Monday, November 29, 2010

Holes in the Web

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the WorldWideWeb, thinks we should worry about several threats to the Web’s continued integrity and usefulness. When someone of this importance says there are things to worry about, we should at least listen to him. I for one think he has some good points, which I will now summarize from a recent article he wrote in Scientific American magazine.

The first threat Berners-Lee points out is the practice of creating what he calls “silos” of information on the otherwise universally accessible Web. Facebook, iTunes, and similar proprietary sites treat information differently than a typical website does. The original intent was that every bit of information on the Web could be accessed through a URL, but as those (such as myself) who have no Facebook page have discovered, there is information inside Facebook that only people who have Facebook pages can gain access to. And the iTunes database of information about songs and so on is accessible only through Apple’s proprietary software of the same name.

The second threat he sees is the potential breaching of the firewall between the Web (which is a software application) and the Internet (which is basically the networking hardware used to run the Web). Again, the original intent was that once you pay for an Internet connection of a certain speed, you are able to access absolutely anything on the Web just as easily as anyone else with the same speed of connection. This is called “net neutrality” and recently it has been under attack by institutions as powerful as Google and Verizon, who as Berners-Lee points out, moved last August to create special rules for Internet connections using mobile phones. They say that the limited spectral bandwidth of mobile phones makes it necessary for companies to discriminate (e. g. charge extra) for certain types of applications, or make it harder for users to access sites that are not part of the institution’s own setup.

One motivation for Berners-Lee’s cautions is an old communications-network principle that dates back to the early days of the telephone. Larger communications networks are more valuable to the users than smaller ones, but the value increases faster than just the number of users. Since each new user can not only gain access to all the others, but all the other users can also access the new user, the usefulness of a network tends to increase as the square of the number of users. That is, a network with 20 users is not twice as useful as one with ten, but four times as useful. Extrapolate this to the billions that apply to the Web, and you see how organizations that persist in walling off information and users may reap some short-term selfish benefits, but at a cost to the usefulness of the Web as a whole.

The last major concerns that Berners-Lee voices are matters of privacy and due process. There is now a way to crack open the individual packets of information that carry Web traffic and associate particular URLs with particular users. He sees this as a major privacy threat, although it isn’t clear how widely it’s being used yet. Another thing that threatens the freedom of people to use the Web is a recent trend by some European governments to cut off Web access to people who are even suspected of illegal downloading of copyrighted material. No trial, no defendant in court, no hearing: just a company’s word that they think you did something wrong. Since access to the Web is now as taken for granted as access to electricity, Berners-Lee sees this as a violation of what in Finland is now regarded as a fundamental human right: the right to access the Web.

These warnings need to be taken seriously. As director of the World Wide Web Consortium, the organization that is formally charged with the continued development of the Web, Berners-Lee is in a good position to do something about them. But he can’t control the actions of private companies or governments, so consumers and voters (at least in countries where votes mean something) will have to go along with his ideas to make a difference.

The Web is a new kind of creature in political, governmental, and economic terms. There has never before been a basically technical artifact which is simultaneously international in scope, beyond the regulatory authority of any single governmental entity, not produced by a single firm or monopolistic group of firms, and fundamentally egalitarian in nature without any controlling hierarchy. Of course, a good deal of the nature of the Web was expressly intended by its founder, who because of his youth at the time he developed it (he was only 35) is still very much with us and able to give helpful suggestions on this, the twentieth anniversary of the Web. (For those who care, Berners-Lee got the first Web client-server connection running on Christmas Day, 1990.)

What actually happens with the Web in the future, therefore, depends in a peculiar way on what its own users decide, and to much less of a degree what private companies or governments choose to do. There is probably much good in that way of doing things, since it prevents anything from happening that violently opposes the will or desires of the majority of users. But it also builds in a lot of immunity from what you might call reform efforts that go against common but less than salutary desires: the need to reduce Web pornography traffic, for instance.

For better or worse, Sir Timothy (he was knighted by his native England in 2004) has impressed a good deal of his open-source, egalitarian philosophy on his brainchild the Web, which has grown vastly beyond his initial expectations. As any good father does, he wants his child to grow and prosper and be a good citizen. Now that you have heard some of Berners-Lee’s cautionary words, you can do your part, however minor, to see that this happens.

Sources: The December 2010 issue of Scientific American carried Berners-Lee’s article “Long Live the Web” on pp. 80-85. It can also be accessed (without charge!) at the Scientific American website

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