The State Of The Web 2010

In 1999 I was sat behind a fairly cumbersome beige box connected to the Internet via 28.8k modem. A modem that made a beautiful noise every time it established a connection. I dialed up to the web via my father’s company connection and on this occasion I was searching for information on my favourite punk bands. There was no Google back then. The search engine of choice was Altavista and I was yet to acquire my first email address.

Internet splat map from 1999 showing various IP address groups

Whilst browsing a brightly coloured website littered with animated GIFs I stumbled across a live recording of Bad Religion. It was the first MP3 I ever downloaded (American Jesus by Bad Religion) and it took me nearly a whole day to get it (I still have the file). A week or so later I had enough MP3s to fill half of a cassette tape. Within twelve months I owned my first MP3 player.

I’m not normally one to reminisce but the Internet felt good back then. It was completely open, democratic and innovative. This idealistic Internet is the one that I fell in love with. It felt like a step in the right direction and I like to think everyone else felt it too. I had arrived as a citizen of Cyberspace and I felt very welcome.

Fast forward to 2010 and things are starting to feel very different. Here are a few of my concerns:

Silencing of WikiLeaks

Have you heard about WikiLeaks? Of course you have! It is the website that governments of the World are currently trying to silence and yet over the last few days we have heard about nothing else. Whether or not you agree with the disclosure of the cable documents you have to be concerned at the techniques being used to bring down the site and the lack of support the site has received from the companies it relies on to operate. PayPal, Amazon and have so far surrendered to the pressure of hosting or being involved with delivering the content. For me the attempts to censor the site are more troublesome than the actual leaks.

It would be irresponsible to try and condense the news surrounding this site into a few paragraphs but the story is fascinating. John Perry Barlow, a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has declared this as “The first serious infowar… The field of battle is WikiLeaks”. The outcome of which will likely shape the future of the Internet.

The good news is that so far Twitter has stood up to pressure to close the @WikiLeaks Twitter account and it helps secure the site as the true pulse of the planet. I hope they continue to remain impartial throughout. After all it’s not about sides, it’s about protecting the Internet as an open platform. Everyone has the chance to speak (in 140 characters or less).

Rise of Facebook

Talking of social networks. I hate Facebook (there I said it). Why? Because it’s everything the Internet should not be. A walled silo of data, locking its users and their content into the platform. A citizen of Facebook is not a citizen of cyberspace. Of course it’s not just Facebook that suffers from this problem, however it is the monopoly when it comes to social networks and is the easy target.

I constantly wonder why it has become such a successful website and what our widespread usage of the platform suggests. Perhaps we just do not care that much about our personal information?

The fall of LimeWire and 82 other domains

While most peer-to-peer (P2P) technology has earnt a reputation for offending copyright law it is a very clever use of the web and has brought with it a massive amount of change. It has forced age old businesses to rethink their strategy and has given individuals a platform for global distribution and almost zero cost. There are some excellent stories surrounding the use of P2P. For example the release of Swedish film “Nasty Old People” that was made available on the The Pirate Bay under a Creative Commons licence.

LimeWire has been a consistent and fairly quiet player in the world of P2P software. On October 26, the US federal court issued an injunction forcing LimeWire to prevent “the searching, downloading, uploading, file trading and/or file distribution functionality, and/or all functionality” of its software. As a result LimeWire has had to close both its legitimate business as well as disabling the software. The interesting thing is that all of the older versions of the software continue to work without a problem. If your a LimeWire fan then simply do not upgrade to the latest/broken version. This shows the inherent strength and resilience of P2P technology. While I have never used the service myself I am sad to see it close, it has been around for 10 years (since the days of Napster) and has attempted to legitimise the act of file sharing during that time.

It was also just a few days ago that the US Government managed to seize 82 domain names and pluck them from the Internet. This is a new tactic in the fight against copyright infringement and appears to be scarily effective. Some of the sites were no doubt breaking the law and deserved to be closed but as far as I have been able to tell the site owners had no prior warning or opportunity to defend their actions. It seems wrong that governments have the power to take any domain name they choose without a fair trial and it undermines freedom on the Web.

App(le) stores

This year has been about the App store. Popularised by Apple and iPhone it seems that every mobile platform now has an App store. We have been here before with Windows, Mac and Linux software. One platform came along and made it possible to serve content and applications to all of these different operating systems without having to program the same application three times. It’s called the World Wide Web. Yet we find ourselves in the same situation with mobile phones. All of a sudden the money I spent on my iPhone games is thrown away the second I move to Android or Blackberry or Palm or {insert another mobile platform here}.

Which agencies are mostly responsible for pushing into the field of mobile apps? Internet agencies. If they truly understood the power of the Internet then they would have not moved from an open, flexible and free platform to one governed by app store approval processes and split revenues. As data connections get cheaper and mobile browsers become more powerful it makes sense to build one mobile website that serves a whole range of devices. Not just one.

Build it once. Build it on the Web — most native mobile apps require an Internet anyway. Sure they are great platforms with plenty of money to be made but we all end up paying in the long run.

And so…

It was about this time last year that I was drumming up support against the Digital Economy Bill (which looks like it may be reviewed soon). Perhaps this is when it all started? The problem is so many web professionals just don’t seem bothered by this stuff. Why should you care?

Because the Web is yours. It is a public resource on which you, your business, your community and your government depend. The Web is also vital to democracy, a communications channel that makes possible a continuous worldwide conversation. The Web is now more critical to free speech than any other medium. It brings principles established in the U.S. Constitution, the British Magna Carta and other important documents into the network age: freedom from being snooped on, filtered, censored and disconnected.
— Tim Berners-Lee, Long Live the Web – December 2010

We need to start innovating once more to protect against these new methods of online control. Pick up your laptops and begin work on a peer to peer hosting environment, one that responds to HTTP requests or ensures there is no weak link in the delivery of information (perhaps it is P2P DNS we need?). Trash your Facebook account and pitch in with the development of the Open Source Diaspora project. Rely less on one single company to deliver your Internet experience. Don’t get complacent and let’s not forget why we fell in love with this place all those years ago.