An Open Web

The Web is Open‽

Most of what the Web offers today has evolved because it was based on open standards. But this was never guaranteed. When the Internet first became widely used by ordinary people, in the early to mid-1990s, a number of media and telecom companies like AOL, Compuserve and MSN vied to build their own “walled garden” services. The idea was that users would stay most of their time within closed networks owned by these companies, using their own information services, communicating mainly with other subscribers to the same service—and paying, not just for connectivity, the bits and bytes of getting online, but also, and mainly, for access to information, and even for the right to produce information themselves. In the end, this business model was eroded by the explosion in use of open Internet standards. These companies were forced first to provide access to it to stay competitive, and ultimately to compete as Internet Service Providers with others such as telecom companies simply to sell connectivity.

The richness of the Open Web today is a result of the victory of those open standards. Because the Internet became the world’s first real-time meeting place for ideas and services, it forced companies to set out their stall there. We take for granted services such as Google Maps, YouTube, open translation engines, or the ability to sign up to any number of Web-based email accounts which we can access from any Internet cafe in the world. But what if the open Internet had been dwarfed by the walled garden services of the 1990s? Would Wikipedia have developed to the stage where it is now? Would we even have blogging services such as Wordpress and Blogger, provided as they are by companies whose business model relies on the fact that their thousands of Web servers are mostly powered by Apache, an open source server program free for anyone to use? Would these commercial information networks have spread to two billion users around the world as the open Internet has? We cannot answer any of these individual questions with certainty, but there is no doubt that that in general we would be information- poorer. For good or bad our current world view, which assumes that sooner or later everyone will be online all the time, would simply not hold.

It is important to understand that many people fought for that victory, early Internet pioneers such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the free and open source software movement. Thousands of others came later with other ideas. Imagine the enormous amount of work necessary to give you Mozilla Firefox—a struggle that was considered to be over and lost and yet through the efforts of many thousands of people that believed in the open web it now holds a substantial market share. We will continue to enjoy the fruits of an Open Web only as long as enough people remain engaged to defend it. Now more than ever that defense is dependent on you—on the decisions you make.