I tend to believe that the chase for the greatest number of users will lead to them opening up their systems before the rest of the world just accepts to join a closed network.
One more thought on open source in general. Who decides what source is “open.” I can’t write gibberish and expect it to show up on the web as I intended (no matter what XML parser tells me that I can). I still have to adhere to set of accepted standards. Would any new source be any different? Yes, they could conceivably close their network so that they control its information and application. But this is more business speculation that an actual threat. In today’s world of social media and Web 2.0 – user interaction is so important that all sources go the other way, more openness. It is conceivable that Apple or Google could institute their own platform that operates outside of the web consortium’s ideals. But odds are that it would still be open or it won’t be popular enough to be a threat. A new open system is not really against the greater concept of net neutrality; it’s just a different way of going about it.
I guess where we disagree most is in the overall trends. TimBL sees open areas of the net getting closed off. I see previously closed areas becoming more open. Take iTunes for example. ITunes represents a section of the net that is closed to iTunes users (even with its own protocol), this could be viewed as ‘walling’ off a section of the net. But, I tend to see it as a previously closed application (local CD player) becoming more open – allowing access for downloads and sharing. I think it will continue to become more open as time elapses.
I will reiterate that I agree 100% with TimBL’s greater ideals. Open web is good web. There is no advantage to the user or consumer to close the network. I primarily disagree with the threats that he sees. Perhaps he is a prophet telling a story that I don’t want to believe. But I think it more likely that he is Don Quixote and the threats are really just windmills.
Ultimately, everybody has some level of difficulty with their babies growing up and moving on. I think this is an example of TBL struggling to come to grips that his baby may be deviating from how he originally viewed it. In some ways, that is a good thing, in others – not so good. I love the concept of net neutrality, but I can also understand occasional situations where it is inappropriate and impractical. The fact of the matter is that the World Wide Web has expanded beyond TimBL’s original expectations. There is simply no way that a man who invented the web with one computer, one browser, and one website could have ever foreseen trillions of websites (at least a few of which aren’t porn related) and a culture unto itself developing within 20 years. He would still like to keep it to its original intentions and framework, but it just isn’t possible to put an animal this large back into a cage that it outgrew a long time ago. It is evolution and it is unstoppable.